Dateline GB Road – Sex Workers Want License

Dateline GB Road – Sex Workers Want License

Delhi’s red light district is hopeful.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

GB Road, Delhi’s red light district, is all gratitude to the Indian Supreme Court. “We are so happy,” says Ms Nasreen, a sex worker. On December 9th, 2009, a two-judge bench in the court asked the government whether it could legalize prostitution if it couldn’t curb it. Immediately afterwards, the kothas (establishments) were abuzz with what might happen next.

“If we get licenses, then we’ll have ration cards,” says sex worker Ms Babita, “and we can also save ourselves from being exploited by lawyers, kotha owners, pimps, money-lenders, and women traffickers.” A substantial portion of the earnings of the mostly illiterate women in GB Road is spent in legal hassles. “We can then save money to send our children to English-medium schools else they risk becoming like us,” says Ms Sita, another sex worker.

Can a legally certified GB Road with its 5,000 sex workers become Delhi’s De Wallen – Amsterdam’s touristy red light district famous for its glass-door cabins, sex stores, theatres, museums, peep shows and coffee shops?

The dozen sex workers The Delhi Walla talked to admit that the legalization of their trade is a remote possibility. Choosing this profession out of desperate poverty, they nevertheless feel that it could change their life as well as that of GB Road and, if done soon, it might also impact the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. Expecting a large number of foreign customers, the women want more streetlights, regular power supply, good restaurants and increased police security in GB Road. The customers will then not fear being hassled by pimps. “If our profession is legalized,” says Iqbal Ahmad, a kotha owner, “we could raise our problems with the administration without any fear of being arrested.”

Trying to get ready for the Games, the women have already started grooming lessons. In one kotha, an instructor comes daily to teach English. “These lessons help us in talking more politely to foreigners,” says Ms Vimla, a sex worker. Another woman not requesting to be named but living in the same kotha showed the old issues of India Today magazine in her cabin. “The Indians like to flip though film magazines, “ she says, “but our foreign clients ask for serious matter.”

According to the National AIDS Control organisation, India has 1.2 million sex workers. “We must do something for these women,” says Aarti Sinha, a doctor, “but legalization would encourage prostitution.” GB Road women don’t agree. “If cigarettes are injurious to health but still given licenses then why not to us,” asks Ms Sita. “If we earn legally, we’ll have bank accounts and we’ll also pay taxes.” There are more considerations. “We are living anonymous lives,” says Ms Vimla. “But if we have a license, we’ll start existing.”