Jahan H. is originally from a village in Barishal Division. Her father left her family when she was young, and she came with her mother, brother, and sisters to Dhaka to find work in the garment industry. When she was fourteen, a woman at the garment factory where she worked told her she was going to bring her to a better-paying job and instead sold her to a madam at Kandupatti brothel in old Dhaka. After two years at Kandupatti, Jahan H. married one of her clients and fled the brothel with him. But her husband married another woman in Japan and his parents kicked her out of their house because she had been a sex worker. She then joined another brothel and after six months married another client. That second husband turned out to be a drug addict, and did not provide financial support for her or their two children. He introduced her to hotel-based sex work, in which she engaged throughout their marriage. She divorced her husband in 2002. When Human Rights Watch met Jahan H. in December 2002, she was twenty-six years old. She was taking care of her son and daughter, working as a hotel-based sex worker, and working as a peer educator with an AIDS prevention organization.
She said that in mid-September 2002, she was abducted for forty-eight hours by a police officer and repeatedly beaten and raped.
She was not allowed to leave the room for two days. The officer gave her food—some paratha (a flatbread)—once during the two-day period. She said she was raped two to three other times by police officers in 2002.
Jahan H. was aware of the risks of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. She asked the police officer who raped her in September to use a condom but he refused. He told her, “I am free of all diseases, I don’t care about these things.” In December 2001, she asked another police officer who was about to rape her to use a condom. He replied: “Why should I use a condom with you, you whore? You are not my wife. I don’t care about your children.”
She said that in her experience in Dhaka, police had agreements with hotel owners whereby, once each month, police officers would visit the hotels to collect an “insurance” payment from the hotel owners and to rape the sex workers in the hotel. She said that other times, the police would arrest sex workers to extort money from them.
She also said she was gang-raped by mastans in mid-2002.
When I was leaving the hotel, some mastans forced me to go to [a warehouse]. Seven to eight men were there altogether. They were drinking and one by one they raped me the entire night. I tried to get them not to rape me by saying I was sick with syphilis and they might get something.
All the men raped her despite her attempts to resist. She continued:
In addition to the police and mastans, Jahan H. faced discrimination from ordinary citizens. She told Human Rights Watch that whenever residents in a neighborhood she was living in found out she was a sex worker, her children were harassed and ostracized. Once word was out, she moved. “This happens sometimes after five months, sometimes after two months; whenever they know I have to move.” She said she had moved a total of ten times within Dhaka. Her children had to switch schools each time. For this reason, and also because the children are left alone when she is arrested, she said she wished the government would provide a hostel for sex workers’ children where they could be stable and safe.
Reflecting on her experiences, Jahan H. said, “I am a woman. I have a right to live like other women. But my identity is as a sex worker and not as a human being. No one likes me, everybody hates me.” At another moment, she spoke for herself and her peers: “We don’t want to be treated as whores, but as workers. We work hard every day. It’s our right to say don’t harm us or abuse us.”82
Jahan H.’s experiences are not unusual. Women sex workers in Bangladesh face severe violence and exploitation. Both police and mastans abduct sex workers, rape them, beat them, and extort from them. Although some forms of sex work are illegal under Bangladeshi laws, the detention and arrest of sex workers is often for the purpose of the same kinds of abuse—rape, beatings, and extortion—rather than law enforcement. In December 2002, police officers and townspeople, in the presence of soldiers and army officers, violently and illegally evicted a brothel in a town southwest of Dhaka. Sex workers have no effective means of making official complaints about the various violations they experience. The police also beat and arrest those sex workers working as HIV/AIDS peer educators. Moreover, all of this mistreatment by police and mastans takes place within a context of wider social discrimination and stigma against sex workers, who with their families are generally reviled and demeaned. The actions of police, mastans, and society at large amount to a broad assault on the dignity of these women. One effect of this dehumanization is that it greatly compromises Bangladesh's capacity to fight against HIV/AIDS.
Reliable quantitative information about sex workers is scarce, in part because sex workers are so marginalized. USAID reported in 2001 that “sex workers in Bangladesh are thought to total around 100,000.”83 The experiences of women sex workers vary somewhat according to the venue of their work. The three primary venues are streets, hotels, and brothels. Human Rights Watch’s research focused on street- and hotel-based sex workers. Street-based sex workers, sometimes also referred to as “floating” sex workers, generally contact their clients on the street, often in specific areas established by custom for that purpose. They engage in sex with their clients wherever they are able—sometimes in a park, for example, sometimes in a client’s home. Hotel-based sex workers meet and serve their clients in hotels. Hotel managers often act as brokers or pimps, giving the sex workers a fixed amount of money per sex act. Other sex workers sell sex from their own homes or by visiting the homes of clients who contact them by phone. There is some fluidity and overlap among these various categories. Human Rights Watch interviewed street-based sex workers in Dhaka and Sylhet and hotel-based sex workers in Dhaka and Rajshahi.
