FeaturesHuman Rights

Bangladesh sex workers yearn for lost home

Workers protest after 2,000 forced to flee 200-year-old brothel due to alleged threats from ruling party activists.

| Human Rights, Bangladesh, Prostitution, Asia

Sex workers in Tangail and Dhaka have protested against the forced removals [Sourav Lashkar/Al Jazeera]

By

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist and the editor of Xtra magazine.

Dhaka, Bangladesh - The future of about 2,000 sex workers remains uncertain nearly three months after they were forced out of a brothel in central Bangladesh, while the authorities have done little to help their cause.

Most of the sex workers from the 200-year-old Kandapara brothel are now homeless and currently moving around Tangail, a town about 80km northwest from the capital, Dhaka, while some have moved to other parts of Bangladesh.

"The fact that I had a house of my own in the Kandapara brothel just three months ago seems like a dream now," Moyna, who shares a shanty in a Tangail slum with two others, told Al Jazeera.

Moyna, 39, had lost most of her belongings when she fled her home after the July attack that local residents and human rights experts allege were perpetrated by the ruling party activists.

"They had threatened to burn the entire brothel with our families inside," she said.

Moyna claimed that she lost at least 50,000 taka ($645) worth of goods. "I know I will not get them back. But at least the authorities should help us get our homes back," she said wiping away tears.

Turned into rubble

Two days after they were driven out, the deserted houses, in all 56 semi-pucca buildings, were demolished. 

The fact that I had a house of my own in the Kandapara brothel just three months ago seems like a dream now

Moyna, sex worker

With her home gone, Moyna's livelihood has also dwindled. "I can hardly afford two meals each day. The rent of the room is an additional headache," she said.

Sex workers in Tangail and Dhaka protested against the actions last month but to no avail.

Legal experts and rights activists allege that the forced removals at Kandapara is a blatant attempt by the local ruling Awami League party leaders to grab land while capitalising on the taboo of prostitution in this South Asian country of 160 million people.

Set up on three acres of land along the banks of river Louhajang, the Kandapara brothel was an important entertainment spot for the then zamindars or landlords during the British colonial rule.

Over the years, the brothel had become a part of the surrounding areas, although there were two attempts to shut it down in 2006 and 2010. The most recent attempt this year seems to be succeeding.

"We never thought how bad it can get, although we were already threatened by the Anti-Social Activities Resistance Committee (AARC) on July 6 to leave the area," Hashi Begum, a sex worker, told Al Jazeera.

She said that the committee activists led by a Muslim religious leader from the district's central mosque marched on the streets of Tangail demanding the demolition of the brothel. The committee had earlier submitted a memorandum to the mayor and Awami League leader Shahidur Rahman Khan, who had assured them of taking the initiative in consultation with the district administration.

The brothel residents were not prepared for what happened next.

'They left on their own volition'

"On the hot Ramadan evening of July 12, the electricity connections to our buildings were cut," Hashi said. "The crowd, included local ruling party activists, gave us two hours to leave the buildings."

"They threatened to burn everything," Shanti, a sex worker who had lived in Kandapara for over a decade, said. "Chaos ensued as most sex workers took their families and valuables and fled," she said.

After they were driven out, the sex workers returned to the demolished site with hope to regain their properties and livelihoods. The police ousted them from the site two days later [Habib Khan/ Al Jazeera]

According to Nari Mukti Sangha (a women's liberation association) 927 registered sex workers and a few hundred seasonal workers and their family members fled the area on that fateful day.

But mayor Rahman Khan denied that the sex workers were threatened into leaving the area. "They left on their own volition," he told Al Jazeera.

He also said that allegations that the eviction was done to encroach upon land was "false". "In fact, this is a ploy to ruin the image of the ruling party," he said.

On September 5, nearly 300 sex workers returned to reclaim their homes, but realised that their properties were reduced to rubble. "We have returned because we have nowhere to go," said Shanti.

"We paid taxes to the government over the years for our properties and profession. We want to take a stand against any onslaughts," she told Al Jazeera.

Though these sex workers met local authorities, nothing came out of it. Later, police officials arrested at least 50 of them and sent them off to a nearby safe home owned by an NGO.

Tangail Police Chief Saleh Mohammed Tanvir had said at the time that the move was taken to maintain law and order in the area.

Although the local authorities had assured the media that the land where the brothel stood, which are legally owned by the sex workers, will be returned to them in two weeks time, the commitment is yet to materialise.

"The process is still ongoing. Due to the allegations by sex workers that the eviction was carried out to encroach upon their properties, we have kept the area cordoned off since September," Mahbub Hossain, Deputy Commissioner of Tangail district, told Al Jazeera.

"We have asked those claiming to be the rightful owners of this land to come forth and submit their documents to our office. Some people have already submitted these documents. I can assure you, not even an ant will be able to take over this area illegally."

In Dhaka, sex workers demonstrated against the Kandapara attack recently. They also criticised the Tangail authorities for not helping the sex workers regain their homes and return to their livelihoods.

Joya Sikder, president of Sex Workers Network, told Al Jazeera that these forced removals are nothing new, noting that the brothels in Nimtali and Tanbazar of Narayanganj were similarly attacked in 1999.

Prostitution not illegal

At a public meeting in the Tangail municipality auditorium, Rahman had said that prostitution would no longer be allowed in the area. "Like my predecessors, I am against such unlawful activities," he said.

Witness: Daughters of the brothel

But the locals of Kandapara had a different story to tell. Babu Sikder, a local shopkeeper, told Al Jazeera: "We did not have issues with the brothel. In fact, much of our business was due to the brothel."

"It is true that the brothel was looked down upon by many locals especially the elders. But none of them wanted the sex workers to be driven out of their homes," Sikder said.

Sara Hossain, a lawyer and the honorary executive director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, called the eviction "unlawful" and demanded that the allegations of threats be investigated.

"The sex workers cannot be driven out," she said. Referring to a landmark High Court verdict in 2000 which addressed the forced removals at Nimtali and Tanbazar brothels, Hossain pointed out: "The Court had acknowledged that prostitution was not illegal under the law".

She said that the court had also mentioned that although prostitution was not encouraged, such forced removals were unlawful as the sex workers were still citizens of Bangladesh.

"The eviction has instilled a sense of insecurity among sex workers. If the government does not address the crisis soon, there can be similar attacks in the other brothels," Sikder of Sex Workers Network told Al Jazeera.

Follow Syed Tashfin Chowdhury on Twitter: @tashfinster

Source: Al Jazeera

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