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Sex workers: the most vulnerable of the poor

This article was written by Fintan O'Toole and was featured in an Irish Times supplement about Concern and its work.

“One woman told me she got lost in the city when she was seven years old”

When Shika was murdered, Shanaz Begum and three more of her fellow sex workers found her body and brought it to a Hindu temple in Dhaka. The priest wouldn’t allow her to be cremated. It was a familiar story – both Muslim imams and Hindu priests routinely refused funerals to women who worked in the sex trade.

This time, though, the women decided to fight. After 10 days, Shika’s body was starting to rot, but they couldn’t bear to just dump her. They went to the National Press Club and persuaded some journalists to take up the story. Burial rights for sex workers became a national issue. The religious authorities relented and now, at least in death, these women can take their place as human beings.

Shanaz Begum is president of Durjoy Nari Shanga, one of three organisations of sex workers that Concern supports and works with in Bangladesh. I met a group of women who work in the streets and parks of Dhaka (many others work in formal brothels) to get a sense of the way they and their children are ostracised in a conservative and religious society that has, nevertheless, a flourishing sex trade.

While prostitution is not formally illegal in Bangladesh, thestigma that attaches to it, and that continued after death, until recently, places them among the most vulnerable of the poor.

If it seems surprising that Concern is working to enhance the rights of sex workers, a few minutes listening to their stories should convince anyone that they are indeed, victims of poverty and exploitation.

One woman told me she got lost in the city when she was seven years old and was taken to a Vagrant Home, a kind of workhouse where homeless people and prostitutes are often incarcerated. There, she was raped by the manager, who then left her back on the street. Another woman was 10 when she was assaulted by a supervisor in the garment factory where she worked. Her family disowned her and she went to live on the streets where sex work was her only source of income.

One woman is herself the child of a sex worker. Her mother was promised a job by a man in her neighbourhood, but he actually sold her into a brothel. She herself was born in the brothel. “My parents tried to marry me better, but I was already in the trade, so no one would have me.”

“In this culture,” says Shanaz Begum, “virginity is a girl’s most prized asset and to lose it is a disaster. So it’s not something any girl wants. But if you’re from a poor family and are good-looking, and you have to deliver goods to homes or offices, or to work as a servant in a house, you are subject to harassment. It’s not about sex, it’s about poverty.”

The women I spoke to prefer to work on the streets rather than in brothels because, though they are more vulnerable to violence, they have a little more control over their income. A woman who is now 22 and who has been on the streets since she was 11 told me, however, that there are still three layers of men taking a cut from their earnings. “You take clients to hotels. The hotel manager sets the rates and takes the biggest share – we get 80 taka (80 cent) out of 250 taka. He in turn has to pay off the police. And we have to support our pimps.”

Since 2004, Concern has been working on a five-year project with 3,800 sex workers and 1,200 of their children.

Some of the work is traditional aid-delivery: ante-natal care, vaccinations and HIV and AIDs education; schooling for the children; the provision of training in skills that can give the women alternative ways of making a living.

But much of it has a more radical edge. Concern supports the development of sex workers’ organisations like Durjoy and the Sex Workers Network of Bangladesh to inform the women of their human rights and help to them to acquire a political voice. It also works with other community groups and local government institutions to change attitudes and overcome stigma.

This, in turn, is a way of raising larger issues about the position of women in Bangladeshi society. “If people come to see us as human beings,” says Shanaz Begum, “it’s not just good for us, it’s good for all women.”