The lives of brothel-based sex workers are distinct from the others. Brothels are large complexes of huts or houses where women live, raise their children, and receive clients.84 Because the brothel is a self-contained space run by sex workers, it can provide some protection from violence.85 But for the same reason, working in a brothel means a stark segregation from mainstream society. Women who live and work in brothels are “categorically rejected by the samaj (the moral community).”86 In Tangail, Dhaka Division, where Human Rights Watch visited a brothel, sex workers were forbidden until the year 2000 from wearing shoes or salwar kameezes (which are considered modern apparel in contrast with the sari) outside the brothel. In part because several brothels have been shut down over the past few decades, “the total number of formal brothel sex workers in Bangladesh is diminishing.”87 All of the discussion below pertains to street- and hotel-based sex workers except the section on the eviction of the brothel in Magura.
Many sex workers reported being abducted, raped, and beaten regularly by police officers. Twenty-year-old Durga R., a street-based sex worker, said that in the months before she spoke with Human Rights Watch, police forced her to have sex at least twice every month.88 “In the past year, the police have forced me to have sex with them so many times that it is difficult to count the number of times this has happened. Police never pay for sex and never use condoms.” She said that the police beat her “[a]lmost each and every night.”89
Lani N., also twenty, told Human Rights Watch that she was raped by police officers three times in 2002. One of these rapes occurred in June 2002, when a police officer out of uniform abducted her off the street: “I was going to a customer’s house at around 11:00 or 11:30 p.m. and a policeman in civil dress caught me and took me to a house of another policeman. Four to five policemen forced me to have sex with them. They paid me 50 Tk. [U.S.$0.85] in total and used condoms.”90
Khalifa L., eighteen, said she was arrested at a Dhaka hotel and subsequently abducted on November 25, 2002.
She said that she was bleeding from the vagina after the incident.91
Silpi C., thirty-five and a street-based sex worker, told Human Rights Watch that “[s]ometimes police call to me and force me to have sex with them without pay or condoms.” She recounted an incident from November 2002. “One of the policemen asked me to come to the police station. I was afraid that if I refused, I would be taken to court, so I went to the station.” At the station, ten police officers forced her to have sex with them between 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. on a Friday night. “They were drunk and tried to have anal sex with me. Other policemen stopped them from forcing me to have anal sex. I asked the policemen to use condoms, but they said that they didn’t feel comfortable using condoms and refused to do so.”92
When Layla Y., twenty-eight, resisted being raped by police, she was beaten and held captive. “One night, three police officers came to my hotel room and asked for sex. I was sleepy and refused. They started to beat me, especially on the face, and locked me in the room overnight.” The hotel managers released her from the room in the morning, and she visited a doctor. Layla Y. said she ended up spending 2500 Tk. [U.S.$43] on treatment and missing eight months of work because of her injuries and that her right eye never healed. She said she still experienced frequent headaches, including when she read or watched television, and that she was no longer able to do any fine work such as sewing.93
Khalifa L. was detained in a police station and then abducted and brought to an officer’s house to be raped; Silpi C. was brought to a police station and raped there. These are examples of ways in which the police exploit the power that comes with their positions, whether or not they make formal arrests. In the case of hotel-based sex work, police sometimes strike agreements with hoteliers whereby the police agree not to enforce the law in exchange for the right to rape the hotel’s sex workers. Sadin D., twenty-five, described her experience with police rape this way:
Many of the sex workers who spoke to Human Rights Watch reported suffering frequent beatings and rapes by mastans. Several of the rapes by mastans that they recounted were gang-rapes. Lani N., twenty-two, said that in December 2001, she “was taken by bus out of town and raped all night by thirty-five people.” She was abducted again in late 2002: “I was taken by bus to a place where I was raped by twenty or twenty-two men. I protested and I was beaten.” Lani N. said that after the 2002 gang-rape, she was “very weak and fainted and also fainted a few days later at the train station.”95
Silpi C. also reported being raped and abducted by mastans, including by a gang in 2002.
