The commercial sex trade is said to be geographically and culturally ubiquitous in nature. As the above quotation suggests, the reality of the situation resembles that of any market transaction, where the supply of sex workers is driven by demand. Yet stigma is often limited to the supply-side of this transaction and reinforced by laws and social values. ‘Women who work in the sex industry are often seen as immoral beings, while men who pay them for their services are not’  . Despite being a global phenomenon, commercial sex work is far from homogenous, varying in magnitude, characteristics and conditions not only between countries and regions but also within the industry itself. Sex work in Bangladesh is synonymous with exploitation and sex workers face multiple forms of deprivation and are extremely marginalised in society. This essay aims to explore these issues within the context of brothel-based sex work by incorporating previous research and personal experience. It also attempts to include the opinions expressed by women within the industry. As the empowerment of women has been widely acknowledged as an important goal in international development, it is imperative that the plight of these women be addressed.
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Situated in the north-eastern part of South Asia, Bangladesh is almost entirely surrounded by India, except for the bordering coastline of the Bay of Bengal to the south and a short frontier bordered by Myanmar to the east. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The country has a population of 160 million, with a corresponding population density of more than 1000 per square kilometre  . The capital city of Dhaka has an estimated population of more than 8 million and is rapidly expanding. Bangladesh materialised through humble beginnings and in many ways it is still recovering from the 9 month liberation war of 1971. Although much progress has been made since independence, this relatively young country is not without struggles, some of which are more visible than others. These struggles have manifested themselves in a variety of forms and affect many aspects of life in Bangladesh. For instance, the World Bank reports that almost 50% of Bangladeshis are still living under the poverty line, ‘making Bangladesh one of the poorest countries in the world’  . Bangladesh is a patriarchal society and as with other developing countries, gender discrimination is relatively widespread among families and in society. Gender hierarchies are particularly visible in underprivileged rural households. Son preference, male bias and female disinheritance have adverse affects on a girl’s access to education and health care. Girls from poor rural families migrate to cities in search of employment as domestic workers or in Bangladesh’s booming garment industry. With very little skills or education, these girls are extremely susceptible to dangers in unfamiliar cities. Against this backdrop, the situation of women in the sex trade is highly precarious.
3.1 International Context
(the law & implementation)
According to sources, an estimated 60,000-200,000 women are engaged in commercial sex work in Bangladesh  . One can argue that these are conservative figures given the absence of survey statistics and difficulties in measuring the number of floating sex workers. Women joining this profession are driven by poverty, lack of livelihood opportunities and social pressure or negative circumstances. Many other young girls are procured from poor rural families and forced into the trade by those who reap enormous profits from this lucrative business. Irrespective of how a woman enters the trade, she is considered impure, a fallen woman, a woman who belongs to the market. Even if she were to leave the profession, social acceptance would escape her; ‘once a prostitute, always a social deviant’  . Whereas the poor are universally denied certain rights, sex workers are in an even more marginalised position. Although the state prevents prostitution, if a woman over 18 signs an affidavit certifying her age and self-will, she can sell sex with legal sanction. This affidavit is not a trade license but just a statement without legal value. Thus, ‘a sex worker bears all the legal responsibilities of her trade but does not get any support from the state or law to protect her rights to this livelihood’  .
It is argued that policy makers and development donors have taken these women into consideration largely because of threats of deadly diseases permeating society from their forbidden quarters. Whilst Bangladesh has a HIV prevalence of under 0.1% among the general population, the World Bank has said that risk factors could fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS among high-risk groups. These factors include the large commercial sex industry, low consistent condom use, high client turnover and prevalence of sexually transmitted infections among sex workers  . Incidentally, one of the challenges to tracking the current prevalence of HIV/AIDS within the sex industry and among the general population has been the lack of HIV surveillance data in recent years. Since 2006 there has been no publication of reports  . Nevertheless, as sex sellers and buyers are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, the government and civil society organisations have been implementing many disease prevention programmes. Figure 1 shows that between 1999 and 2003, brothel-based sex workers in Bangladesh displayed a low consistent condom use compared to other Asian countries. Indeed, high client turnover and low rates of condom use signal a probable HIV/AIDS epidemic but an overwhelming majority of sex workers have other immediate concerns such as exploitation and threats of eviction.
