Is Sex Work, Work?
The other night I was sitting by my window submerged in Kathleen Barry's ground breaking book on female sexual slavery, and suddenly I heard a sharp voice pierce through the stillness of night-air, 'kaaj korba?'
There was a young woman in her mid twenties wearing a white shalwar kamiz standing on the pavement opposite to my house. The sodium light fell upon her, and I could see her face as she spoke again, 'kaaj korba?' I assumed that she was talking to someone, but I couldn't see who it was since the other side of the street was dark. I had little trouble understanding that this woman was a sex worker, and she was asking a man, most probably a young boy (since she called him tumi: kaaj korba?), if he wanted to buy some sexual pleasure out of her that night. It is not uncommon to see sex workers roaming around in Gulshan.
When Tanbazaar and Nimtali brothels were evicted in 1999, and Kandupatti in 1997, one of the major concerns of the women's groups and NGOs was that the eviction would disperse sex workers around the city, as a result of which a) availability of street based sex workers would increase, b) larger access will be created especially for young men, and c) finally risks of STDs and HIV AIDs would let loose. That is exactly what had happened, not to mention the increased suffering of women who are involved in this profession.
Whether or not sex work should be considered a profession is a long standing debate, but the immediate truth and urgency of the situation lies in the fact that we can see no way in the near future to put an end to men's need for hired sex, thus whether we recognise sex work as a profession or not, it is, and will continue on.
The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh says, "The State shall adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution and gambling" (Artclie 18 ). However, there is also provision for an adult woman to take up prostitution by making an affidavit with a First Class Magistrate's Couth with a Notary Public. This provision is proof enough that the state doesn't prohibit selling sex, rather by introducing the affidavit option the state makes it legal on the part of the pimps, and other beneficiaries of the sex trade to employ women without any legal intervention.
Most of the women who are bound to sex work have little or no rights. They are forced into the profession by abduction or trafficking. Some join prostitution after being tired of getting raped on the streets over and over again. When we see young street children, we must think twice while looking at the girls, because one of the most unfortunate and unavoidable fate that awaits street dwelling girls is rape.
Every woman fears rape. Sometimes it is considered worse than dying because of the psychological trauma, and the social stigma that arises as an aftermath. For those of us fortunate women who have had safe enough lives not to get raped or end up in prostitution, live in a world that is utterly different and 'other' than the one inhabited by sex workers. Their lives and experiences are constructed as normal for them while it is completely obscene and impossible according to our 'normal' standards. It is this type of contradiction that helps us to focus on society's need to channel its perversion into a realm of untouchability to constantly exploit a group of women for the fulfillment of male sexual fantasies. As social stigma around prostitution is profound in our culture it further hides the sex workers from the social sight of us so called 'bhadraloks' and 'bhadramahilas.'
We may choose to deny the existence of sex workers in Bangladesh, but there are actually thousands of them working in the twelve well known brothels around the country, and many scattered around the country, working on the streets.
A girl of ten who may be gang-raped and then sold to a brothel has little help available to her from the society. Once a girl has crossed the boundary by losing her virginity, and stepping over the threshold of the red light zone-nobody is willing to take her back. Sabina Khatun of Naripokkho points out that the majority of the sex workers are providing money to support their families, though they are not welcome to go back home. Similarly, many sex workers have lovers or husbands who they give money to on a regular basis (even for his other wife and family!) simply out of the intense desire to receive love and affection. Sabina, the coordinator of Shonghoti, a coalition of 86 voluntary organisation networking and advocating human rights for sex workers says, 'one major problem is guardianship rights for sex workers with children.' Sabina pointed out that it is a common phenomenon among sex workers to give birth to, and raise their own children. In most cases the identity of the father is not disclosed, therefore, these children remain as illegal citizens unable to attend schools or access any other facilities.
The only hopeful side to the whole scenario of sex work in Bangladesh is the stunning survival stories of women who survived the brutality of sex work, and attempted to come out of it to seek a new identity for themselves. After all, it takes a lot of patience, and high spirit to come out of the atrocity of prostitution, swallow all the social stigma and marginalisation, and finally organise on a platform to help others who are suffering.
Women at Durjoy have set an example by organising a platform to demand rights as sex workers. It all started off on January 14, 1998 when CARE Bangladesh's SHAKTI (Stopping HIV AIDs through Knowledge and Training Initiatives) project in conjunction with Naripokkho held an workshop with street based sex workers from Dhaka, Tangail, Jamalpur, Mymensing and Narayanganj. The most immediate concern of the sex workers was not HIV, but police brutality, mastaan atrocities, denied access to the legal system and health care, and finally the well being of street based sex workers' children. Ten selected sex workers from this workshop were sent to Kolkata the same year to attend a conference organised by Durbar, an organisation based in Shonagachi, the biggest red light area in Kolkata. The women at Durbar were very well organised; they even had a cabinet minister attend their meeting, and they raised the slogan of 'gotor khaaitiye khai, sromiker odikar chai' in order to claim rights as working women. This conference was an eye opener for sex workers in Bangladesh who came back, and immediately got together under the platform of Durjoy Nari Shongho with the support of CARE Bangladesh on February, 1998. Durjoy functions through eight drop in centers (DICs) in Dhaka city to provide a resting place, health care and access to legal aid to street based sex workers. Durjoy with the support and guidance of CARE Bangladesh is disseminating information to help prevent HIV AIDs. Durjoy identifies its urgent goal to establish the fundamental citizenship rights for sex workers and their children. Women at Durjoy have participated in various research projects on sex workers in Bangladesh, they have written in books, newspapers, and journals, and finally they run a childcare centre for children of sex workers.
One of Durjoy's agenda is to establish sex works as a legalised profession. The chairperson of Durjoy, says, 'even if with all these women working as sex workers, there are so many news of rape and sexual abuse everyday, think about what might happen if there were no sex workers!' She does have a point, and it makes us ponder about the rising rate of sexual violence, forced prostitution, and trafficking of women around the country. The government policy of condemning sex work via the Constitution and validating it on the other by the affidavit option is quiet ambiguous. It rings a bell to the patriarchal framework of statecraft, which is reluctant to ensure the rights of those women who have been forcefully put into prostitution for the sexual fulfillment of the male members of our species.
The least we can do as privileged individuals is to simply acknowledge these women as survivors of continuous violence and deprivation, and shift our sense of stigma from these women to those men who actually force young girls into this profession and sustain them for the purpose of fulfilling a perverse desire to master, manipulate and exploit female sexuality.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005