The lockdown has put an end to all sex work and pushed sex workers into povertyEven though the lockdown has been eased, there is no respite in sight for sex workers—already marginalised and vulnerable—who have been jobless for months.
A typical workday for N Pariyar starts after dark. Around 8pm every night, Pariyar, looking her attractive best, heads out of her rented one-room accommodation in Lazimpat to either Ratnapark or Naya Buspark in Gongabu. There, she stands on the side of the road and waits for clients.
On a good working night, 22-year-old Pariyar, a transgender sex worker, entertains as many as four clients. She usually takes her clients to her ‘workroom’, a term sex workers use for a room rented specifically to entertain clients.
“But some clients prefer to go to hotel rooms, so I suggest hotels that I know are safe,” said Pariyar, who asked that she only be identified by her last name.
By 4am, Pariyar is usually back in her room.
“Some nights, I make decent money and on others, I don’t even get a single client,” said Pariyar, who makes between Rs2,000 and Rs6,000 a night.
But things have never been as bad as this year. Ever since the nationwide lockdown began on March 24, Pariyar hasn’t worked a single day, making the past few months the longest period she has been out of work ever since she started serving clients four years ago.
On March 11, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic and health professionals started stressing the importance of maintaining physical distancing to curb the spread of the infection, the sex industry, whose main selling point is physical intimacy, was dealt a huge blow.
In Nepal too, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have hit the sex industry hard and left most sex workers without a job, rendering those who are already one of the most marginalised groups more vulnerable.
According to Omita Joshi, senior programme manager at the women and child rights organisation Community Action Centre-Nepal, there are between 16,000 and 18,000 sex workers in Kathmandu alone.
“When you talk about sex workers here, you have to understand that there are different levels. There are those who make enough money to live comfortably and even save enough to weather turbulent times like the ones that we are going through,” said Joshi.
“And then there are those who work on the streets and what they make is just enough to cover their expenses. They’re the ones who’ve been hit hardest by the lockdown.”
It was early March when Pariyar first started noticing a drop in clients.
“I knew it was because of Covid-19, which already had people very cautious about where and who they go out with,” said Pariyar. “I knew the infection was bad for business, but the drop in the number of clients wasn’t significant enough for me to start worrying.”
But as the virus’ spread continued unabated and the government kept extending the lockdown, Pariyar had to dig into her savings. When her small savings started depleting, she felt anxiety, fear and worry creep in.
“Even though I haven’t been able to work for nearly three months now, the rent still has to be paid,” said Pariyar.
Her monthly rent totals Rs 15,000—Rs 10,000 for her living quarters and Rs 5,000 for her ‘workroom’. She only has around Rs 5,000 in savings, she said.
According to Pinky Gurung, president of Blue Diamond Society, a sexual minority rights organisation, there are around 500 transgender individuals in Kathmandu who depend fully on commercial sex work.
“The past few months have been very tough for them,” said Gurung. “Many don’t even have enough money to buy food, refill empty gas cylinders, and pay rent. What many are not aware of is that homeowners often charge transgenders double the normal rent, and that alone has financially crippled many.”
Making matters worse, says Gurung, is that many sex workers are also the primary breadwinners in their families.
In her family of six, Pariyar too is the sole breadwinner. Her family thinks she works at a restaurant in Kathmandu. Before the lockdown, she used to send Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 every month to her family.
"But with no income for three months, I haven’t been able to send my family any money for two months,” she said. “I have told them that I’ll send them some money soon, but the truth is I don’t even have enough to cover my own expenses.”
Like Pariyar, Bibina Miya, a 24-year-old sex worker based in Itahari, hasn’t worked for nearly three months.
Before the lockdown, Miya, a single mother of one, made around Rs 4,000 a week. Three months before the lockdown, in her bid to diversify her income she had even started a business selling infant clothes by the roadside.
“The money I made was enough to cover household expenses and pay for my daughter’s medical bills,” said Miya.
Then the lockdown started.
"I had managed to save some money but last year, when my daughter was diagnosed with a uterine tumour, I spent all my savings on her treatment,” said Miya. “This pandemic and the subsequent lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
With no work for so many months, Miya hasn’t been able to pay her landlord her monthly rent of Rs 1,500, which she hasn’t paid in two months.
“A few weeks ago, I completely ran out of money and had to borrow rice from my landlord,” said Miya.
After almost 80 days of lockdown, the country is finally easing physical restrictions and life is crawling back to normalcy. But the pandemic remains. And in Nepal, with the number of Covid-19 cases rising rapidly, people are very likely to remain cautious for the foreseeable future. This means an uncertain future for sex workers.
“Even though the lockdown has been eased, going back to the streets will mean increasing the chance of getting infected,” said Pariyar.
But some, according to Gurung, have already gone back to work.
“People are desperate. What do you do when you don’t have the money to buy food, pay rent, refill that empty gas cylinder? You go back to the streets in the hopes that you might get a client or two even though you know that working is very risky,” said Gurung.
For transgender sex workers, the options are severely limited.
“If you are a heterosexual sex worker, you could at least take a break from sex work and make a living working odd jobs. But for people like us, we don’t have that option,” said Pariyar.
“I came to Kathmandu when I was 18, and for the next eight months or so, I worked at a hotel, a restaurant and a school, and in all three places, I had to endure humiliation and gender-based violence.”
Both Pariyar and Miya agree that a return to normalcy for sex workers is a long way off.
“I don’t see myself working for some time to come because if I get infected, I have nobody to look after my five-year-old daughter. I don’t want to take that risk,” she said. “I hope I don’t have to take that risk.”