Sara R., thirty, told of a gang-rape on June 24, 2002. “Some drunkards saw me going home by rickshaw. I showed them my ID card [from the AIDS awareness organization she was working with] but they tortured97 me. They took from me the 200 Tk. [U.S.$3.45] I had.” She asked the men to let her go, “Brother, I am going home after my duty.” But instead of leaving, “[t]hey forced me to have sex. They threatened to beat me. Four to five people held me down and forced me.”98
The constant threat of violence can render sex workers’ lives unstable. Eighteen-year-old Hava V. told this story:
Whereas police exploit their legal authority when they commit abuses against sex workers, mastans draw on their physical force, including weapons, and their status as fearsome, well-connected criminals. Several sex workers reported fearing for their lives. In December 2002, Hava V. told Human Rights Watch that “[r]ecently, a mastan affiliated with the Awami League put a pistol to my head and forced me to have sex with him.”101 Khalifa L. said that she was raped by mastans eight to ten times between June and December 2002. She stated further: “Sometimes I think my life is at risk when this happens and that if I don’t allow the mastans to rape me, they will kill me.102
Human Rights Watch also received a few reports of rape and other physical abuse committed by soldiers against sex workers. The army was mobilized to fight domestic crime during Operation Clean Heart, which lasted from October 2002 to January 2003. Sex workers often expressed fear of the army, and most said they avoided soldiers as much as possible. Durga R. said she was beaten and raped by soldiers in late 2002.
Sex workers said they feared and avoided soldiers in part because of the soldiers’ reputation for exceptional brutality. Shahnaz Begum, forty, is the co-founder and former president of Durjoy, one of the most established sex worker organizations in Dhaka. She related an incident of torture that she heard from one of the victims, whom she cared for after the incident. Begum told Human Rights Watch:
In addition to the relative power of the perpetrators, another driving force behind the violence committed by police, mastans, and the army is the broadly held perception that sex workers are less than human—“spoiled,” they are often called—and that they are fundamentally sexually available. In short, the perpetrators act as if sex workers have lost the right to say “no.” Twenty-four-year-old Shathi T. narrated an exchange in which a police officer denied that she could feel pain.
Victims of sexual violence may suffer many harms, including emotional and physical harms. Among these are HIV and other STDs, which can be transmitted through rape. By and large the rapes documented by Human Rights Watch occurred without condoms. Jahan H. and Khalifa L. both asked the police officers that raped them to use condoms; both were refused. Banu N., twenty-seven, reported facing similar refusals. “Police often beat me and rape me. Most don’t want to use condoms. I ask them to use condoms, but most don’t listen to me. I tell police about diseases that you can get without a condom but most don’t care.”106 Shathi T. also described her attempts to persuade police to use condoms:
Jahan H., Khalifa L., Banu N., and Shathi T. were all involved in organizations of sex workers that conducted HIV prevention activities. They were all aware of the risks of HIV and of the advantages of condom use for their own health and for public health. Rape by police is foremost a violation of their fundamental rights; an additional consequence is that sex workers, no matter what their level of awareness of HIV prevention, can protect neither their own health nor the health of others.
In addition to unprotected sex, another way in which rape may increase the risk of HIV transmission is the physical roughness of forced sex. Genital injuries, including tearing and abrasion of the vaginal wall, increase the likelihood of transmission if the assailant is HIV-positive.108 Echoing the experiences of Khalifa L. and Shathi T. above, Shipna B., a hotel-based sex worker, stated: “Police always have sex in such a way that is painful. They lift my legs up and push hard with their penis. It is very painful. Other customers don’t have sex in this way.”109
The Bangladesh government has recognized the relationship between HIV/AIDS and violence committed by police and mastans against sex workers. With encouragement from NGOs, a question on rape by police and mastans was included in the health ministry’s Second National HIV Surveillance in 1999-2000. Of the street-based sex workers interviewed in central Bangladesh, 60.2 percent reported being raped by men in uniform over the previous year and 50.9 percent reported being raped by mastans in the previous year. In southern Bangladesh, the percentages were similar: 52.1 percent and 40.9 percent respectively.110
In addition to committing sexual and physical violence against sex workers, police and mastans often subject sex workers to extortion. Eighteen-year-old Sarifa F., a hotel-based sex worker, explained to Human Rights Watch: “[M]astans don’t leave us alone because they know we are sex workers. They steal our jewelry and our money. Sometimes they take out a knife.”111 Beauty T., seventeen, elaborated her experience with extortion by mastans this way:
The police sometimes profit from the extortion committed by mastans. Priya Y., twenty-four, said that sometimes outside a hotel, “[t]he mastans take all our money right in front of the police. The police officer takes a tip from the mastan and doesn’t say anything.”113 Witnesses said the police also commited extortion themselves, sometimes on the threat of violence and rape. Hava V. said, “I hide my money in my hair and at my waist because I am afraid of the police attacking me and stealing my money. If I don’t give them money, they beat me and rape me.”114
Another tool for police extortion is the threat of arrest. Silpi C. stated: “When sex workers go to a residence in a rickshaw to do sex work, police often stop them and take money from them. The police threaten the sex workers that if they don’t give them money, they’ll arrest them and take them to court.”115 When Human Rights Watch met Silpi C., she had scars on her right hand and on her forehead which she said were the result of a police chase: “The police asked me for money and I ran away. I fell and was unconscious. Someone took me to the hospital. I was unconscious for three days.”116
The threat of arrest that Silpi C. barely avoided is sometimes carried out. Indeed, many sex workers reported to Human Rights Watch that they had been arrested, but few if any of those arrests were followed by lawful prosecution. Instead, arrest was often a ruse for committing the very same abuses delineated above—sexual and physical violence, extortion—as well as, in some instances, detention of sex workers in vagrancy homes.
