Indian sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata, demand employment rights and government benefits.
From the ground level, Garstin Bastion Road looks like any other bustling commercial street in New Delhi, the capital of India. It is lined with vendors selling fresh fruit and cold drinks, auto-rickshaw drivers waiting for customers, and a slew of electronics and hardware stores. By night, however, it is a bustling market for something entirely different—sex work
The upper levels of the multistoried buildings host an extensive network of brothels. I walk into one of the rooms on the second floor, painted bright blue, where I am welcomed by a group of women whose ages range from early 20s to mid-50s.
India is undertaking a seven-phase general election that started on April 11 and ends on May 19. It’s the largest democratic election in the world, with almost 900 million eligible voters. So far, the usual issues have dominated the political debates in the country, including the recent India-Pakistan tensions and a growing jobs crisis (India’s unemployment hit a 45 year high at 6.1 percent in 2018).
Sex workers across India are lobbying candidates in the country’s general election to support their demands for better health and welfare services in return for votes.
“We wanted to see which party accepts sex workers as part of the community,” said Kusum (who goes by only one name), president of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), which is coordinating efforts. “Some express support for us behind closed doors, but never in public.”
The network has 5 million members, who between them have 20 million dependents – yet sex workers have little influence. Indian society and politics are too conservative to discuss sex work openly, much less debate or acknowledge their rights as citizens, said Kusum.
“That is why we are making a special effort in this election to get some visibility and get our voices heard. Our vote is important because we all come to a consensus and collectively decide which party to vote for,” said Kusum, who is based in New Delhi.
In Kolkata, sex workers are taking their demands directly to candidates for the first time. Sex workers have lobbied two-thirds of the 150-plus candidates standing in West Bengal, where Kolkata is located, to sign declarations of support for their demands. Election results are expected on 23 May.
“About 50 candidates [have] signed a pledge to fulfil our demands. The day the results are out, we are going to be at their door, demanding they act,” said Dr Smarajit Jana, chief adviser for Durbar, a sex workers’ collective in Sonagachi, the biggest red light area in south Asia, and part of AINSW.
In the Indian capital, the New Delhi branch of AINSW released a charter of demands last month, calling for access to basic services, education, a pension for sex workers once they reach 45, and participation in policy-making.
The branch also demanded the official listing of sex work as a recognised occupation by the labour ministry, which would allow sex workers access to government benefits unavailable to them at present. These include a “ration card”that gives poor people subsidised foods, government health insurance, widowers’ and old-age pensions, and compensation in case of injury.
Although sex work is not illegal in India, certain laws make it difficult for sex workers to get the documentation required to access services.
“Sex work is a valid profession and must be recognised as such. This is their right, and giving it to them will make it more difficult for them to be exploited or discriminated against,” said Ashok Alexander, author of A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers.
With most sex work performed on streets or in rented rooms, the only concentrated areas for workers are the red light areas in Mumbai, Sonagachi in the north of Kolkata, and along the GB Road in Delhi.
Above the bustling electronic and hardware shops that line GB Road there is a large complex of brothels. Fanning out from squalid staircases are rows of tiny cubicles.
Outside, the May sun is scorching. At the top of the stairs of one brothel, the temperature dips as a cooler pumps cold air. In the entrance room, with its cheap marble flooring and mirror-lined walls, about 20 women sit around, some doing their makeup and others watching soaps or videos on their mobiles. It’s mid-afternoon and quiet.
Most of the women here, including the brothel’s “madam”, come from southern India. Many are Muslims. The “manager”, known as Dadu or grandad, is a corpulent, mild-mannered man who sits in a corner.
Dadu recently made a special visit to his village in Uttar Pradesh to cast his vote. Few of the women in the brothel voted because they are registered in their home villages. But many of the women in the adjoining brothels went out last Sunday, which was polling day in New Delhi, to cast their vote.
In Kolkata, voter turnout from Sonagachi during the last election was high. “Once we make a collective decision on which party to support, we urge them to vote. In the last general election, for example, 90% of Sonagachi sex workers voted,” said Jana.
At the GB Road brothel in New Delhi, the disenchantment with politicians was unanimous. “No party has ever done anything for us. No politician visits us, only the police,” said Preeti, who has worked here for eight years.
She supports the idea of a pension. “When we get old, many of us don’t have a husband or children to help us. A pension would help,” she said.
Several are opposed to prime minister Narendra Modi, calling him “anti-Muslim”. “Under Modi, Muslims feel persecuted and frightened, and we resent this. We don’t like this divisiveness,” said Neelam.
Modi’s demonetisation of high value banknotes in 2016, when more than 80% of the country’s currency was declared worthless, was a disaster.
“We are paid in cash. When our customers had no cash, they didn’t come,” said Preeti. “Our incomes slumped so badly it was difficult to feed ourselves. And it took a long time for things to recover. Some of us had to go back to our villages until things picked up.”
Jana, though not very optimistic that India will recognise sex work as a legitimate profession, takes some heart from the signed pledges of the candidates. He calls it a small step forward. “Sex work is like any other job. Until it is recognised by the labour ministry, sex workers have no legal status, and that leaves them without rights enshrined in the constitution. Yet they are citizens of this country.”
(Some names have been changed to protect identities).