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Less than nothing (with Dyuti Monashita)

‘People have long forgotten that we are human too — with emotions and feelings,’ she whispers. Ten years ago, Towhida (not her real name) would have burst into tears, thrown her hands up in the air, but now she has accepted this as a way of her life.

As the days turn into nights, Towhida walks through the dark alleys of Mohammadpur, Shangshad Bhaban, Ramna Park and beyond — these areas are her source of livelihood. ‘Some days are rough. They tell you they will pay you for sleeping with one man, and when you turn up, you see more than one, sometimes ten, even thirty. There is no running away, no pleading, no escape,’ she says.

‘Even if I cannot take it anymore, I am beaten up and forced into it. But if I am forced into it, it won’t be rape because I am a prostitute — a commodity that has no right,’ she says, looking away.

Towhida has spent almost the whole of her childhood in the streets, often being molested and mistreated by the police, guards and all of the men supposed to provide security.

‘When I was raped by a man who took me to a dark corner in Ramna Park, I did not even know what it meant. I was barely eight. I did not even know it was rape. I just knew I did not want it and it hurt me a lot. I spent years in fear, and years in denying to be treated this way, but I was not spared,’ she says. ‘In the end, I just took it up as a trade — a trade that is created by society, the very trade that is denied by them. They deny us of the basic minimum right to be recognised.’

When Towhida rushes into Durjoy Nari Shangha, a sex workers’ association where they also provide a children’s day care centre supported by CARE Bangladesh, she is no longer a sex worker. Her six-year-old daughter rushes to her calling ‘Ma’.

Towhida’s eyes soften upon hearing that word. ‘I do not have an identity, I do not even exist. But at least I have this name.’

But like others, Towhida’s six year old daughter is an outcast, because she does not have a father. ‘Í do not even know what to tell her when she asks me about her father. How can I tell her that I am a sex worker and I do not even know who her father is?’

‘When she grows up and learns about my work, she might hate me and say that I am bad. Yes, I am bad, but at least unlike that man who left the seeds in my womb, I did not leave her. Maybe she will understand that. Maybe not.’

Towhida is one out of the countless women who go through this cycle every day.

Not a citizen, not a human

Based on the survey and research conducted by the government of Bangladesh and several NGOs recently, there are approximately one lakh sex workers all over the country. Yet not one of them have been included in the recent registration of voter ID cards for the upcoming elections. ‘Are they not the citizens of this country? If so then, go and ask them if they have been able to register,’ says Sultana Kamal, executive director, Ain O Shalish Kendra and former advisor, lawyer and human rights activist.

‘This once again proves that we have been denied of our basic rights, even the right to citizenship to your own country,’ says Hazera Begum, the vice president of Durjoy Nari Shangha and a sex worker who now works to help sex workers’ children to get into school. ‘We have not been able to register, because we do not have permanent address to give, a father or husband’s name to give. Was it not the state’s responsibility to ensure we are given that minimum right?’

According to Aparajoy Bangladesh, there are roughly around 15-20 licensed brothels in the country but the numbers of floating sex workers are alarmingly high. That segment is more vulnerable to violence and risk. A number of reports suggest that thousands of sex workers are killed every year in the world and even more are raped and beaten. ‘But in many ways, we find freedom as a floating sex worker. We are not subject to as much injustice as in brothels. There, money is taken away by the masters; we can never refuse on a day when we are not well enough. There is hardly any escape. Outside, had only the law enforcers themselves spared us, it would have been easier,’ says Hazera.

‘Not only are they not recognized, but also never offered the economic, psychological and social services they need. The criminal justice system only exacerbates the problem and violates the civil and human rights of sex workers in the process,’ points out Firdous Azim, member of Naripokkho and professor, BRAC University.

‘Sex workers are entitled to all rights that a woman has, or a citizen has, but in the law, there is no mention of the term or their legal protection and this is the root problem,’ says Sultana Kamal. ‘It is due to this that they are so vulnerable and their right to protection is violated severely.’

‘Instead of protecting the safety of sex workers, laws and law enforcement agencies are more often the tools of persecution. Social discrimination is also a kind of violence against sex workers, because it marginalises them and renders them isolated and defenceless,’ points out Azim. ‘The social view towards these women only makes it a harder problem.’

Legally trapped

The Constitution of Bangladesh declares that the state shall adopt effective measures to prevent ‘prostitution’ as a fundamental state policy, and there are various restrictive laws. ‘An adult woman can enter sex work by making an affidavit with a first class magistrate’s court or with a notary public that she is above 18, the legal age of maturity, and doing it willingly and consciously,’ Azim says. ‘But they have no right to solicit and ironically that is a punishable offence. How can they work?’

