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Why 2 Lakh Sex Workers Across 16 States Are Voting NOTA This Election

As the All India Network of Sex Workers presents its manifesto this election season, those on the ground reveal how it’s about time the system changed.

by Pallavi Pundir
29 April 2019, 10:26am

Sex workers (foreground) in a red light area in Mumbai. Photo: REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe. 

“You know how every girl has this dream, of looking at the baraat (wedding party) processions outside their house, mehendi on their palms, and getting married? I had one too.” There’s a hint of dryness in Anu Swamy’s voice, but she manages to be steady, even composed. “I was 14 when I saw a 75-year-old man standing in front of me in my room. Mere saare sapne usi din toote the (That was the day all my dreams broke).”

Today, Swamy (37) is a political leader of her municipality in Mumbai’s suburban Chembur East, as well as an outspoken activist who has one goal: “I have to get sex workers out of that world.” As we sit in her newly constructed office in HP Nagar—with her organisation workers filtering in an out—Swamy fields my curiosity by mincing no words. “You know, during the 2005 Mumbai floods, a local MLA gave a supaari (contract killing) to get me murdered after I defended a sex worker in my area who was refused relief food,” she says with a laugh. “That’s when I realised how dirty politics can be, but this is how I wanted to uproot the stigma around sex workers. People don’t see me as a sex worker now. They see me as a leader.”

Earlier in April, the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW)—a national body that represents 2 lakh registered sex workers from 16 Indian states—had presented a manifesto for the political leaders, stating demands of sex workers across the country. Sex work in India is not illegal under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 prohibits the running of brothels, pimping and soliciting in public spaces, but sex between consensual adults, even for money, is not an offence or even illegal in law.

The manifesto, hence, addresses issues such as access to basic services, pension at the age of 45, participation in policy-making and dignity of work, among several others. But the failure to include these in parties’ manifestos has led to the only electoral recourse the network deems fit: NOTA, or the option to not vote for any candidate in elections. As the fourth phase of the polling is underway today, the manifesto has resurfaced, especially in Mumbai.

As I sit with Swamy in her 90-square-foot office in the middle of one of Mumbai’s most congested pockets, she decides to tell me the ground realities the only way she knows: through her own story.

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Anu Swamy, a former sex worker, social activist and local political leader, stands outside her office in Chembur East, in suburban Mumbai. Photo: Pallavi Pundir

Her story may not be much different from others, but it definitely has a different ending. “Ten women out of hundreds manage to get out of sex work in their lifetime. Ninety percent are still out there working. Mine is one of those lesser-heard stories,” she says. Left at a brothel at the age of 10 after losing her parents, Swamy’s sexual encounter with the 75-year-old man at the age of 14 numbed her for years to come. “A child's innocence is a man's demand in this world,” she tells me, “They ask for young ones even now. I wanted to follow my dreams, but who knows what dreams are when you’re 15? I knew nothing, not about love, and especially about sex. After what that man did to me, I would often wake up and cry. All the other girls would laugh at me. “‘Yeh toh roz ka tera kaam hoga (this will be your work every day)’, they told me.’”

“If you go looking for stories about sex workers, you'll find so many. One woman had sex for a vada pao. How much does it cost? Rs 15, maybe. I still tear up when I listen to these stories. We can't blame them for sex work.”

Swamy is a crucial link in what is the most empowered network of men and women that exists today, who have been working tirelessly for sex workers across the country for several years. And it helps that this network is mostly made up of sex workers themselves. “That’s how I came to be in it. I was just attending a camp for medical services when the social workers caught hold of me to work in my area and get medical help to others. I liked it, and look at me now. 15 years later, I run my own organisation named Kranti Mahila Sanstha, where I work with all women facing abuse. I have stood up for elections in my municipality, and I’m planning to, again, this year,” says Swamy.

“We wanted to see which party accepts sex workers as part of the community.”

AINSW is made up of 90 Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) across 16 states, and comprises sex workers as well as social activists. Delhi-based Kusum, the president of AINSW, tells me how the manifesto has been in the making for a really long time. “These are some of the barso purana muddas (oldest issues) of sex workers,” she says over the phone. “Before the network came into being, sex workers across the country, in their own district and cities, raised their voices. But nobody heard them. Then they made their own CBOs, through which they became a part of the network. We have been observing the issues being raised in different parts of the country through their mobilisation, so this time, we decided to make a concrete charter, especially during elections,” she says.