According to a report published by the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, “Prostitution by an adult woman (above eighteen) is not prohibited by any law of the land as yet.”117 Brothel-based sex workers, at least, can be recognized under the law. They can register for licenses with a first-class magistrate court, stating that they are working in the brothel of their own will and are over eighteen.118 But the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Act (DMPA) prohibits soliciting another person in public for the purpose of prostitution, and therefore renders at least some forms of street-based sex work illegal.119 The same provision exists in the Metropolitan Police Acts of the five other divisional towns: Rajshahi, Sylhet, Chittagong, Khulna, and Barisal.120 Another law, the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA), makes it illegal to keep or manage a brothel, or to buy, sell, or live off of a prostitute. But SITA does not criminalize the sex workers themselves. 121
The Vagrancy Act, like SITA, is a carryover law from colonial rule. The Vagrancy Act even specifies that it only applies to non-Europeans. The law’s original intent was apparently to insulate colonists from a surge of beggars during a famine in the early 1940s.122 The act creates a process by which “vagrants” are placed in “vagrancy homes” for the purpose of their “rehabilitation.” A vagrant is defined in the act as:
Sex workers are sometimes confined in such vagrancy homes, but a report published by the Ministry of Law concludes that sex workers do not fall under the Vagrancy Act’s definition of vagrancy.124 A 2000 High Court judgment states the same. In 1999, after a complicated fallout between some influential mastans and politicians, the approximately 2500 sex workers in the Tanbazar and Nimtoli brothels were forcibly evicted. Some 300 of these sex workers were detained in vagrancy homes. Human rights groups challenged the evictions and detentions in the High Court. In 2000, the court ruled, among other things, that the evictions violated the right to life guaranteed by article 31 of the Bangladesh Constitution, and that the Vagrancy Act does not support the detention of sex workers.125 At this writing, the decision is being reviewed by the Appellate Division of the High Court.
Of all these laws, then, the only one that prohibits sex work in any way is the DMPA (along with the corresponding acts of the other divisional towns), which bars the sale or purchase of sex in public places. In practice, most of the arrests of sex workers reported to Human Rights Watch occurred under section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides for arrests without warrant.126 Even Attorney General A.F. Hassan Ariff has recognized that section 54 is regularly abused,127 and a High Court ruling in April 2003 required that the section be amended.128 If a police officer was acting in good faith, he or she might initially arrest a sex worker under section 54 and then charge her, within twenty-four hours, under the DMPA. A magistrate would rule on the charge and, if the sex worker was found guilty, would penalize the sex worker according to the sentences provided for in the DMPA: a fine of up to 500 Tk. [U.S.$8.62] and/or a jail sentence of up to fifteen days.129 The arrests of sex workers documented by Human Rights Watch, however, were rarely followed by lawful prosecutions.
Most commonly, arrests of sex workers recounted to Human Rights Watch were reportedly used as means of extortion. Sex workers reported being arrested but never charged or tried. They were held until someone—the sex worker herself, or her friends or family, or the hotel owners who profit from them—paid a bribe for their release.
