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8 February, 2016 00:00 00 AM

Brothels: Eviction not the solution

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
Brothels: Eviction not the solution

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 resort to this profession is when they find no alternative.
Having said that it is also true that in every society there are people who are willing to pay for sex and the demand can only increase. Even in the most conservative of societies there is commercial sex work and Bangladesh is no exception.
In the last couple of decades there a number of eviction drives have led to the closure of several brothels. Self-appointed custodians of morality have time and again stormed into different brothels, using time-worn rhetoric–appealing to moral and religious sentiments– to dismantle centuries-old facilities and drive out sex workers onto the streets without any thought given to rehabilitating the inmates. Only last year at Faridpur, a similar incident happened where women working in such an establishment had to flee, leaving their possessions behind.
In most cases the drives were carried out ostensibly motivated by the desire to uphold values of society and getting it rid of so-called evil influences. However in the overwhelming majority of such cases these people had an ulterior motive – mainly occupying the land on which the brothel was established.
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 harrasments. 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.
Evicting sexworkers is not the solution. Rather it increases the number of floating sex wokers who are vulnerable to diseases, extortion, and crime. It’s simply outrageous that when women in brothels are evicted, they are not given an alternative mode of living.
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 sexworkers 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
The eviction of brothel inmates has not stopped sex work in Bangladesh. Far from it. As a matter of fact sex trade is thriving in the country. What was once relegated to dark alleys of the small red-light districts is now seeping into many neighborhoods of country's urban centres. Sex workers recently evicted from the brothel in Tangail have sought refuge and new work spaces in hotels and residential areas in Tangail town. Some have taken to walking the streets. Others reportedly have also migrated to adjacent areas such as Daulatdia, Jamalpur and Mymensingh brothels.
While displacing the prostitutes might have temporarily made the once small red-light district a better neighborhood for the time being, it did little to stop the now dispersed prostitutes from plying their trade. Reforming a neighborhood, instead of offering education and alternative opportunities, is at the core of the failure to curb the sex industry. This mistake has meant that the tendrils of the sex trade have become omnipresent in cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, Narayanganj, Rajshahi, not to mention smaller towns, villages and rural outposts. Short-time hotels offering hourly rates can be found all over major cities, underscoring the profits being reaped by the sex industry. As in many societies, access to technology, the Internet and mobile phones has only facilitated the sex trade in Bangladesh. Many so-called “matchmaking" websites serve the male clientele, while providing marketing for prostitutes.
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 sexworkers. 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 sexworkers 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.
According to Aparajoy Bangladesh, a NGO working for the rights of sexworkers there are roughly around 15-20 licensed brothels in the country but the number of floating sex workers is alarmingly high. That segment is more vulnerable to violence and risk. Based on the survey and research conducted by the government of Bangladesh and several NGOs recently, there are approximately one lakh sex workers all over the country. Yet not one of them has been included in the registration of voter ID cards for the upcoming elections. It is as if they are not considered human beings. This proves that they are denied of the basic rights, even the right to citizenship to their own country. ‘Not only are they not recognised, but also never offered the economic, psychological and social services they need. The criminal justice system only exacerbates the problem and violates the civil and human rights of sex workers in the process. ‘Instead of protecting the safety of sex workers, laws and law enforcement agencies are more often the tools of persecution. Social discrimination is also a kind of violence against sex workers, because it marginalises them and renders them isolated and defenceless. The social view towards these women only makes it a harder problem’ points out Firdous Azim, member of Naripokkho and professor, BRAC University.
‘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.’ said Sultana Kamal executive director, Ain O Shalish Kendra and former advisor, lawyer and human rights activist.

The writer is Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at:


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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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