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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 256
September 30, 2006

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Human Rights Analysis

Continued exploitation deters rehabilitation of sex workers

Syed Taposh

Owing money to 'leaders' is a common problem for sex workers of brothel areas in Bangladesh. Development organisations have identified it as one of the barriers that slowed down the process of rehabilitation of sex workers. Though there are some initiatives taken by different projects of GOB or NGOs at different brothel areas to provide financial assistance to sex workers in forms of grants, micro-credit supports etc. with the objective to rehabilitate them in society, but in most cases the amounts provided were not adequate to fulfil their requirements as they 'owed a large amount of money to their leaders in brothel areas. A big amount of money is needed to clear the general sex workers from this 'debt' bondage in the process of rehabilitation. While different NGOs or projects give money to sex workers to start business as an alternative livelihood after rehabilitation, the general sex workers need more money to free themselves from the grip of 'leaders.'

Normally, being raped, tortured, deprived, cheated or threatened in most cases by their own kins or close acquaintances, women or girls are forced to accept the profession of sex worker losing all their hopes for life. They get entrance to the brothel areas through a process in which the 'leaders' pay money to different people for different purposes in the process. From the date of their entry to brothel areas, they start owing money to their leaders. Leaders pay money to brokers or pimps to 'buy' girl or woman, to lawyers for affidavit (locally called as 'licence'), to the policemen to release them from police station and finally to some other people to ensure smooth entry in brothel areas.

After one enters the brothel area and starts her journey as sex worker under the guidance of the leader, from the 1st day she starts repaying the amount from her daily sex work income. The amount starts to increase from the day her profession as sex worker starts and income increases automatically on daily basis. She stays in brothel and it grows up, never to be repaid!.

Not only for food or cloth, the sex workers need money for other purposes also. Excessive sex work, unruly behaviour of clients during sex work, prolonged use of cheap skin lightening creams etc. cause harmful impact on their body which decreases their attractiveness but their balance of debt to leaders increases because the leaders also pay for the purposes above mentioned. The sex workers have to please different types of people and need money on a regular basis for treatment of STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases). This amount is also given by their leaders as loan. In this way they become tied to their leaders in a financial bondage. Sometimes they die with a load of debt due to their leaders. They can't save money from their daily income as the income is not enough for personal saving. Some young sex workers earn a lot of money but they don't have choice. They must have to hand over their hard earnings to leaders because the leaders create a captive situation in brothel areas. Actually, the captive situation does not allow them to save from their income.

Some NGOs working in brothel areas have micro-credit activities for sex workers. But the amounts go mostly to the leaders. While the young sex workers sacrifice their body and will but live hand to mouth, the amounts contribute in making the leaders richer. Increased debts to leaders drive the sex workers away from happy life and NGOs with rehabilitation activities face barriers of financial liability. The NGOs are aware of the situation in brothel areas but not able to fight with the leaders because they are powerful with support from different sources. In fact NGOs which have regular activities inside brothel areas avoid confrontation with leaders because of fear of harassment to their staff who have to visit brothel on a regular basis.

In the process of rehabilitation under a scheme of a project of DSS financed by the UNDP, the sex workers at Jessore and Doulatdia brothels were provided with an amount of Taka 10,000 (ten thousand) each to start business after resettlement. The initiative experienced negative pressures of money they 'owed'. Though large number of general sex workers welcomed the move but were reluctant to accept the help because of their inability to repay the amount they owed to their leaders with the limited fund. Through motivation for long time by NGO workers under project, the sex workers had been able to develop positive attitude towards rehabilitation or alternative livelihood and developed their skills in different trades through participation in vocational trainings but this kind of 'debt' diminished their hopes and aspirations.

However, there are some success stories also. Ms. Rima (not her real name) a sex worker at Maroary Mondir Lane of Jessore brothel was motivated, trained by the project and left the brothel area after she got married to one of her clients. But it was possible only because her leader Ms. Tina (not her real name) allowed her to go out of brothel. Ms. Rima didn't have to pay the money she owed to her leader. Thanks to the leader. But not all the leaders are like her. It may be mentioned here that Ms. Tina was also a beneficiary of the project who got skill development training from the project and developed a positive attitude towards alternative livelihood. She is now working for an NGO as part time worker and planning to take alternative livelihood. Ms. Kakoli (not real name), another sex worker of Maroary Mondir Lane of Jessore brothel is not able to leave brothel though attended training on different trades under project because she owes a large amount of money to others.

Because of rights based approach and empowerment efforts of different NGOs, the sex workers are now able to raise voice on different issues. They now attend meetings with other people in our society. In a meeting held at Jessore at the office of the Deputy Commissioner in 2004, the sex workers requested the project authority for more financial support for their rehabilitation.

In Jessore, some organisations which have activities inside brothel areas on a regular basis formed a forum of NGOs. These organisations run different activities for sex workers and their children inside or outside brothel areas with the help of brothel leaders. The forum members decided to prevent violation of human rights in brothel areas. Some other organisations which have legal support or shelter activities but don't have activities inside brothel area have been included in the forum as the forum members don't want to face any conflict with leaders of sex workers to avoid harassment of their staff during work inside brothel. Within two months of formation of the forum, the forum recovered one girl from the grip of a leader at a brothel called Jhalaipatti and the girl took shelter in a safe-home of a forum member (an NGO). Though enough preparations were taken to hide the identity of those forum members (3 NGOs which have taken the responsibilities to monitor and inform the authority about violations) who made the recovery possible by lawyers of a legal support providing organisation under the forum, the information was leaked out and some staff faced the wrath of the leaders during their daily activities inside brothel areas.

The author is site coordinator-Jessore & in charge of Doulatdia UNDP Assisted Project.


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