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March 28, 2004 

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Sex workers deserve better deal from society 

Mahfuza Moslehi

She has been a sex worker for several years. At 16 she still carries with her the childhood dream: to become a doctor or a social worker. Forced into the profession and never easy in it, the young woman yearns to quit, but finds no way out. So she continues and dreams of her favourite dream. Years ago when she was a schoolgirl she was abducted by a man whose marriage proposal she turned down. Her abductor raped her before leaving her on the street. She was afraid of returning home and instead travelled to Dhaka city where she took her first job: a housemaid.

"I wanted to forget all that had happened to me," says she. "But bad luck was not ready to leave me alone." A new attack came from the head of the family where she worked as a maid. She fled to another house and took another job at a garment factory where she was allegedly raped by her employer.

``This is the harrowing tale of my becoming a sex worker. I'm here for the rest of my life. There is no escape," whispers the woman who wished to be anonymous. She has spoken for most of the sex workers in Bangladesh. Not many of them have come willingly.

Poverty, deception and sexual attacks often force many helpless women to this hated profession. Once they are into it many try to defend their work. They want to add some level of acceptance to it. Consider how Safia -- not her real name -- how she looks at her profession.

``When I was starving and passed day after day in hunger there was no one in the society to help me. I had to accept this work to survive," shouted she. "Who are our customers? Most of them are married and some are educated. Leaving their wives they come to us and enjoy us. If our clients still remain gentlemen why they call us fallen women?"

"We are not fallen women. We are also human beings living off working like the normal people do," she insists.

Says Roekya Kabir, Executive Director of Pragati Nari Sangha: ``First of all we don't want to see any woman in this work. But once they are into it they should not be deprived of their human rights. We must accept the fact that poverty has forced these women to take up this work as a profession. They have also every right to carry on with their lives."

She argues that mere eviction of the sex workers would not solve the problem. Instead, they should be provided with skill training so they can find alternatives.

Those who oppose eviction of sex workers from brothels do not necessarily support their profession. What they want is that all concerned should consider their profession with sympathy and compassion. Their work does not necessarily mean that they should be exploited by all and sundry.

But sex workers, especially the street hookers, have many complaints. They say that there are men who will enjoy in a group of four and five and then will refuse to pay. They say many policemen harass them and force them to pay money. One sex worker claims that they donate money to build places of worship. "If they accept pour donation why we are so badly treated?"

Sex workers also demand that the government should recognise their work as legal. Salma Ali, Executive Director of Jatiya Mohila Ainjibi Samity, however, has a different opinion. She argues legalising the profession will encourage more poor women to come to it and it will lead to more trafficking of women and children. ``What, however, is needed is to create alternative jobs for the sex workers," she says.



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