Having been consigned to the margins of society so far, sex workers in West Bengal are now expressing their displeasure with Lok Sabha candidates by pressing the NOTA button. The workers said they had reached out to all 466 candidates in the state, urging for the inclusion of their demands in election manifestoes, otherwise they would be compelled to press the NOTA button.
“Most of us opted for NOTA in the last six phases,” said Kajal Bose, a sex worker and the secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO working for the sex workers’ rights in West Bengal.
Under the leadership of All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), small groups reached out to each candidate in the state. “Starting from Darjeeling to the Sundarbans we went to candidates of all political parties with our demands,” said Rita Roy, a sex worker and a member of one of the groups. She said they asked candidates to include their demands in their election manifestoes, including the demand for listing sex work as a recognised occupation by the Labour Ministry. Roy said some candidates met them, but others mostly said they were busy with campaigning.
“During our meetings, we told them that if we do not get assurance from you, we will have no other option but to press NOTA,” she said.
Another sex worker from Kolkata, Shibani Giri, however, said that candidates only gave them a verbal assurance.
The sex workers from red-light areas such as Rabindra Sarobar, Rambagan, Sethbagan, Bowbazar, Kalighat, Chelta, Kidderpore and Tollygunge are fighting for basic demands. They are demanding access to grant of pension at 45 years of age, repeal of clauses of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), decriminalisation of sex work and recognition of a self-regulatory board, formed by the workers, to prevent human trafficking in sex work.
The sex workers said their children face discrimination while applying for admission to schools and other institutions. They claim that the police often harass them, send them to jails or shelter homes against their will and added that sometimes the local goons also extort money from them with the tacit support of the police.
“We have been pushing for these demands since assembly elections which brought a change in the state in 2011. But till today we have not got any positive result,” Durbar chief advisor S Jana said. “There are five million sex workers who are the citizens of our country. It is important to recognise that we are heads of families and need to support our dependents. We have chosen this occupation from the limited choices (we had) but we were not forced into it,” Roy said.
“Political parties should ensure that sex workers and their family members do not face any kind of discrimination in accessing public welfare services and they should set up a complaint redressal system to ensure justice for us,” she said.
Asked if other workers in rest of the state had also pressed NOTA, Giri said, “We had reached a consensus on NOTA… So far we have the feedback that sex workers in the other districts have opted for it.” In Kolkata, the voter turnout from Sonagachi was 90 per cent.