Human Rrights Advocacy
Sex workers occupational rights
The constitution of Bangladesh guaranteed equality of all citizens before the law, and prohibits discrimination against any citizen based on religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth life [Article 28(1), 28(2), and 28(3)]. Nevertheless, the sex workers are not only stigmatised and excluded from the mainstream society, they are discriminated against under the law of the land in various ways. They are neither considered as occupational group nor they are in a position to claim fundamental human rights for their daily livelihood. Although, most people have fantasy about the life and livelihood of sex workers, in reality most of them live an inhuman life, which is even difficult to describe.
The term “prostitution” or “prostitute” is deployed as a descriptive term denoting a homogeneous category, usually women and girls and they pose threats to public services like health, education and others, sexual morality, social stability and civic order. The sex workers belong to heterogeneous groups, some of them might be rich, enjoy exclusive living, have connections with high ups of the society; however, majority of these women and girls live under extreme poverty. As one of the young girls of the Madaripur brothel was telling "I feel like dying as after choosing this disgraceful profession I don't get adequate food and cloth". Another girl said" Always I am working, I can't refuse client even while I am eating." In most cases these girls are unable to keep their hard earning; the 'sardarni' they work under, snatch the whole amount of money. Law does not protect them either.
Human rights organisations have dilemma in positioning sex workers' issues as human rights agenda. Even radical women's organisations argue whether sex work is a work. Some groups argue that sex work is just a division of the leisure industry. On the other hand some groups oppose the whole idea of prostitution and consider that sex work simply degrades women and prolongs the concept that women are primarily sex objects. Charity organisations are prone to rescue them and put them in “safe homes” and development organisations are likely to target them as either HIV/AIDS carriers or rehabilitate them through income generation activities.
The kind of oppression that a sex worker goes through can never be perpetrated against a worker of a socially legitimate profession. The justification is given that sex work or sexual service is not a real work or not a service at all but it is seen as derailed or moral degradation of women that is culturally unacceptable, religiously sinful and politically illegal and is not even placed on the table for discussion/debate. In Bangladesh, an adult woman can engage in this profession by making an affidavit with a first Class Magistrate's court or with a Notary Public. However, this affidavit is not a professional licence rather the document only records some information about the woman in sex-trade and it does not entail any regulation, condition or right regarding sex-work.
The constitution and some laws of the land recognise its existence. At the same time they portray the trade as a crime. According to the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act, 1933, section 4 (1) mentions that using or renting out one's own house for a brothel is a punishable offence. The section 8 of the same law says that any person, 18 or above, will be punished if s/he knowingly depends for his/her livelihood, totally or partially, on the income of a person engaged in prostitution. Chapter 10 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 defines prostitution as a 'public nuisance'. If all the laws were put into effect no brothel could survive. It is clear that the role of law is dubious in regard to sex trade.
No matter how debatable the issue is, the reality is that women are pushed to be engaged in the sex industry when their basic rights are violated at every level of the society and no alternative choices left except this profession. They are also like other human beings who need food, shelter, education, protection, leisure, dignity at work, love, care and protection from unwanted disease and a violence free life. Most women involved in this work are in a vulnerable position, suffering frequent rape, beatings and robbery at the hands of pimps and clients and harassment including violence from the police. Dubious position of law regarding sex trade has extended their suffering. Hence, will it be injustice to claim their occupational rights?
The author is a national expert, UNDP.