It is a different day for women living in the red-light area of Shantipur. Shy of revealing their personal details, these women never managed to get a voter identity card and hence never cast votes.
This year, the district administration took a special initiative to ensure that these women from CR Das Road could exercise their franchise. Not only were the women convinced to get their voter IDs made but were also given a separate polling booth to ensure that all of them could exercise their fundamental rights without any social stigma – a first of its kind in Bengal.
Out of 177 voters at Shantipur Durgamoni Shripathsala Girls High School polling booth, 131 had cast their votes by 9am.
“We are very happy. This is our constitutional right and finally we have been able to exercise it. We do not care about the police and political parties,” said Shikha Halder, a sex worker after casting her vote.
Molina Biswas, 81, a resident of C R Das Road since her childhood, could not hide her excitement. Weak and feeble Biswas could barely walk. She came to the polling booth in a cycle van and then the young women voters of CR Das Road carried her on their shoulders till the polling booth. Her hands shaking, Biswas could not hide her smile, “Finally I will vote,” was all that she managed to say.
While the women were happy to get the right to vote, the arrangement of a separate polling booth for them angered them. “Since time immemorial we have been treated like social outcasts. This was an opportunity for us to speak of social inclusion. We would have been delighted to have the opportunity to stand in the same queue with the other women of this area and cast our votes,” said Putul, a sex worker.
“This polling booth has not only established us as outcaste but has also come with the risk of revealing our professional identity since many of our families are not aware of our profession,” Putul said.
The women complained to the district magistrate of Nadia, Sanjay Bansal, who had especially come to visit the polling booth. “Since this was the first time, we thought many women might feel awkward to go and vote with others. We have no intention of treating them as social outcasts. That is the reason why we made this provision so that they could vote. From next election, they will be voting with the members of general society,” Bansal said.
According to BDO Saumi Biswas, “Most of these women do not have birth certificates and other proofs required for making voter ID cards. But once they understood their rights, they were cooperative about the process. There were about 300 women in the area but we kept the flying sex workers out of the process, as they had voting rights in their locality.”