No To Any Candidate — Sex workers
The country is witnessing an interesting election this time with different shades, colors and equations. Every whisper points to May 16th the day, when the fate of the country will be decided.
Which political party or equation will hold the flag of the country and will run the country?
Now when elections are on, we can see how the political parties and leaders are up for attacks and counter-attacks and on one hand where the way of campaigning has grabbed eyeballs on the other hand, the countries witnessing record number of voter’s participation to exercise their right to choose the right candidate.
This year is historic also in terms of, the Election Commission has introduced for the first time NOTA (None Of The Above) option for the voters not to choose any contesting candidate if they don’t like.
Voters no doubt are exploring this option of NOTA, If not all a large number of sex workers of Sonagachi, country’s largest red light districts for sure are exploring this option. As, over the decade of disaffection and disenchantment with major political parties has welled up among sex workers to such an extent that now they are considering the option of boycotting the General Elections.
Poribartan (change) may have come to the state and it may come to the country also, but sex workers of Kolkata’s Sonagachi think that it will make no difference to their lives. To them, the political change of guard in the state and at the centre is irrelevant as their condition remains same.
Bharati Dey, Secretary, Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, which represents sex workers in the state, said, “None of the political parties have ever looked into our demands. So, it is our conscious decision to opt for the NOTA option.”
“We have been approaching the candidates of major political parties in the state for the last decade. But none of them has taken up our demands in their manifesto or campaign,” Bharati Dey, said.
The Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee (DMSC), which has 65,000 registered sex workers under it, is a forum of sex workers and their children, has on its board legislators and councillors who have been instrumental in implementing some key projects like the sex workers cooperative, AIDS awareness programmes, creation of self-regulatory board for preventing trafficking of women and eradicating exploitation in the sex trade.
Bharti Dey, further said: “We have to give voting a second thought since none of the political parties has mentioned our demands in their manifestos.”
Their key demands are that sex workers be given the status of workers so that they can get government benefits available to workers of unorganised sectors, government recognition for their self-regulatory board and revoking the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, which results in police harassment.
The sex workers claim that political parties have ignored their three specific demands for years together. They alleged that certain sections of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act like 3, 4, 18, 20 are being misused by some people, making their lives difficult. So, they should be scrapped. The other major demand is that sex workers want to register their profession under the labour department in Bengal.
Further, they want the government to give a formal approval to the self-regulatory board created by Durbar, which will prevent the entry of underage girls and unwilling women into the profession. A large percentage of the over 5,000 sex workers in Sonagachi are eligible to vote. It can be crucial for any candidate in the Kolkata (North) Lok Sabha constituency. The sex workers feel political leaders are concerned about them only when elections are round the corner.
Thousands of sex workers in the dingy nooks and lanes of Sonagachi have the same grievances against the representatives they elect every term with the hope that one day they too will get recognised as just “workers” and not “sex workers”, free from the social stigma attached to their trade.
“Change is for the outside world. For us nothing changes, polls come and go,” Nirmala Das, 40, who has been in the world’s oldest profession for the last two decades.
“With the elections come candidates making tall promises. They assure us that our condition will change. But then these are only promises and are not meant for being fulfilled. Along with the polls the candidates too disappear only to come back later,” she adds with a sigh.
Ganga, another Sonagachi worker, argued: “Why can’t our work be considered to be any other work?
Why does society consider our profession a heinous one? We too serve the people. We help maintain balance and stability in society.”
Madhabi, 25, who calls herself a flying sex worker, is a graduate. “While in school I did take up this job occasionally to earn some extra money. By the time I was in college and before I could realise it, I got sucked into this. It was too late for me to get back,” she said grimly.
Madhabi too has no hopes when it comes to politics and elections. “I may be only 25, but I have seen enough to know about these politicians. Why should I waste my time standing in the queue to cast my vote for nothing? I know society will never accept us. All the fight for recognition is futile,” Madhabi told Uday India.
During every election the representatives pin their hopes on the fact that once elected they would do something to help sex workers find a place in society they deserve. Disillusioned and embittered with political parties, nearly 65,000 sex workers and their family members across Bengal have decided not to vote for any candidate this year.
“So you can fairly guess how many votes we command. Maybe we are a minority, but minority votes do make a difference,” Bharati Dey says.
Not only Sonagachi or Bengal, the 50-lakh-strong community of sex workers all over India is seriously considering the NOTA option while exercising their franchise in the Lok Sabha election this time to register protest against deprivation and apathy.
Since Independence, political parties of all hues have promised development for the community, but they are all just promises, Bharati Dey, who is also the President of All India Network for Sex Workers, said: The AINSW is a network representing the voice of sex workers spread across 16 states and also serves as an umbrella body for 90 smaller bodies across the country. She pointed out that more than 80 per cent of sex workers possess voter identity cards and they have their family members too.
“What did we get after 67 years of Independence? We are still treated as if we are a baggage for the society. The country will soon have its 16th Lok Sabha, but we are yet to get any benefits of development,” Dey told Uday India. Asked what they would do if exercising the NOTA option failed to move the political parties, she said that the next line of action would be obviously to fight election themselves. “We can’t straightway win, but we can eat into the voter base of political parties,” Dey said with a wry smile.
Kolkata (North) Lok Sabha Constituency, under which Sonagachi comes, will vote in the fifth and final phase on May 12. How this no votes make difference to political parties and politicians is there to see, but the step forward by the sex workers is the beginning of a new political class in the unique political system of our country, which will decide the future of the country in the course of time with equal participation of all sections of society.
By Joydeep Dasgupta from Kolkata