Sex workers in Mumbai’s oldest red light area, Kamathipura, are upbeat about casting their votes in the upcoming general election on April 24. While some of these women, who say voting would “definitely” bring about a social change, have received their voter identity cards, others are eagerly awaiting them.
“Big people do not talk to us or hear us. A few days ago, there was politician who came, waved at us and left,” said Rekha Tamang, 49, who has been living in the area for over 20 years. After rummaging through her aluminum trunk, she proudly flashed her voter identification card.
Like Rekha, Seema Tamang, who came to the city over a decade ago, was happy that she would be able to vote. “We only want to tell those who come to power that we do not want to be scared of the fact that we are sex workers and do what we do,” Seema said.
Both Rekha and Seema said they were optimistic about the outcome of elections and that voting would help in improving their condition. However, 45-year-old Yasmeen, said, “Nobody cares about the underlying issues that we face. No politician ever got off their car and walked to our rooms to ask about the problems we face.”
Around 300 metres away from the narrow, damp lane where Rekha, Seema and Yasmeen reside, lives former sex worker Laxmi Reddy, 53, in a crammed rented room. “In the last 35 years that I have been here, I have voted many times. I voted in 2009 too. Milind Deora visited the area a few days ago, but only waved at us and left. The police, on the other hand, asked us to remain indoors,” Reddy said.
Another sex worker, Salma, who has been working on issues of others like her face, said, “I have not received my voter ID but I am hopeful that I will get it. I want to cast my vote as it is my right, irrespective of what I do.”
“Hum kaise milenge neta se jab humein pinjre me rehne bolenge (how can we meet the politician when they ask us to stay in the cage?” said 32-year-old Aklima Bibi. Aklima said though the electoral list has her name, she had not received a voter ID. “There were municipal elections a-month-and-a-half ago and we were told by the local leaders that we would get a card when elections approach. However, we are yet to receive our cards,” said Aklima.
Deora, who is the Congress candidate and sitting MP from the Mumbai South constituency, said, “I see all parts of my constituency equally. Kamathipura is one of the oldest areas in south Mumbai and we have worked closely with the community to repair dilapidated buildings and roads, and provided sanitation.”
“The children of sex workers need access to education and skill development. We have done extensive work with Prayog Foundation to create an institutional mechanism to reach out to the community,” he added.
Imam Hussain, a local leader and associated with a political party, said the process of issuing voter IDs for sex workers started after the 2009 elections. “We even created a cell, especially for sex workers, looking into their issues. Their names reflect in the Lok Sabha electoral list and they will soon get their IDs,” he said. According to Hussain, around 1,500 sex workers applied for the IDs.
Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate contesting from the constituency, Meera Sanyal, said she had not paid a visit to the sex workers, but “fully intends to do so”. “I will reply once I have interacted with them,” said Sanyal.
Robin Chaurasiya, who runs Kranti, an NGO dealing with sex workers and their daughters, called the struggle by these women in getting voter IDs another form of “marginalisation”. “It ensures that they can never have a voice even in electing local leaders, let alone larger policy discussions. It’s great that some of them, through NGOs, have managed to get IDs, but someone needs to take this up,” Chaurasiya said.