‘Sex work occupies an ambivalent position in our legal framework, where soliciting and pimping are considered criminal offences, but sex work within brothels by adult women is not considered illegal,’ says Shireen Huq, member of Naripokkho and human rights activist.

‘By not giving sex workers legal protection, the whole country is being subjected to health hazards and exposure of the sex workers to inhumane and degrading treatments,’ says Barrister Khaled Hamid Chowdhury, advocate, Supreme Court and head of law, London College of Legal Studies. ‘If you have laws, there will be stringent requirements. There will be more scrutiny, practice of safe sex, sex workers’ children will be looked after, the government will acquire tax, and activities and the health of the sex workers will be monitored properly. This will also lead to solving the issues of underage girls forced into the trade, women and children trafficking, underage pregnancy, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.’

Scattered, unvoiced, unprotected

According to A S M Enamul Huq, adviser for Durjoy Nari Shangha and a researcher in this area since 1995, there are currently 12 red light areas in the whole of Bangladesh. Ten brothels are located in Magura, Khulna, Bagherhat, Mongla, Jessore, Tangail, Jamalpur, Patuakhali, Douladia and Faridpur. ‘There have been interventions by various organizations to improve the state but the brothels in Patuakhali, Magura, Douladia and Faridpur are in very bad conditions because they are located in very remote areas, making intervention more difficult,’ says Huq.

Huq is the first person to work with sex workers in Bangladesh and has witnessed tremendous amount of improvement among sex workers regarding the use of condoms and hygiene. ‘A baseline survey revealed that the use of condoms by sex workers in brothels in 1995, the statistical number was 2 to 3 percent, but now, after intensive training and building awareness among them, the statistical number has gone up to 80 percent,’ he says.

‘The problem with Dhaka is that after all the brothels have been evicted, sex workers are scattered all over the city and most of them stay hidden in fear of the police and gangsters. Due to this, they are very hard to reach and as a result, are not exposed to any of the programmes or projects that are conducted. Thus the statistical number of the sex workers in Dhaka city has becoming increasingly difficult to find out,’ says Enamul Huq.

Sex work has always been a major industry in the country and the violations have been old age phenomenon. The eviction of the Kandupatti brothel led to a movement by Naripokkho, a historical extensive drive against Tanbazar was perhaps the beginning of a vocalised protest. But it was not the first case of eviction. Narayanganj’s cluster of brothels, the largest in Bangladesh, faced eviction in 1999. Nearly two thousand women with their children were forcibly taken to government run ‘vagrant homes’ where they were confined, while most managed to escape.

‘Our earlier association with sex workers in the Kandupatti brothel in Dhaka, which had been evicted a couple of years before, had led to the formation of Ulka, the first sex workers organisation in Bangladesh. Upon receiving the news of the Tanbazar eviction Ulka members rushed to the Naripokkho office. Before we knew it the Naripokkho office was transformed in to an impromptu shelter with over 40 women sleeping there, and a few more in our homes,’ recalls Shireen Huq.

Following this, over 80 NGOs and associations joined Naripokkho forming an alliance in support of the rights of sex workers. ‘For the next five weeks it turned into a 24 hour operation. We were together, strategising, mobilising, facing journalists, holding street protests, demonstrating in front of different government offices including that of the inspector general of police, meeting UN officials and handing over a formal communication for the high commissioner for human rights,’ says Huq.

‘It was a very challenging task to get everyone together and form a strong network. We are now a collective force of 29 separate networks of sex workers. Our objective from the very beginning was to deal with burning issues such as rights, particularly the right to vote and be recognized as the citizens of Bangladesh. Also to stop deprivation and bring an end to physical and mental abuse that sex workers are subjected to by police and gangsters,’ says Momtaz, the first sex worker to have protested and formed an association in Bangladesh.

Like others, Momtaz has her own share of hardships. ‘I had three sisters, one of whom has passed away. When we were little, my mother was driven into the arms of a very bad man by the torments of my stepmother. The man promised my mother a good job so that she could support herself and her four daughters. Instead, she was tricked and sold to a brothel in Shonagachhi.’

‘When our father found out, he rescued my mother and the four of us. But the fellow villagers would not let us stay. They forced us out. Our father took us to our maternal uncle’s house but they threw us out as well. Not having anywhere else to go, our father took us to a brothel in Jessore and all five of us, including our mother became sex workers.’

‘Once you are in this trade, there is no way out,’ says Hazera. ‘If I walk away from this trade, will the society accept me? Will anyone marry me, will they let me survive?’

But the challenges are many and achievements very few. ‘Their profession needs to be legalised first,’ says Sultana Kamal.

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