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28 February, 2020 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 28 February, 2020 12:10:18 AM

Sex workers also deserve dignity in death

Brothels are by no means new additions to our social structure, and neither have they been forced on us as part of some devious imperialistic/colonial plan
Syed Mehdi Momin
Sex workers also deserve dignity in death

In two momentous events, a couple of sex workers in Daulatdia, the largest brothel of the country were recently given proper burials with janaza prayers offered by local priests. The credit goes to the local police officer, who influenced the imams to offer funeral prayers, and other sex workers who felt that time has come to shed many of the restrictive taboos that paint prostitutes as pariahs at best or immoral creatures below human dignity at worst.

In an age where social perspectives are changing, denouncing a profession which is older than most existing religions in the world is hardly a practical approach. Many communities regard sex work as immoral, but from a realistic angle, it has to be admitted that for thousands of years, the brothel has played a part in keeping society stable by providing legal physical relief for men. The English writer Rudyard Kipling is believed to coin the term “oldest profession of the world” while talking about prostitution–the more politically correct term for which is now sex work. Be that as it may selling one’s body for money is indeed degrading to the individual. It is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of the people who take up sex work do not do so out of choice. More often than not one resorts to this profession is when they find no alternative.

Brothels are by no means new additions to our social structure, and neither have they been forced on us as part of some devious imperialistic/colonial plan. They came into being to fulfill certain needs of the society and helped curb crimes like rape and sexual harassments. The function of a brothel is simple really. These provide opportunity for men to relieve sexual tension. There is no doubt that is unfortunate that some of the brothel inmates are forced to become sex workers, but the fact is the concept of an ideal society is a Utopia. Once brothels feature counselling on health, medication, education, and other relevant issues, a brothel-based sex worker can have an improved life–surely much better than being streetwalkers.

According to suggestions of various researches carried out globally, it can be estimated that as many as 10 million children are engaged in prostitution worldwide. Child prostitution exists in all the countries, irrespective of their level of economic development; the problem is observed in its severity in Asia and South America. Legal brothels, if the authorities take strict measures to regulate it, can ensure removal of minors from the profession, thus protecting their rights and confirming their safety.

In brothels there are regular medical checkups of sex workers and provision of adequate birth control tools. These obviously reduce the risk of sexual diseases being transmitted from workers to customers and vice-versa. A recent study carried out in Australia highlighted the fact that the prevalence of sexually transmitted bacterial infections was 80 times greater in 63 illegal street prostitutes as compared to 753 prostitutes working in legal brothels. The situation should not be too different in Bangladesh.

Scores of researchers from across the globe showcased substantial evidence to suggest that decriminalising sex work will significantly reduce the rate of STD transmission among sex workers and their clients, and also ensure that those already infected can be easily identified and given access to treatment. In places where sex work is criminalised you tend to find a community that is extremely vulnerable and marginalised, where [sex workers] are subject to abuse in the healthcare system and more generally don’t enjoy the same set of human rights applicable to the rest. When a country criminalises sex work it tends to push people underground and away from social welfare services. For centuries, these women, providing a vital service to society’s more intimate needs, have remained in the shadows – their lives locked up within the walls of licensed brothels. Society selfishly used them to quell physical needs but refused to grant them social recognition, either in life or in death.

Accepting that an unblemished life is but a thing in fiction, we can make efforts to ensure that women in sex trade are given proper support in health, education, skills development, so at one point they can decide if they want to stay in a brothel or leave to pursue another profession.

Instead of stigmatizing sex workers in brothels, the focus should be to ensure that red light areas are run properly and underage girls are not forced into the flesh trade.

There are too many murky areas within the sex trade that need to be addressed first, ranging from the enslavement of women by the madams to the sale of unsuspecting adolescents by unscrupulous brokers, who are mostly men. Simply denigrating sex workers won’t improve the condition of thousands of women while demanding all women to renounce the sex trade is also absurd.

Our association with sex workers speaks of the ultimate hypocrisy -- their services are used when needed, especially at night, but they are shunned during the daytime. An analogy can be made with the habit of going to a bar. Most drinkers coming out of the bar after a few drinks will try to appear as unobtrusive as possible, trying to mingle with the public to ensure that no one notices from where he has come out. The inherent shame is always there; even the regular drinker does not want many to know about the drinking habit.

Since this profession will remain to fulfill a major social need, the least we can do is to give recognition to the women as humans, not only in death but also in life. Since religion should not be about propagating insular views, more maulanas and imams must talk about human dignity of sex workers and their right to an honourable burial.

The root causes of prostitution are poverty and a dearth of opportunities. Women find themselves on the streets with mouths to feed, and for many prostitution offers a quick fix. The fact that sex workers are in an illegal trade means they have no legal protection. They can’t approach police if a client refuses to pay after availing their services, because they know they would be exploited, and if they resist, the police will take them in for violating one law or the other. And in this religiously conservative society, civil society groups have a hard time raising the issue of the rights and protection of sex workers. Before the Tangail eviction, no one from the administration, NGOs or human rights bodies came to stand beside the sex workers. The entire process was carried out with such speed, executed before anyone could make sense of what was happening.

The Constitution of Bangladesh declares that the state shall adopt effective measures to prevent ‘prostitution’ as a fundamental state policy, and there are various restrictive laws. Interestingly and ironically though, an adult woman can enter sex work by making an affidavit with a first class magistrate’s court or with a notary public that she is above 18, the legal age of maturity, and doing it willingly and consciously. Even more ironically, it is illegal for them to to solicit and that is a punishable offence. Sex work occupies an ambivalent position in our legal framework, where soliciting and pimping are considered criminal offences, but sex work within brothels by adult women is not considered illegal. By not giving sex workers legal protection, the whole country is being subjected to health hazards and exposure of the sex workers to inhumane and degrading treatments. If you have laws, there will be stringent requirements. There will be more scrutiny, practice of safe sex, sex workers’ children will be looked after, the government will acquire tax, and activities and the health of the sex workers will be monitored properly.

This will also lead to solving the issues of underage girls forced into the trade, women and children trafficking, underage pregnancy, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases. Sex workers are entitled to all rights that a woman has, or a citizen has, but in the law, there is no mention of the term or their legal protection and this is the root problem. It is due to this that they are so vulnerable and their right to protection is violated severely.

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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