Figure 1: Condom use of brothel-based sex workers 
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gradually realised that HIV/AIDS cannot be the priority agenda and that social and legal changes were key to empowering these women  . While social and policy level lobbying and empowerment schemes aim to give these women an opportunity to get involved in the process of change and to get organised, the government’s controversial past decisions to forcibly evict in the name of rehabilitation have worsened conditions. In 1999 for instance, the largest and oldest brothel in Bangladesh, Tanbazar, was forcefully evicted and closed down. It has been argued that it was political motives and not the goal of rehabilitation that drove this eviction campaign. The brothel landlords, who were affiliated to the opposition party, had established themselves as some of the most influential men in the community and this was a threat to the local MP. The women of this brothel were caught in the middle of this power struggle. Despite publicised protests and the support of dozens of human and women’s rights organisations, the sex workers were left more destitute than ever. An article following the eviction stated that ‘although the government is claiming that the 300 women in different shelter homes had sought rehabilitation voluntarily, the women maintain that they were brought forcefully’  . Additionally, the detainees had reported that employees of government shelter homes physically and sexually abuse the women. Not surprisingly, closing the brothel did not eliminate the demand for prostitution and the evicted sex workers continued to sell sex on the streets. It has been suggested that programmes not following a rights-based approach, such as forced eviction and mandatory rehabilitation, are likely to fail because coercive treatment is unacceptable in terms of human rights and ineffective in combating HIV/AIDS  . Thus, it is imperative to include sex workers as active partners within these programmes.
In recent years there has been a shift in social development approach due to the steady rejection of top-down methods. Over the past two decades for instance, the United Nations and other international organisations have emphasised the mainstreaming human rights into activities and programmes  . This shift from a charity or needs approach to a rights-based approach highlights the empowerment of socially excluded people by involving them in the development process as active agents rather than beneficiaries. As per CARE International’s definition, a rights-based approach ’empowers people to claim and exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities’  . This approach focuses on people’s ability to achieve the minimum conditions for living with dignity by recognising marginalised people as having inherent rights  . Sex workers have become increasingly involved in the process of empowerment. For instance, NGOs that were implementing the HIV/AIDS Prevention Programme (HAPP 2000-2007) trained and employed many sex workers as peer educators and outreach workers. Through discussions with these peer educators, I came to know that not only did they feel empowered by the fact that they had respectable positions but they also felt that they could help a lot of vulnerable girls who would otherwise have no access to health care facilities  . One of the peer educators took me to a house to talk to a residential-based sex worker. The house was situated far away from the main road, deep in the back alleys of Old Dhaka. Once there, I could find nothing that distinguished this small bungalow-like house from all the other houses down the road. As the peer educator introduced me to the girl and her ‘owner’ (female head of the household), I realised how difficult it would be for this bonded girl to demand her rights. She hardly spoke and although she claimed to be 18 years old, it was quite obvious that she was much younger. Without the advocacy and rapport building by someone who has been in this profession, it would almost be impossible to reach these isolated girls.
