How do polls matter to sex workers? One from near Kolkata takes up the fight to vote
Puja Bhattacharjee | May 8, 2014
It is late morning and the ground floor of a two-storey office building in an otherwise slow-paced Sovabazar area of north Kolkata is in a flurry of activity. Bharati Dey is busy attending to dozens of women who have come to her with problems. Some complain of being beaten up, some of financial troubles, others discreetly whisper into her ears. She calmly listens to them, interjecting only for clarification, and assures them of help.
Dey is the secretary of Durbar (indomitable) mahila sammanay committee, a forum for sex workers in West Bengal established in 1992. Its membership today stands at 18,000.
Dey is from Naihati, a small town in North 24 Parganas district. Her father passed away before she could complete her tenth standard. Immediately after that her brothers decided to get her married off.
“They stopped paying my fees. I did not have anything to write on. I had to drop out of school,” she says. Dey rebelled against her family, borrowed books from a friend and appeared for her class tenth board exams. It was the summer of 1989 when Dey, who was on her post-exam break, decided to answer an advertisement looking for girls who could sell cosmetics in Bhagalpur.
“There were a lot of girls working as cosmetics salesperson. We used to sell vermilion powder and nail polish,” she says. “It was a strange period of my life. On one hand I was financially independent. But the moment I stepped out on the streets, the boys used to tease us about the work we did.”
Sometime later she received a letter from her brothers informing her that she has passed the board exams in second division.
“It was just that one line and nothing else. I was hoping that if I could prove my mettle they would let me study further,” she says.
After travelling some more, first to Patna and then Kanpur, she left the job and came back to Naihati. She rented a house and started giving tuitions to local children and made pickles for a living. Yet she was struggling to make ends meet.
“I joined a nursing class but couldn’t complete the course as I would exhaust my money on the commute,” she says.
Still bruised by her family’s refusal to let her study, she stubbornly refused to go back to her family. At this point sensing her troubles, her landlady, who she later came to know was a sex worker, suggested she give sex work a try.
Dey felt no fear or inhibition. “I saw it like any other work. I did not think much about the consequences.”
She came to work in Titagarh, a red-light area near Kolkata, hoping to escape poverty. What she witnessed, however, was brutality by the local political party workers.
“All red-light areas have a club run by the party workers who were mostly goons. If they got the wind that a pretty girl had come to work in the area, they would forcibly take her away and gang rape-her,” she shudders. “I came to escape one problem and landed up in another.”
Empowerment and financial stability
In 1992, four studies were commissioned in four metros by the government. In Kolkata the study was led by Dr Smarajit Jana of the department of epidemiology, all India institute of public health and hygiene. “We were working with the sex workers of the Sonagachi area, giving them education on sexually transmitted infections and distributing condoms,” he says.
While interacting with them he realised that just giving provisional services is not enough. “If a worker fails to convince a customer to wear a condom, the entire exercise will be in vain. They needed to be empowered to effectively curb HIV.”
Durbar came into being with direct support of the project.
When Durbar reached Titagarh, Dey joined him. She was beaten up by the goons who wanted her to leave the association. When she refused, she was implicated and sent to prison.
“Before Durbar, sex workers had no voice, no empowerment,” she says. “We used to think so lowly of ourselves. Dr Jana told us that we are working out of need like everybody else. He empowered us.”
Dr Jana says that it was important to provide financial stability to the sex workers. “None of them had bank accounts. They saved all their money with either their boyfriends or madams who cheated them mostly. They used to lend money from local money lenders at 300 percent interest.”
Usha multipurpose cooperative society limited was started so that sex workers could save their money with the cooperative. Starting the cooperative itself was a big challenge as membership of a cooperative demands good moral character. Finally the society was registered after removing certain clauses in 1995 but it started functioning properly 2000 onwards.
“Money lending in red-light areas was a huge business. The money lenders threatened the sex workers with dire consequences if they dared to register with Usha. It was a period of intense turmoil. But 2000 onwards they started taking charge of their own affairs,” Jana says. Presently there are more than 20,000 members in the Usha cooperative and the annual turnover is '17 crore.
To get registered as a voter, ration card is the most commonly used identity card.
“Since most of the workers had no ration card, we negotiated with the election commission to accept membership of Usha co-operative society registered under the cooperative Act and functions under the ministry of labour, government of West Bengal to issue voter identity cards,” says Dr Jana.
To prevent trafficking, a self-regulatory board has been constituted by the workers. When a new girl is brought into the red-light area, she is presented before the board. There she is counselled. “If the girl has been trafficked and wants to leave, we let her go. If she wants to stay on, we let her stay and work,” says Dey.
Demands before elections
Dey says that sex workers primarily have four demands which they have placed before the candidate of each party before the Lok Sabha elections. “We want the immoral traffic prevention Act (ITPA) to be repealed. Sex work should be acknowledged and treated as any other work. We want old age pension and the self regulatory board to be registered under the government.”
Representatives have gone to candidates all over Bengal with these demands. Most of them are yet to return. In Kolkata th ey have received a favourable response only from CPI (M).
“TMC (Trinamool Congress) candidates have not signed the manifesto. They said they will after the elections,” says Dey.
Dey and her colleagues are busy assessing the pre-election strategy. “Based on the response we will decide whether to cast vote or not.”
No party has lent their support to sex workers, says Jana. But at an individual level many MPs and councillors have helped. He names Partha Dey, the erstwhile education minister during CPI (M) government as having helped bring the children of sex workers in the mainstream education.
There are about 60,000 sex workers in West Bengal and 70 percent of them will participate in lok sabha elections. Only Sonagachi area has 18,000 voters.
Mita Chakraborty, a sex worker who got a voter identification card in 1995, says that till now sex workers have received no help from political parties: “There was this time when a customer I attended to went home and set himself on fire. The family blamed me for the incident. At that time no party helped me, only Durbar did. Luckily the guy was saved and I was spared by his testimony,” she rues.
Sudip Bandyopadhya is the TMC MP candidate from north Kolkata, where Sonagachi falls. The women call his initiatives insignificant. While Durbar claims that the women have conquered their fear of political parties, realities are different. During the conversation, if a woman names a political leader or curses him, she is immediately shouted down by others. When this was pointed out to Dey, she demurred.
TMC leader and minister of IT and electronics, Partha Chatterjee, says that making them feel like a separate section in the society is creating more trouble for them. “They give the parties a list of demands before every election and the government has done all it could,” he says. But he shoots down the proposal to treat sex work as any other profession or to repeal ITPA. “The time has not come yet. India is not Netherlands. Poverty which is the root cause of this problem needs to be eliminated. The profession does not need to be legalised. This is a huge problem.”
Dr Jana does not agree. “Rehabilitation of sex workers is completely rubbish. We want to establish it like any other profession,” he says.
Minati Dutta sums up the expectations of all sex workers: “I am a citizen of this country. Voting is my right, sex worker or not. My dream is that my son should be an engineer. The political parties shamelessly beg us for votes before elections. They even tell us which button to press: ‘Amader dekhben (take care of us)’. I tell them you take care of us and we will take care of you.”
This story appeared in the May 1-15, 2014 edition of the print issue
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