At seventeen, Beauty T. had already been arrested twice. Both arrests resulted from police raids of hotels. She said the police beat those who resisted coming to the station. She was never charged or brought before a magistrate. Both times, hotel owners “rescued” her for 500 Tk. [U.S.$8.62].130
Sometimes the police demanded and accepted a bribe from a sex worker but then continued to detain her. Durga R. stated, “I have been arrested by police many times. Sometimes they tell me that if I give them money they will release me but sometimes I pay them and they still don’t release me.”131 In the eyes of eighteen-year-old Hava V., who also recounted being arrested for the purpose of extortion, the police were difficult to distinguish from the criminals. “Police are like mastans. They are all always taking money.”132
In addition to extortion, numerous sex workers who had been arrested reported having been beaten or raped while in custody. Shipna B., a twenty-year-old hotel-based sex worker, was arrested in December 2001. She said she was raped for failing to come up with a bribe.
Lani N. recounted an incident from August 2002 in which she was arrested along with five other sex workers. She said that at the police station, all of them were beaten, and all but she were raped. In another arrest, in December 2001, Lani N. said she was arrested along with two other sex workers from the home of her pimp. They were brought to Beani Bazar police station, and Lani N. said she was raped there twice by the same officer. They were transferred to Sylhet police station, held for seven days, and then released when their pimp paid a bribe of 6000 or 7000 Tk. [U.S.$103.45-120.69] for the three of them. Lani N. had to pay back 2500 Tk. [U.S.$43.10] to her pimp.134
When the police arrested twenty-four-year-old Lucky K. in 2000, they harassed her and beat her: “At the police station the constables were teasing me. I didn’t like it. Once they found out what I did [for a living], they tried to kiss me. Then I was angry. The police officer started to hit me with his baton. He said, ‘You can stand sex work but not being hit?’”135
Thirty-year-old Hena E. worked both as a street-based sex worker and as an HIV/AIDS peer educator. The bribe system was so pervasive that she accepted it as a part of life. She objected though to the beatings that she said often accompanied arrests. “When sex workers are arrested by police, money is not the problem . . . because the sex workers are willing to pay money to the police. But being beaten is a problem because sometimes we’re beaten so badly that we can’t work and support our dependents.”136
Despite the law as stated by the AIDS and Human Rights report published by the Ministry of Law and the 2000 ruling of the Bangladesh High Court, sex workers are still sometimes placed in state-run vagrancy homes. Though the ostensible purpose of these homes is “rehabilitation,” sex workers who had been confined in such homes reported that living conditions were poor and that release was often dependent on payment of a bribe. Durga R. said she was arrested and sent to a vagrancy home in early November 2002. She was kept in one home for two weeks and then another home for two weeks before her mother paid a bribe of 13,000 Tk. [U.S.$224.14] for her release. She faced difficult conditions, including sexual abuse from other inmates and vagrancy home staff.
Durga R. remembered the way her mother was treated when she came to pay the bribe for her release.
Shahnaz Begum, former president of Durjoy, said that many Durjoy members told her of sexual abuse in vagrancy homes. Begum said she thought of vagrancy homes as “factories to make sex workers. Street children go to vagrancy homes as children and then the staff have sex with the girls and then the girls become sex workers.”139
When Banu N., now twenty-seven, was eleven years old, a mastan abducted her, raped her, and held her in sexual slavery for six months until she escaped his house. “When I escaped, I was picked up by the police who beat me and called me a sex worker.” Banu N. was sent to a vagrancy home, where she was kept for seven years.
It was after escaping the vagrancy home that Banu N. became a sex worker.
Rahana H., an HIV/AIDS peer educator, was arrested and kept in a vagrancy home in late 2001 for about a month. She also experienced poor conditions. “[O]ne big problem in the vagrancy home is that the food is not good. It is not hygienic and it tastes bad. Another problem is that we were kept under lockup and that if someone protested conditions, she was harassed.”141
Hena E. offered a theory of vagrancy home staff motivations. “The government pays an allotment for every vagrancy home resident. The vagrancy homes are interested in collecting these allotments. Every time a sex worker is sent there, they get another allotment. Vagrancy home authorities want to increase their population.”142
The other side of confining sex workers in vagrancy homes may be ousting sex workers from the places where they already live. One of the country’s fifteen remaining brothels in 2002 was in Magura, a town southwest of Dhaka. In mid-2002, the town authorities had attempted to evict the brothel’s residents and shut down its operation. A network of sex worker and human rights organizations filed a complaint in lower court opposing the action. The Assistant Judges Court of Magura issued a stay, ruling that no such eviction could take place until an adequate rehabilitation plan was developed.143
On December 25, 2002, on one night’s notice and in the presence of soldiers and army officers, local police and townspeople violently evicted the residents of the brothel, destroying homes, beating residents, auctioning off their belongings, and sending them running. This eviction was in direct violation of the court-ordered stay. Human Rights Watch interviewed two of the evicted sex workers the next day. Rupali P., twenty-seven, had a fresh, four-inch-long, crescent-shaped scar from below her eye to her mouth. With Yasmin S., twenty-five, she explained that on the night of December 24, the local police administrator broadcast a message to brothel residents demanding that they leave by 10:00 a.m. A few women left the brothel with their bags at that time, but most, including Rupali P. and Yasmin S., stayed. Leaders and property owners in the brothel reassured sex workers that because of the court-issued order they could not be evicted.
