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The Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam made this exhortation, perhaps to the colonialists who ruled what was then an undivided Bengal, in “Day-Laborers”:

If you torment here a single soul

The pain resounds in a crescendo

In the aggrieved hearts of all others.

Insult to a single person here means

Humiliating the whole of humanity251

Momtaz Begum, president of the Sex Workers' Network of Bangladesh, told Human Rights Watch that there is a saying among sex workers that the penalty for killing a sex worker is one taka twenty-five paisa, the equivalent of two American cents. Even that, she said, is never paid. Raped, beaten, robbed, hated—sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users are not counted as people in Bangladeshi society.

Today their plight lies at the intersection of two great challenges for Bangladesh: its crisis of law and order and the threat of a massive AIDS epidemic. Sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users see the harshest face of a widely corrupt, violent, and exploitative law enforcement system and an unchecked reign of thugs. The government tried to crack down on crime by mobilizing the army in late 2002, but that mobilization itself resulted in many abuses, and left the civil law enforcement system unchanged. Meanwhile, the country is at the edge of what could be a devastating AIDS epidemic, and the abuses by police and mastans against these vulnerable groups degrade exactly the people most needed as partners in fighting the epidemic. Only if their rights are respected will these persons have the power to educate their peers, to protect their own health, and to protect the health of others.

In regard to both challenges, the situation of sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users represents an opportunity. If Bangladesh can end police abuse of these groups and protect them from abuse by mastans, the nation will have made critical progress, both toward strengthening its fight against AIDS and toward creating an effective, rights-respecting law enforcement system. The nation also will have extended a measure of basic human dignity to people to whom dignity has been long and brutally denied.

251 Kazi Nazrul Islam, “Day Laborers,” in Kazi Nazrul Islam: A New Anthology, ed. Rafiqul Islam (Dhaka: Bangla Academy Press, 1990), p. 111.

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August 2003