While the biggest stronghold of the network is in Kolkata—known for some of the most vociferous activism over time in red light areas such as Sonagachi, which is the largest such district in Asia—the network says they’ve found political support in many parts of the country. “The biggest reason why we decided to make this charter is that we wanted to see which party accepts sex workers as part of the community. Who is on our side? Who is thinking about us?” says Kusum.

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Seema Sayyed, the manager of Aastha Parivaar Secretariat, in her office in Kurla, Mumbai. Photo: Pallavi Pundir

“Sex workers need more than just help,” says Seema Sayyed, who is the manager of the Mumbai-based Aastha Parivaar Secretariat, one of the networks under AINSW that has about 40,000 sex workers in their system. “They also need health checkups, financial literacy and stability. They earn but don’t save; their kids need to go to school. There needs to be legal awareness, they should know their rights including how to complain or lodge an FIR. And the biggest need is that of social entitlement. If they're citizens of the country, they're entitled to social schemes under their respective states.”

Sayyed’s small office in Kurla in Mumbai, handles the operations of around 15 CBOs across Mumbai, Thane, and Pune. Like several organisations that work in red light areas, Aastha Parivaar’s work has focused extensively on setting up camps for not just HIV treatment, but also the distribution of condoms and advocacy of legal knowledge and rights. “This system has created many leaders out of sex workers,” says Swamy. “I’m one of them.”

For now, there are new problems on the horizon. “We have problems reaching out to home-based sex workers, who, unlike the regular sex workers, do not go to a brothel to find clients," said Sayyed. "They run their network over the phone or social media. It’s very hard to follow up with them because they frequently change their phone numbers or their clients keep moving them. Then we have also found out that the daughters of sex workers are also getting lured into sex work.”

Sayyed adds that they are currently working with WhatsApp admins who run groups for sex services, in order to pass on medical services to the girls. “We have 40,000 sex workers registered with us. But there’s a higher number out there that we haven't been able to reach out to, or they don’t want us,” she said.

"There's an existing sentiment that their votes will amount to nothing"

On a weekday afternoon, Swamy takes me to one of the oldest red light districts in south Mumbai, in Grant Road. As we cross several colonial structures, some decaying and many ready to crumble, we stop outside a lane leading up to a spice market. “We can only walk from here,” she tells me, as she leads the way to a decrepit chawl.

In the middle of this chawl is an Aastha Parivaar CBO, set up inside a brothel. Just last month, a raid here on Women’s Day resulted in two sex workers jumping off the highest floor out of fear of being caught. They died instantly.

It’s not unusual, then, that the most common sentiment here is that of apathy. “What will their votes do? Do their votes even matter? The sex workers are like any other person who feels 'Kaun se sarkar ne hamare liye kya kara hai? (What government has done anything for us?)’ They expect tangible things, like housing, education and protection from such raids,” says Sayyed.

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Devta Metre in front of the Grant Road brothel that she looks after as a peer educator with Aastha Parivaar. Photo: Pallavi Pundir

Devta Metre, who has been working with this CBO for almost two decades, tells me that political interest can only be possible if the community actively seeks it. “We’ve actually seen more interest from local politicians after setting up our CBO here. They would never come door-to-door in this kind of area. The CBO also approached the local leaders and police officials to ask them why they don’t visit the brothels,” says Metre. “We brought them one night and made them meet the girls.”

As we take rounds of the sparse brothel, the women are mostly resting. Many refuse to step out when they see strangers. “Did you get your voting card?” Metre asks a Bengali-speaking woman. “I don’t have my documents here. They’re back at home,” comes the reply from behind the curtains. This time around, the CBO has tied up with local authorities to set up camps near the brothel. “But the most common problem with the community is that they will vote for whoever promises them certain things they want. Some leaders come and give money too,” says Swamy. “We also have some Bangladeshi sex workers whom we can’t help at all beyond some basic medical assistance since their lack of documentation is something even we can’t help with.”

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A social activist looks outside one of the windows of the dilapidated facade of a brothel in south Mumbai's Grant Road area. Photo: Pallavi Pundir

Before I leave, I ask Metre if the last few years have made any impact on the community. “The social schemes have worked really well, especially the HIV treatments. However, some policies haven’t worked. Demonetisation led to a lot of discontentment, of course. Their business took a big hit."

Sayyed adds to the larger picture. “I'm not asking to legalise sex work because then, it becomes a trade. And I'm not sure how many women would like an ID card of a sex worker. In India, it's difficult to live like that considering the mindset that we all have, which is why we can’t ask for rights that come under trades. This has to be worked out. For any election and any government, this number [2 lakh sex workers as a vote bank] is huge. They should ask them what their needs are, and then we can decide what their rights are.”

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