Delhi’s red light area: Where vote is valued even if parties are not

New Delhi: Hope battles cynicism every hour in the grimy corridors of Delhi’s red light area where scores of women eke out a tenuous existence as sex workers. As elections pick up pace, the women of G B Road alternate between despair at a political system deaf to their demands and the yearning to be heard in the great election bazaar of 2019.  Trapped in claustrophobic cubbyholes opening into ‘pan’-stained corridors, many sex workers, robbed of chances to exercise choice in their lives, expressed disillusionment, saying they have little or no hope from any of the parties that knock at their doors every five years.

But in a reaffirmation of the system, however flawed in their world view, they also said they know the value of their vote. Some have even travelled back home to places like West Bengal, notwithstanding the cost involved, to exercise their franchise. Most said they have voter ID cards and it does not matter who they vote for. But the little card is a symbol of empowerment for them.  “We don’t have hopes from any political party. In the 2014 LS polls, I voted for one party. In this election, I will vote for another without any expectation from any of them,” said Sangeeta, a resident of a kotha on the first floor accessed by steep stairs littered with gutkha packets and splattered with pan stains.

Sangeeta, who goes by only one name, took to the profession around 17 years ago. In her late 30s, Sangeeta said she starting voting only nine years ago. Many women in her family, based in Agra, are also in the flesh trade and she has no regrets. In her sister Shabnam’s view, the vote signifies identity, “If we won’t vote, how will be identified as citizens of this country? We do what we want to do. Nobody can question us,” she said.  At Kotha Number 54, separated by a wall from Sangeeta and Shabnam, the mood is resentful, even angry.

Each kotha, usually spread over two floors, houses about 15-20 women who operate from airless rooms segregated into cubicles so narrow they barely hold a single bed.  Several women said circumstances pushed them into becoming sex workers.  The narratives are different, the stories the same.  Some said they were abandoned by their husbands, others that they were shunned after they were widowed and still others who were pushed into a life of exploitation by families too poor to provide for them.

But politicians, governmental neglect and the elections are very much on their minds. From demonetisation and garbage at the doorstep to legalising sex work and pension, the women bring up varied issues. PM Modi demonetised high value currency notes in November 2016 and it still hurts, they said.  It’s a tough life that gets tougher as they grow older.  “Our profession should be legalised. Once women cross their prime, they do not get customers,” said Pooja’s fri­end Roma, who is in her 50s.

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