Figure 2: Trend of condom use
Figure 3: Mean fee per visit per clientDespite relative achievements of rights-based intervention, there are of course still operational barriers within this industry. For example, even with awareness building and condom promotion, in many cases clients refuse to practice safe sex and sex workers must oblige. Preventative intervention such as condom promotion focuses on educating sex workers who in turn motivate their clients. This may be effective in cases where clients are fully motivated but condom use is especially difficult to enforce among police, local thugs, rickshaw pullers and students. Furthermore, research reveals that condom use for street-based sex workers decreases from the first to the last client (Figure 2)  , perhaps due to the lack of condom availability as the night progresses. Condom use is also dependent on fees paid by the clients (Figure 3)  ; decrease in fee accompanies the decrease in condom use. It is argued that the introduction of a fining system for male clients who refuse to use condoms or brothel owners who fail to supply condoms would be beneficial in promoting safe sex.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to visit a group of hotel-based sex workers in Kawran Bazar, Dhaka. Here many claimed that some clients refused to use a condom even after the girls’ attempts to persuade them. When asked what they do in such cases, some replied that they would refuse to have sex. Others said that they would give in; hinting that if they refused every client wanting unsafe sex, they would earn very little. In other cases where sex workers refuse to have unprotected sex, clients may also resort to violence; as one of many sex workers points out ‘if I do not give in, they beat me, they torture me a lot’  . The difficulties in implementing and enforcing safe sex practices can also be addressed from within the industry through a rights-based approach. The World Health Organisation asserts that interventions to promote safer sex must be integrated into an overall effort to ensure safety of sex workers, promote health and well-being and protect their rights  . Furthermore, if the sex workers are united and organised then they can raise their own demands and improve working conditions from within the industry.
As mentioned, one of the major challenges in the process of empowering these women is the lack of legal recognition and social stigmatisation of the women in this trade. Local and international organisations such as CARE Bangladesh, Family Health International and Nari Maitree motivate sex workers to get organised, provide legal aid, medical care and training on human and legal rights and skills training. NGOs have had a pivotal role in the formation of self-help groups. Self-help groups can mobilise the community and focus on overall health, socio-economic well-being and human rights of their members. With the help of NGOs, self-help groups organise savings schemes, information dissemination sessions, self-defence classes and nurseries for children of sex workers. They also refer sex workers to relevant organisations when they are in need of assistance. This creates an enabling environment for the women. One of the first such organisations was Nari Mukti Sangha which was formed in 1997 by sex workers of the Tangail brothel. A year later the street-based sex workers organisation, Durjoy Nari Sangha was established. Both these organisations were registered with the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and both have recorded many achievements in improving working conditions. For example, sex workers in Tangail did not have the right to burial and their bodies were thrown into the river. Now thanks to Nari Mukti Sangha, Tangail brothel has its own graveyard where sex workers are laid to rest.
Much of the NGO-led activities may be relatively effective but they are limited by funding, resources, programme longevity, capacity and scale. Without the support of donor agencies, NGOs are unable to continue programmes and without NGO-backing, self-help groups do not have sufficient funds to implement organisational activities. Incidentally, the mismanagement and misuse of funds is common among some NGOs. It is important to note that the main beneficiaries of the commercial sex business, such as police and procurers or pimps, are also reluctant to improve conditions for sex workers. In order to further understand these obstacles this essay will analyse the dynamics of a workplace; the brothel.
3.3 Inside a Brothel
Figure 4: Brothels in Bangladesh
Brothels have been described as ‘institutions that society creates on its margins for sustaining the poor and the helpless women who fall through its safety net’. The sex workers are considered mere pawns in this underworld trade, controlled by powerful men (brothel landlords, procurers of sex workers and the police) who reap the benefits. Currently there are 14 acknowledged brothels in Bangladesh housing more than 10,000 sex workers. Figure 4 shows the locations  . These brothels vary in size but share some common characteristics, including the presence of underage sex workers, abuse by madams or female brothel managers and police harassment.
‘In my whole career as a sex worker, I have not found one single woman coming to this profession voluntarily and without any compulsion’
-Leader of sex worker’s association 
Figure 5 illustrates the life cycle of sex workers and the internal hierarchy in a brothel. The most vulnerable stage in a brothel-based sex worker’s life is when she enters the industry at the bottom of the brothel hierarchy as a bonded girl. Coming from poor rural families, the girls are often victims of trafficking, coerced by fake marriage proposals or well-paid job offers made by procurers  . For others, the sex industry is the only option available for survival because of inadequate income, insecurity in other jobs and sexual abuse inside and outside the workplace. Many of the sex workers I spoke with shared their experiences of physical and sexual abuse in their previous jobs or at home. The shame of rape, abandonment or betrayal and the need to provide for their families meant that taking refuge in brothels became their last resort to a livelihood. It was evident that these women were victims; subjects of male violence, betrayed by loved ones, failed by the state and rejected by a patriarchal society that perpetuates male bias and holds women accountable.