At 10:30 on the morning of December 25, the police administrator came to the brothel and asked the women to leave. Then, in Rupali P.’s words:
The Magura brothel had eleven housing complexes with about 300 rooms among them and some 260 resident sex workers total. Out of the eleven complexes, seven were destroyed. The belongings of brothel residents were put up for auction on the spot; residents were not given the proceeds from the sales.145
Yasmin S. added that the police beat both women and children. Ten police officers tried to beat her up because, she said, she was a leader among the sex workers there. But the army officers present, who otherwise watched the attacks without doing anything, protected Yasmin S. from being beaten. She still lost her home and almost everything she owned: “My house was destroyed. I lost all my belongings, except for some electronics—a cassette player and a television set. My rice and money were also taken during the eviction.”146
The eviction was in direct violation of the lower court stay. The soldiers and army officers watched the illegal eviction without interfering (except, it seems, to protect Yasmin S.). It was widely perceived by brothel residents and sex worker organizations that it was the army’s presence that emboldened local police and mastans to act outside the law.147 The army’s disregard for the law was a salient feature throughout Operation Clean Heart, from the forty-plus deaths in custody to the subsequent law that protected soldiers and officials from public prosecution.148
Though not formalized in law like the immunity granted for Operation Clean Heart, police impunity for abuses against sex workers appears absolute. Sex workers most often laughed at the idea of filing a complaint in response to an abduction, rape, beating, or extortion by a police officer. Again and again, our question about whether a sex worker had filed a complaint was answered with a question: “To whom should I complain when the police themselves are abusing me?” “To whom should I complain?”
Shathi T. explained: “I have never complained to anyone about the police and the fact that they force me to have sex with them and then don’t pay and don’t use condoms. Where would I go to make a complaint? Who would take my complaint? I just discuss this with the other sex workers, like gossip.”149 Lani N. echoed Shathi T.: “I didn’t complain about the police rapes. Why complain? We know how the police are. This is how the police behave. Who are we going to complain to?”150
Those sex workers who did attempt to make complaints said they were ignored and sometimes ridiculed or abused. Durga R. explained that the one time she complained about being raped by a police officer, she was told she should welcome being raped by police for her own good:
After Silpi C. was gang-raped by ten police officers in a police station, she was brave enough to make a complaint.
Hava V. had also made attempts at filing complaints about police officers. “I have made complaints to the police about police beating me but it never helps. The thana police just tell me that they’re going on duty and that they have no time to take my complaint.”153
Sex workers reported that police were similarly indifferent to complaints about abuses by mastans. Durga R. said she has attempted to complain about rapes by mastans.
Mastans also rape me and beat me when I ask for money . . . . I went to talk to the police about this but they never took my complaint. When I tried to complain, they asked me for money and told me to bring them to the person who had raped me.154
When fifteen to twenty men gang-raped Silpi C. in a tea garden in early 2002, police refused to investigate and told her to accept such incidents as part of a sex worker’s life. “I complained about this [the gang-rape] but with no result. Police said that they couldn’t do anything about this. They also said that I was a street-based sex worker, so this kind of thing happens to me.”155
Sadin D. said that she generally does not file complaints about abuses committed against her, but that she did try once. “I once gave a complaint against a mastan who threatened to pick me up from my home and said he would kill me. I went to the police station and filed a case but nothing happened. Police took no action but just asked me for money.”156
As mentioned above, abuses committed by the army during Operation Clean Heart were formally protected from public prosecution by a law passed in February.157 None of the sex workers who spoke with Human Rights Watch reported an attempt to make an official complaint about abuse by soldiers.
The government of Bangladesh’s National Policy on HIV/AIDS and STD-Related Issues recognizes that the success of HIV/AIDS efforts involving sex workers depends on the degree of control sex workers have over their own lives.
And yet sex workers are regularly abducted, raped, beaten, and subject to extortion by the police—the bearers of state authority—and by the nation’s powerful thugs. By decreasing the control sex workers have over their lives, all of these abuses undermine sex workers’ capacity to protect themselves and others from HIV/AIDS.
In spite of the abuses they face, many sex workers have joined efforts to disseminate the knowledge and means of HIV prevention to their peers. Peer education has been shown in many countries to be among the most effective and sometimes the only possible way to bring HIV information, condoms, and other services to sex workers.159 The national HIV/AIDS policy takes note of the importance of peer education: “[I]t should be borne in mind that behavioral change is most likely to occur when sex workers and their clients are actively involved in prevention efforts, for instance by using current or ex-sex workers as educators, counselors and coordinators collaborating with self-help groups.”160
Some of the sex workers Human Rights Watch met do AIDS outreach with compassion and sense of purpose. Lani N. stated simply: “I want to live and I want to save other people and help other people live too.”161 As a matter of national policy, Bangladesh professes to support the health organizations and organizations of sex workers that undertake this work.162
Bangladesh’s support is contradicted, however, by the actions of the police.163 One of the essential components of HIV/AIDS outreach work for and by sex workers, for example, is the distribution of condoms. Shathi T. said that if her organization did not provide condoms the sex workers would not have them. “We are distributing condoms in a confidential way. Usually, women never buy condoms from the outside. In our culture, women cannot do this.”164 But possession of condoms can provoke harassment and violence from the police. Shahnaz Begum, former president of Durjoy, stated: “It’s a common scenario that police beat outreach workers as they sell condoms.”165 Durga R. worked as an outreach worker for Durjoy. She reported that her outreach work was treated with the same condemnation as her sex work.
Banu N. was also a peer educator with Durjoy. She reported being beaten for the mere act of gathering with other sex workers to speak about AIDS.
As a peer educator, I tell other sex workers about various diseases like STDs and AIDS. I tell other sex workers to use condoms to prevent AIDS . . . . Sometimes when I am doing my peer education work and the army or the police see a group of sex workers gathering together, they come and beat us all.167
Mohammed Rahman was a project coordinator for the Bangladesh AIDS Prevention Society, an organization providing health care and AIDS information to hotel-based sex workers in Dhaka. He told Human Rights Watch that of his organization’s thirty-five peer educators, at least seven were arrested between February, when Rahman started with the organization, and mid-December 2002. Two of them were sent to vagrancy homes; three were released; and two were sentenced to five and seven days in jail respectively. He said the two who were sent to vagrancy homes were charged with being sex workers. (Such a charge, according to the 2000 High Court judgment and the Ministry of Law, is unsupported by the Vagrancy Act.) According to Rahman, both women had identification cards showing their positions as peer educators, but the police were unmoved. One woman spent twenty-two days in the home; the second spent twenty-five days. Rahman said that both women were released after paying significant bribes. One paid 8,500 Tk. [U.S.$146.55], which was 85 percent of her usual monthly income.168 He said arrests of peer educators posed a serious problem for the organization’s work.
Peer educators are each assigned to work at particular hotels. If they can’t go to the hotel, other staff members have to fill in and there’s not enough staff to go around and do all the work. It’s harder to distribute all the condoms that they need to without the regular staff support.169
Police harassment pushed one peer educator, twenty-four-year-old Shathi T., so far as to exchange sex for the opportunity to carry out her duties. “When the police try to interfere with my peer education work, I tell them that I’ll have sex with them for free . . . . At the beginning, each and every month I would have to have sex with police.”170 Jahan H. was also an outreach worker. She lamented the way that sex workers are treated even when working for the public good. “I am working for Bangladesh. Bangladesh government ought to help me instead of hurt me.”171
Abuses by police and mastans are part of a context of broad societal marginalization of and discrimination against sex workers. Sex workers reported facing discrimination from neighbors, landlords, doctors, and health care providers among others. Shipna B., for example, told Human Rights Watch that it is hard for a sex worker to find housing in Rajshahi. After she found a job as a peer educator, she had more success, but earlier she “sometimes had to sleep on the river bank or at the train station.”172 Hena E. said that in September 2002, her neighbors found out she was a sex worker and told her that she had to give them money if she wanted to stay in the neighborhood. When she complained to the police, they responded with derision— “You are a sex worker, so why are you here with this complaint?”—and beat her.173
Religious conservatives can sometimes be the source of stigma and violence. The Magura eviction was reportedly supported by local religious leaders.174 And in Sylhet, on the night of June 23, 2002, several students from a madrassa—that is, students who were training to become imams, or Muslim religious leaders—beat a group of ten to twelve sex workers. Sara R. and Silpi C. were among those beaten. Silpi C. recalled being asked why she was standing outside in the night. She replied, “I am an outreach worker with the CARE HIV/AIDS program in Sylhet. I work with sex workers.” The student asked again why she was standing on the road and then began to beat her. Silpi C. was hit on the head and chest and hospitalized for four days. Sara R. was hit by an electric wire and still had scars.175
In addition, cemeteries have traditionally refused to bury sex workers. The Sex Workers National Network, a coalition of sex worker organizations, issued a declaration of demands in June 2002, and one of them was that the government “take proper actions for [sex workers’] burial rights.”176 The June Declaration also demands a change to the current system of birth registration, under which a father’s name is required. Because sex workers often do not know the identity of their babies’ fathers, many sex workers cannot properly register the births of their children.177 Both these demands are as much about basic dignity as they are about practical hardship.
