Monday, December 17, 2007

International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers --Bangladesh issues

"Those of you who call us bad
You made everything bad
Now let me take
my own responsibility"
(thanks to Saif for translation)

Dec 17 is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Since 2001, I have been working with various groups of sex workers in Bangladesh, mostly in Dhaka with women evicted from the area brothels in the late 1990s who ended up on the streets, women have worked the streets and cinema halls, and finally hotel and residential sex workers. All of these women have inspired and challenged me in my research and activism in Nari Jibon over time & in their offices, living &work spaces, conferences, and together sharing rides, tea, food, and mehndi.

I want to speak about the consequences that I have observed stories and testimonies heard, and photographed and their implications for sex workers' lives during their sex work and as they may age out of and/or leave sex work.

Many sex workers, particularly in the brothels and streets, have experienced violence from their sardanis (madams), mastans (thugs), police, and officials (military, special police, etc) and customers, including beatings and head injuries.
Many women have knife slashes on their arms to mark them as sex workers. Many public officials insist on sex without payment with the threat of arrest, if the woman does not comply. In previous times of campaigns against crime-corruption, street based sex workers have been harassed by police, military personnel, and I can only imagine what has been happening in the Caretaker State of Emergency.

Even more women experience violence within the hotels and residential settings when customers refuse to use condoms thereby exposing women to a variety of illnesses as well as economic sanctions, if the women refuse. They also face violence from the customers, staff, and muscle men around the hotels and residential areas.

Sex workers also experience violence in the street and in their neighborhoods as they go to and from their dwellings. Many hotel and residential women live some distance from where they do their work and travel in burkha to protect their identities from those in the streets. Several times per month, the local media report that a woman's body has been found--in the street, hotel, or hidden--depending on the location--someone has murdered a sex worker.

Over time, from these beatings and violence, many sex workers have cognitive problems very much like those people with head injuries--memory loss, confusion, inability to solve problems and/or learn new skills as well as ongoing illnesses from life on the street.

As discussed by Dr. Jana of Durbar in Kolkata (also worked in Bangladesh), Bangladeshi and other societies do not give sex workers the space to live their lives and/or take alternative- different paths because they are always reminded of their work by their scars, beatings, head injuries, and experiences by others as well of denial of their basic human rights. In all my time in Dhaka, I could not find a single micro-credit NGO that would give loans to sex workers. Many sex workers end up with little or no savings but have children, medical, and living expenses. Older sex workers need living places. If the sex workers seek other skills and more education, they may experience learning challenges from their work and living conditions. For example, one student at Nari Jibon came for classes and could not use the computers because her neighbors had beaten her when she came back from the training programme. Furthermore, as reported earlier in my blog, sex workers at the Mongla brothel area had problems finding shelter against Cyclone Sidr and getting subsequent relief.

Some NGOs have provided assistance--such as Concern, CARE, Action Aid, Naripokkho, but their assistance often depends on grant cycles.

Over time, sex workers have developed their own organizations--Ulka, Durjoy, and Sex Workers' Network-- to advocate for the rights of sex workers, an end to violence against them (including evictions from brothels during the coldest months), and rehabilitation before evictions.

One of the oldest organizations, Durjoy, has established a day care center among other activities, but funding for their drop-in centres-safe spaces ended b/c misguided USA donor regulations that refuse support of any group that does not actively denounce sex work or signs such a pledge. For a video on the consequences of this regulation, see "Taking the Pledge"this video includes testimony by Hazera of Durjoy (last segment): .

Within the past five years, Sex Workers Network has emerged and seeks to organize all types of sex workers, including brothel women.

For more information about these two organizations, you can contact these two dynamic women-leaders (Bangla-speaking):
Momataz Begum, President / cell : 01724 517574, (on the right with glasses, pictured below in Daily Star article) (you can also contact the leader of Ulka, Parul, through her) or
Sahanaz Begum, General Secretary / cell : 01819 404850

Sex Workers Network of Bangladesh
122 P.C. Culture, Road # 0, Block- Ka, Shamoly,
Mohammadpur, Dhaka-1207, Bangladesh

Another email contact is:, who conveyed these images to me.

So on this day, I join the call to eliminate violence against sex workers in Bangladesh--my friends and acquaintances-- and elsewhere. Eid Mubarak!

For an international online vigil see:

No comments: