Demonetisation: How sex workers' 'dhanda' went bust in Mumbai

Updated: Nov 19, 2016, 19:16 IST | Rupsa Chakraborty |

Sex workers affected due to fewer customers and those who pay in the old currency; local shopkeepers and pimps insist on taking a 'share' when approached for change

An NGO member alleged that as the sex workers cannot queue up every day to exchange the money, the shopkeepers are extorting them. Pic/Sameer Markande
An NGO member alleged that as the sex workers cannot queue up every day to exchange the money, the shopkeepers are extorting them. Pic/Sameer Markande

The demonetisation has not spared even the oldest profession. Sex workers claim their earnings have been affected due to a fall in customers, and because some pay them with demonetised notes. Many are finding it difficult to earn now.

Champa Verma (34) a sex worker at Kamathipura, said she used to get at least five customers every day, and earned almost Rs 1,000. She was born and brought up in Kolkata, but after her husband's death, she was forced into the trade to feed her family. With her hard earned money, she admitted her eight-year-old child in a private school. Everything was going okay until November 8, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.

"I charge between Rs 200 and Rs 500. At the end of the day, I used to get around Rs 1,000. After giving Rs 200 to our madam, I could save at least Rs 800. Now, I am hardly able to bring home R200. I am now spending from my savings that I have been depositing for my son's education," said Champa.

Migrants most affected
Like Champa, hundreds of sex workers are suffering in the crisis, but the most affected are the migrant workers from West Bengal, the North East, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Bangladesh. This migrant group forms 40 per cent of the total population of the sex workers in Kamathipura. Most of them have hid their work from their families.
Like Shabana Khan, a 23-year-old resident of West Bengal. She has been working in the city as a sex worker for the past two years. Her family consists of her father who is bed-ridden after a stroke three years back, mother and two sisters.

She came to the city on the pretext that she had got a job in a call centre. Since then, she sends money to her family every month from her income. "I used to charge over R300 from customers. My monthly income was more than Rs 30,000. But now, as I am not getting customers, I am unable to save money. In the past 10 days, I have barely got Rs 5,000. I don't have savings as every month, I send Rs 15,000 home. This month, I am really scared how I will send the money to my family. My father needs medicines worth Rs 5,000 every month. And both of my sisters are studying. They are completely dependent on me. If I don't get clients, how will I send money?' asked Khan.

As if this is not enough, shopkeepers and brokers are adding to their worries. To face the crisis, the sex workers are accepting old denominations of Rs 500 and R1,000 from their customers. But when they go to shopkeepers in the area or their pimps to get change, they take their share. Sunita Kate (45), a sex worker from Karnataka said, "When we go to buy something or try to get change from our brokers, they give us the money after taking their share. So for a change of R500, they take R200 per note and for Rs 1,000 they give us only Rs 700."

Considering risky step
"Firstly, our income has fallen and secondly, they take their share. It has become impossible for us to survive," she added. Just to retain customers, the sex workers from Kamathipura are now considering going outside the area, which makes them vulnerable to rape and sexual violence. "We normally don't go outside the area as often customers harass us when they take us outside. Just last week, a sex worker was killed when she went with a man to a hotel outside this area. But just to retain our customers and for money, we are also contemplating going out," said Pramila Sharma, a resident of Uttar Pradesh, who is working in a brothel for the past five years.

NGO speak
"The demonetisation has struck these sex workers badly. The flesh trade is dependent on liquid cash. Customers knowingly give them old denominations. The sex workers can't stand in queues every day to exchange money. The local shopkeepers are extorting money by forcibly taking their share from old currencies," said Ramdas Ovham, Asha Mahila Sangha, an NGO which works for sex workers in Kamathipura.

(Names of all sex workers have been changed)

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