Sex workers in West Bengal vow to back only that party which addresses their demands

While candidates in West Bengal have begun door-to-door campaigns, a section of sex workers in Kolkata has started a candidate-to-candidate campaign among the various parties.

Armed with a charter of demands, members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) — an organisation set up and run by sex workers to address their health and welfare issues — are meeting as many candidates as they can from all parties.

During the 2006 Assembly election, the DMSC, which boasts of a membership of 65,000, boycotted the poll to protest the apathy of successive governments about issues that concern sex workers.

This time round, the organisation has changed political track. “Sex workers will back whoever supports the cause of sex workers,” says Bharati Dey, DMSC secretary. She says members will vote en bloc for the party that seriously considers its demands.

Says 45-year-old Sefali Roy who has been a sex worker since she was 15: “Casting my vote is a personal matter. But if there is someone concerned about our issues, we will vote certainly support them in the election.” Adds Sima Fokla from Murshidabad district who has worked in Kolkata for the last two decades: “One thing I want apart from the DMSC's demand is that one of us becomes a councillor or MLA…we have equal rights to stand for the election.”

The group wants government recognition for the self-regulatory boards it runs in 33 red-light areas, in order to check the entry of minors and adult women who have been duped or coerced into the profession. Another demand from the sex workers is inclusion as registered workers with the Labour department.

‘Repeal Act'

The DMSC wants the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, repealed — a longstanding demand. The group has been opposed to the Act on several grounds. “The Act presumes that doing away with red-light areas will help prevent trafficking in children and women. But if we were to do away with an area like Sonagachi, it will affect the few interventions in HIV, health and welfare. Moreover, sex workers will be forced to walk the streets,” Ms. Dey says.

She has already met eight candidates contesting in Kolkata. Most of them have conceded the demands were valid, but the DMSC is seeking “a more concrete commitment.”

While the DMSC has a presence in red-light areas across West Bengal, it has 11,000 members in Sonagachi alone, a number that could tilt the scales in Shyampukur constituency. There are also 2,200 DMSC members in Bowbazar, and about 1,000 sex workers each in Kalighat and Kidderpore, apart from those in Chetla and Lakarmath.