In the midst of Lok Sabha elections, a body representing about 65,000 sex workers of West Bengal is pushing for recognising them as labourers, on the basis of which they will decide whom to vote.
The sex workers complain about lack of recognition of their profession under the labour laws, "rampant misuse" of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act and meagre rehabilitation programmes offered by the government.
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an apex body of sex workers in Bengal, says its members are disillusioned with the "fake promises" made by political parties every election season and many of them would like to go for NOTA button in this election.
In the state with 42 Lok Sabha seats, polling has already been held at two constituencies in the first phase on April 11 and three more will go to polls on Thursday.
"It is our longstanding demand that sex workers be recognised as labourers and be brought under the purview of the Labour Commission. We pushed this demand in 2011 (during the assembly polls) but nothing has materialised so far," DMSC Secretary Bharati Dey told IANS at the organisation's office in an old north Kolkata building, a kilometre away from the heart of Sonagachi that consists hundreds of multi-storeyed brothels.
"Also, certain sections of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act are being misused by some people, making the lives of sex workers difficult. These should be scrapped," she added.
She said the self-regulatory board of DMSC, which prevents the entry of underage girls and unwilling women into the profession, should be registered under the state government so that it can counter the challenges imposed by miscreants and pimps.
"The DMSC has 65,000 sex workers under its fold across Bengal, of which 11,000 are in Sonagachi. We have sent a team of representatives with the charter of demands to all the candidates across Bengal. We have unanimously decided to vote for the party which would address our demands. Else, we will go for NOTA," Dey said.
The election campaign is on in full swing across Kolkata and the districts. However, the narrow, dingy alleys of Sonagachi, which falls under the Kolkata North Lok Sabha constituency, seemed largely untouched by the poll fever witnessed elsewhere except a few graffiti and political banners, mostly belonging to the ruling Trinamool Congress hanging here and there.
"The election campaign has not started here that much this year yet. May be, it will start by next week. Generally no public meetings or political rallies are held inside the core area as the sex workers here fear that their business would get hampered," a local shopkeeper said.
The political outfits still have time to campaign in Kolkata as the constituency will go to the hustings in the last phase of polls on May 19.
But some streetwalkers claimed no amount of persuasion will be enough unless their demands show up on political parties' election manifesto.
"Some roads and drains have been reconstructed in the area in the last five years which have somewhat addressed the problems of water logging. But more infrastructural development is needed. Many of the buildings we stay in are in dilapidated condition. We do not have sufficient toilets. The hygiene is still a major issue here," Sova Sardar, who came to Sonagachi five years ago from Bengal's Nadia district, told IANS.
"It is sad that our children are still not allowed in most of the schools or workplaces. A social stigma is always attached to them due to our profession or the place they live in. We want this to change," she said.
Many women who have come to Sonagachi from other states or neighbouring Bangladesh, have procured local voter ID cards and cast their votes from this constituency instead of going back to their hometown as that would hamper their trade.
"Those who have come here from Bangladesh and elsewhere have made local voter ID cards. According to the Election Commission, voter cards could be made by giving the all India Sex Workers Cooperative account numbers. But that process has stopped for the last two years. So, many coming here within that time frame will not be able to vote this time," an official of DMSC said.
Another sex worker Sania Khatoon said she has voted in the last two elections believing the governments would seriously look into their problems.
Pointing out that rehabilitation package is "meagre" as compared to the money earned by certain individuals as sex workers, Dey said the government should rehabilitate those who are unable to sustain themselves in the profession while those who are willing to continue, should be allowed to do so with dignity.
"When a woman is earning Rs 1 lakh per month, why would she take the rehabilitation package of Rs 5,000-10,000? Our demand to the political outfits is that they should be allowed to continue in this profession with dignity. The administration should also ensure that violence and attack on sex workers is curbed," she said.
"The rehabilitation is needed for those who have become old and not able to continue in this profession or those whose families abandon them," she added.
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