Sex workers seek recognition of their rights (Election Special)
They spend their lives in small cage-like rooms, away from their families, pandering to the desires of their "demanding clients". But this time around, the sex workers of Delh's G.B. Road, or Kolkata's Sonagachi, or other squalid and notorious red-light areas around the country, are determined to cast their ballots in the hope of a better future.
Seeking inclusion of their neglected and ostracised community in the country's development agenda, sex workers in India are looking forward to the Lok Sabha polls with hopes of attaining legalisation of their profession, pension rights, recognition of a self-regulatory body and an end to harassment by the police.
"We want to be treated like other women. My profession, that I am a sex worker, is definitely not etched on my forehead. I too want to be treated at par with other women," Kusum, a 35-year-old who has been in the profession for 10 years, told IANS in the national capital.
Kusum added that basic human rights is what is needed.
"After crossing the age of 40, we need a pension, including a widow pension. Sex workers should be given social protection," she said, adding that she had dutifully exercised her rights during the Delhi assembly elections last December and voted for the Aam Aadmi Party.
"We have always been promised many things.. but it has remained just promises," said Kusum, who lives in Mongolpuri.
This time, however, the three million-strong sex workers spread across the country are determined to make their voices heard.
Keen to exercise their voting rights, the community is planning to sensitise politicians and keep track of promises made.
According to Bharati Dey, president of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), an umbrella group of representatives of sex worker communities and civil society, politicians should address three key issues.
"Our demands are: Do away with the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), legalise the profession and recognition of the self-regulatory body that tackles trafficking and violence," Dey told IANS in Kolkata.
"We vote as Indian citizens and not as sex workers. Like any other person, we definitely want a steady and well-anchored government. But that doesn't mean we will dumb down our demands," she said.
Dey, who also doubles as general secretary of the Durbaar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a sex workers' collective in Bengal, said: "We have sent letters to the BJP, Congress, CPI-M and Trinamool Congress here in Bengal.
"Our members in other states will do the same with the respective parties. It's a national drive and we are ready," she said.
Dey added that in case their requisitions fall on deaf ears, the workers might reconsider their decision to vote.
Of the nearly 70,000 sex workers registered with Durbaar, 60 percent are voters.
Pooja, who has been living in Delhi's red light area, Garstin Bastion or G.B. Road, for close to 17 years, said sex workers want to live a life of dignity.
"Our demands are in accordance with our age. We need respect, and not just be considered as sex workers," the impeccably dressed 44-year-old mother of three children, told IANS, while sitting inside a brothel.
"We play a role in stopping HIV also. If the customer does not agree to wear a condom, we simply refuse," Pooja said, adding that their children should have the right to education.
"They (children of sex workers) need to be provided with schooling facilities," she said.
According to figures released ahead of the Delhi assembly polls, over 1,500 sex workers were to cast their votes in the Dec 4 election.
The demand for schooling facilities for their children find resonance from others too.
Guddi (name changed), 60, who comes from a red light area in Bihar, shared her dreams for her grandchildren.
"Despite voting, I have witnessed no change over the years. Poverty still persists. I do not want my children and grandchildren to face whatever I did. I want them to get out of this area," Guddi told IANS on the phone.
On being asked what she wanted her children to become, she ruefully added: "I want them to become so many things, but what is there to wish? Only fate will decide. We want change in our lives."
Ruchira Gupta, founder president, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots movement to end trafficking of women, agreed that education for children among other things top their list of basic needs.
"Education for the children, safe and independent housing, sustainable and dignified livelihood (prostitution is neither as they earn less by the time they are in their twenties) and access to justice - so that when they go to a police station their complaints are registered or when they are pulled out of a school and put into a brothel, somebody watches out for them," she said.
(Shweta Sharma can be contacted at Shweta.firstname.lastname@example.org; Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at email@example.com)
(Posted on 21-03-2014)