Politicians now realize we too matter, say sex workers

April 26th, 2009 - 9:17 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party By Azera Rahman
New Delhi, April 26 (IANS) They have been largely ignored and stigmatised. But with an important tool, the voter’s ID, the sex worker community is feeling empowered.

Now candidates for the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat in Delhi are doing all they can to woo this important vote bank.

Unlike in the last general elections, when only 300 sex workers here had voter IDs, this time 1,500 of them are registered in the electoral roll.

Nalini Dey, a 28-year-old commercial sex worker in the capital’s red light area, G.B. Road, said her newly acquired voter’s ID card has given her a sense of identity and empowerment, and she will make the best use of it.

Draped carelessly in a faded pink sari but with a steely glint in her eyes, Dey said: “We live the life of a rat here. The place stinks with open sewers and garbage dumped everywhere and no one, not even doctors in the hospital, are ready to treat or help us.”

“It’s funny how this one card (voter’s identity card) has changed the attitude of the people in power towards us. Until a few days back no one cared for us, but now political leaders line outside our doors and give us promises, because they have realised that now we matter too,” Dey told IANS.

Both Congress candidate and sitting MP of Chandni Chowk Kapil Sibal and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Vijender Goel have visited the area.

“Kapil Sibal assured us that all our demands will be looked into and our welfare will be a priority. Our main demand is to legalise our work, which will solve most of our problems,” said Rasika, another sex worker.

For a long time now, social activists along with the sex worker community have been demanding legalisation of prostitution in India, which they say will put an end to their exploitation. The community here consists of 4,500 sex workers.

Khairati Lal Bhola, chairman of the Bharatiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, an NGO working for the welfare of sex workers, said: “Prostitution is like any other industrial trade and women work very hard in this. However, because it is illegal, there is a nexus of middlemen and others who extract most of the money that these women earn.”

“A woman may earn Rs.100, but she gets only Rs.20 in hand. The rest is taken away by the mistress of the brothel, the middleman, the cops and others. Moreover, because it is not legalised, they are denied healthcare facilities, admission in hospitals and education for their children,” Bhola told IANS.

The second issue that these women are going to keep in mind before casting their vote in the May 7 Lok Sabha polls is education for their children. As of now, most of the sex workers’ children study in makeshift schools set up by local NGOs.

“I don’t want my daughter to have the same fate as me. I want her to study and become whatever she wants to - not be forced to join me for the sake of survival. Now she is studying in a small school here run by an NGO, but I don’t know if she will be able to continue her studies,” Rasika said.

Delhi’s joint chief electoral officer Uday Baxi said that over the last one year the Election Commission has had meetings with the electoral registering officers to register every eligible person in the electoral roll.

“Every eligible person should be able to vote and that includes the sex workers’ community. And the Election Commission has been doing all it can to ensure that,” Baxi told IANS.

Bhola however said that his NGO had to work very hard for the past 21 years to give the sex workers the right to vote.

“However, now that almost 50 percent of the sex workers in the nine states that we work in have got their voter’s ID, it has been a big achievement,” he said.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.p@ians.in )

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