Yelawa came to Mumbai from Karnataka. Back home in her village, she has three children. Yelawa's husband abandoned her and their children a long time ago.
After her husband left, Yelawa sought help from a man who lived in their neighbourhood. He promised not only to get her a job but also marry her. He brought Yelava to Mumbai. They both stayed at a hotel in Sangli. He had sex with her every day, and one day sold Yelava to a 'gharwali'.
Reminiscing those days, Yelawa says, ‘After that there was a client who came quite regularly and said he forgets his worries when he is with me. When he did not come for some time, I called him, and he said he was going to his hometown in Bihar to get married due to family pressure. I stopped calling him. For the last two years I have had a partner who loves me and says very soon we will stay together. But now I don’t trust anyone.’
For over ten years, Yelawas worked as a bonded labour because she had to repay debts to the ‘gharwali’. However, for three years now, she is working on her own and has to pay the agent for each client he gets her.
Yelawa tells us that she does not get any pleasure from this work. This is just a job that runs her house. Her three children live with her mother, to whom she sends money regularly.
Sex work also has many problems. Every day she gets clients who could be dirty, drunk, violent and refuse to use condoms.
Yelawa understands the risks associated with her work - especially the ones related to her health. When asked how she cares for herself, she says that she is in touch with Aastha Parivaar.
‘They give condoms and also conduct check ups for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) for free. I also get tested for HIV once every six months. Sometimes, I do not remember follow up dates, but my counsellor madam reminds me. We meet our counsellors regularly and they inform us how we can take care of ourselves. We have also been told not to take clients without condoms and if there is any symptom of STI, I should immediately go to the clinic. We follow these practices for our health.’
Yelawa was asked how she persuades customers to use condoms - what does she do if the customer refuses to use the condom and if the condoms are not available?
‘I have attended meetings at Aastha where they taught us how to convince the customer for condom use. This has helped. I tell them if they have sex without condoms, it’s just fun for that moment but a punishment for the whole life.’
‘I have seen my coworkers die of HIV and nobody takes care of ailing people. Nowadays very few clients insist on going without condoms, some of them also get these foreign made condoms with pictures of nude women. If you talk to the client lovingly they agree to use a condom.’
‘Condoms are always available at our brothels and lodges. If I am planning to go out of the city with the client for some days, I ask Aastha didi to give me more condoms.’
‘Although to me, all men are the same, but with clients I can negotiate the use of condoms, pressurise them but this does not happen with our partners. The regular clients don’t argue with us but my pyarwallah (lovers) says he doesn't enjoy using condoms. I do other acts to arouse him like I keep condoms in my mouth and tell him that I will give him a blow job. He is happy and when he is drunk he doesn’t even know that I have put a condom on his organ.’
When asked about sexual pleasure, Yelava said, ‘For me sex is not about pleasure, it is a source of income. Often, it is just a two-minute act. Sometimes I don’t even want to see their faces. Yes, it is different with my lover. He spends time with me, brings gifts for me. I know that I have the right to be happy. I am happy when I am with my lover. I do everything with him, make him happy and enjoy sex with him.’
When asked if she had faced any disruption in her business due to the current pandemic? Was she getting new customers? And if she has noticed any change in sexual behaviours?
Yelawa answered, ‘Everything has changed with Corona, lockdown and social distancing. Most of our clients have gone back to their families as they lost their jobs. I don’t know when they will come back. All these months we were not taking clients because of the lockdown and clients are scared of police. Our regular customers call us and nowadays we talk over the phone. They send me some videos and ask me to shoot my video and send it to them. They want me to talk dirty on the phone and give them pleasure. This is now a new way of connecting with our customers and getting paid. I ask them to transfer money to my account and then I do a video call with them.’
‘If a customer comes, I make sure he is wearing a mask and I sanitise his hands but how can we maintain social distancing (laughs). I only take clients who I can trust but HIV has no visible symptoms, so we don’t know if the person is infected.’
When asked if she fears pregnancy or STI and HIV, Yelawa replied, ‘I don’t want to get pregnant as my children are growing up. What will I tell them? For that I take pills from the chemist and my aadmi also gets me those pills. But I fear STI and HIV because that cannot be cured, and I have seen girls dying of this infection.’
‘I am ageing and after some years I won’t be able to take as many clients, so I want to stay healthy and earn more and save for my children. They should complete their education - then I will leave this work. To avoid pregnancy, we have pills which are easily available at the chemist. There should be some medicine to prevent HIV.’
‘I have not heard about the medicine (PrEP) you are talking about, but I want to know more about it. Is this medicine available everywhere? Anything that helps me protect myself, I will take because my children are dependent on me. I also think my clients and my aadmi should take these protections for me.’
‘That is the least I can ask for.’
To protect the identity, the person/s in the picture is/are model/s and names have been changed.
Aastha Parivaar is a federation of sex workers that educates people from various background, genders and ages on safe sex practices. Love Matters India and Aastha Parivaar join hands to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in December, which is also HIV/AIDS Awareness Month.