Independent sex workers
Madams/Female brothel managers
Girls entering sex work
Old & former sex workers
(13-17 years)Figure 5: Life cycle of female sex workers in a brothel
Bonded girls continue to be victimised within the brothel, facing torture and abuse at the hands of madams who are notoriously violent. This cycle of exploitation continues because today’s bonded girl is tomorrow’s madam. Becoming a madam is the goal of almost every sex worker because this is her only security or prosperity after retirement. However, this goal is only attained by a selected few who are rich and well established women. The majority of old and former sex workers remain within the brothel working as maidservants, running errands or finding clients. Inevitably, such women have to live off the charity of others. Madams, on the other hand, aspire to save enough money to buy acceptance in society after leaving the profession; a desire that is seldom realised.
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New girls are starved, beaten and gang-raped in order to break down their resistance. Madams, brothel musclemen hired by landlords and thugs working on behalf of madams all play a part in the brutal process. Bonded girls have to spend a period of at least 1-5 years in bondage during which time they essentially have no freedom or rights. Numerous research highlights the fact that madams torture their girls and often force them to have unprotected sex with clients if the client is willing to pay a higher rate; ‘they charge more from clients who want to have unsafe sex but they do not pay us much. If we fall sick they do not allow us to leave’, said a sex worker in Dhaka  . However, the relationship between a madam and her bonded girl is more complex than that of exploiter and victim. Although brothel madams seem to be a part of the power structure, they are in effect victims of social rejection and pawns in the hands of those who really control the brothel.
3.4 Gatekeepers & Beneficiaries
(why the trade is accepted)
‘During raids police behave unkindly; they beat us, cease our money, ornaments and mobile phones and force us to have unsafe sex with them. If NGOs cannot control the policemen we are unable to protect ourselves. We can motivate our clients but not the police. They have the power to harass us and send us to jail’
-Brothel-based sex worker 
Beneficiaries outside the brothel include the local police who are powerful lords of the brothel. As all the brothels in Bangladesh are situated near a market or a central place in town with a police station located nearby, police regularly extract money from sex workers and madams  . To ensure that sex workers are of age and consenting to sex, girls in the brothel must register their name and personal information at the police station. This becomes an opportunity for policemen to extract fees for every new girl entering the brothel. As Figure 5 suggests, an overwhelming number of bonded girls are underage, often as young as 13 or 14. The madams obtain an affidavit on their behalf, stating that they are 18, consenting to the sex trade and very poor. In fact a large number of these affidavits are obtained through bribes. The police are also responsible for maintaining law and order within brothels. There are numerous cases of police abusing these responsibilities and extracting money from the girls and madams. Brothel raids exacerbate police violence as sex workers who are rounded up during raids are beaten and coerced into having sex in exchange for their release.
Some organisations that provide health services to sex workers stay in permanent contact with the police to educate officers on the harmful effects of their actions. This gives organisations an opportunity to confront abuse of the law by individual police officers. To reduce discrimination and violence against sex workers, it is recommended that gender and human rights training be provided for police officers  . Conducting sensitisation workshops for police and law enforcement authorities can reduce harassment and interference in prevention and outreach programmes that are essential for brothel-based sex workers  . Though legalisation of sex work is debatable, violation of human rights by those who are employed to uphold the security and rights of citizens, is unacceptable. By definition, a system that allows these criminals in uniforms to exploit defenceless women and girls is a failed system. Brothel ‘rescue’ raids and verification of age and consent solely serve the interests of corrupt officers. This avenue of intervention is failing to reduce the number of underage girls in brothels and is propagating the cycle of oppression. Whilst legal aid organisations such as Ain o Shalish Kendra play a vital role in offering legal representation for sex workers who have been subjected to police violence, it is often difficult for the most vulnerable girls to obtain this support  . Outreach and advocacy programmes, self-help organisations and community mobilisation through the motivation of gatekeepers make health care and legal aid more accessible to sex workers. Field researchers agree that these girls are too frightened to talk about their harsh living conditions. Inaccessibility to these workers makes it essential for sex worker-led initiatives. Successful sex workers organisations, such as Calcutta’s Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee which represents more than 65,000 sex workers, require funding, capacity-building and technical support  . There is still some work to be done before sex worker organisations in this country reach their full potential and become self-sufficient organisations but it is definitely a feasible aim for the near future. Last year, a member of a sex workers’ organisation in Dhaka said their organisation occasionally helped underage girls escape from the industry. But escaping is only the first step. There must be a structure in place to re-integrate these girls into the greater society. The work of NGOs in this field is commendable but the state and society as a whole must also play its part in protecting the rights of these marginalised women.
Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh states that ‘All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law’. This implies that women within the sex industry are equal and entitled. It also suggests that no one is above the law, regardless of their political affiliations (landowners of brothels) or job descriptions (police). Sex workers are the victims of this industry and yet they are systematically disempowered and criminalised within the current framework. As it is mandatory for the state to prevent prostitution and uphold the Constitution, it is imperative to consider the demand for commercial sex and to hold clients as much accountable as the sex workers. Parenthetically, if the state is serious about tackling prostitution then there must be an investigation into why this remains the only livelihood available for these women. As a long-term goal a holistic supply-side intervention programme could be designed to encompass the following:
Preparation Safety for vulnerable girls entering any form of employment: village-level and city-level training to know their rights, self defence, registration system with human rights organisations, gender sensitisation for both male and female workers, monthly counselling at work, better reporting system on sexual harassment in the workplace, ‘buddy’ system for late shifts so girls don’t walk home alone, increasing security of girl’s hostels, rape alarms and rapid community response.
Prevention Girls about to enter the sex industry: village-level advocacy, village reporting scheme of potential procurers, prosecution of procurers, counselling girls who are considering this profession and providing alternative livelihoods.
Protection Sex workers: community mobilisation, advocacy, counselling, upholding human rights of these women such as eliminating police violence, access to health provision, mainstreaming children of sex workers and reducing social stigma.
Options Sex workers wanting to leave the profession: incorporating former sex workers into programmes, providing life skill training and voluntary rehabilitation, reducing social stigma at every level through education and advocacy and providing alternatives to the sex industry.
It is often far too easy to make generalisations about this industry and the answers or solutions seem apparent. Yet the reality is that the sex industry is multifaceted and ever changing. An even harsher reality is that this industry exists within a country plagued by poverty, gender bias and corruption. As easy as it is for me to offer generic suggestions, the cooperation of the state and implementation of such ambitious programmes is a near impossible dream. Nevertheless, conditions are slowly improving and a large number of dedicated individuals and organisations are advocating on behalf of sex workers throughout Bangladesh. Change doesn’t happen overnight and although it may be a very long time before women in this industry are fully recognised and empowered, I firmly believe that progress is inevitable.
‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ 
This paper has endeavoured to serve a minuscule portion of a very large cake and in doing so it has perhaps only scraped the marzipan surface. Indeed, various organisations have dedicated a great number of years to helping members within the sex worker community and they have slowly collected information in order to produce in depth portraits of women engaged in this industry. The women themselves have been empowered by this process and have contributed greatly to the betterment of living and working conditions. Everyone is born free and equal, but the ability to insure this freedom and implement this equality varies. There remains an immediate need to reform the power structure that tolerates police violence against sex workers. The state, policymakers and society in general must be committed to recognising and upholding the rights of sex workers as citizens. Finally, alternative livelihoods and prevention schemes must be accompanied by simultaneous methods to tackle the demand-side of commercial sex. One must realise that we are passive observers and also direct or indirect participants in the construction of marginalisation. The global community can positively or negatively influence the views towards women engaged in this industry. International and national organisations and perhaps more importantly self-help organisations must continue to work as support systems for the marginalised group and work towards a more inclusive society. Everyone will live in freedom and equality in dignity and right; an idealistic and perhaps non-achievable goal but nonetheless a goal worth working towards.
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