One way in which social stigma reflects itself in sex worker behavior is the fact that many sex workers dress in full burkha (black robes covering entire body and face, often leaving only the eyes exposed) when not working. In Bangladesh, women in burkha are generally in the minority; more women wear salwar kameezes (long tunics over trousers) or saris. Beauty T. explained: “I wear burkha so that no one can recognize who I am, even my relatives.”178
Sometimes there is no place to hide. In late 2002, Sadin D. faced society’s prejudice in the form of a mob:
The prejudice that underlies abuses by mastans and police is apparently widely felt. Sex workers are vilified by every segment of society. (Though, as many of them point out, men from all segments of society come to them as clients.) Shahnaz Begum, the former Durjoy president, emphasized that sex workers are not seeking to overthrow Bangladeshi culture: “I am not asking for independence to dance and sing on the street. Just that we should be considered human beings, like other people.”180
79 The conversion rate used throughout this report is U.S.$1 to Bangladesh Tk. 58.
80 In many places in South Asia, a woman’s jewelry is the one asset over which she has complete control, and represents her security.
81 The army raid Jahan referred to was a part of Operation Clean Heart, which will be discussed further below.
82 Human Rights Watch interview with Jahan H., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
83 USAID, “HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh and USAID Involvement” [online], http://www.synergyaids.com/documents/2976_Bangladesh_brief_rev2.pdf (retrieved June 5, 2003), p. 1.
84 Anthropologist Therese Blanchet described a brothel in Daulotdia, Dhaka Division, this way: “Daulotdia brothel is a large rural village of bamboo huts . . . The prostitutes are distributed in about 350 homesteads (bari) each consisting of a number of rooms (generally six to ten) built around a courtyard. Each prostitute has her own room where she lives and entertains clients. The homestead heads are always women (bariwalli), most of whom maintain more or less stable conjugal unions with male partners who are called bariwalla.” Therese Blanchet, Lost Innocence, Stolen Childhoods (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 1996), p. 124.
85 See, for example, Carol Jenkins and Habibur Rahman, “Rapidly Changing Conditions in the Brothels of Bangladesh: Impact on HIV/STD,” AIDS Education and Prevention, vol. 14 (2002), Supplement A, p. 102: “The brothel system ordinarily works to reduce violence against sex workers by paying off police and mastans.”
86 Blanchet, Lost Innocence, p. 27.
87 AIDS and STD Control Program, Directorate General of Health Services, Government of Bangladesh, “Report on the Second National Expanded HIV Surveillance” (Dhaka: 2000), p. 29.
88 Sex workers often used the phrase “sex by force” (jhore se) and that word choice is reflected in this report. Sex by force constitutes rape under Bangladeshi and international law because it is sex without consent. See, for example, Section 375, Bangladesh Penal Code; Prosecutor v. Akayesu, Case No. ICTR-96-4-T, Sec. 6.4 (defining rape as "a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive”).
89 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
90 Human Rights Watch interview with Lani N., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
91 Human Rights Watch interview with Khalifa L., Dhaka, December 14, 2002.
92 Human Rights Watch interview with Silpi C., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
93 Human Rights Watch interview with Layla Y., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
94 Human Rights Watch interview with Sadin D., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
95 Human Rights Watch interview with Lani N., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
96 Human Rights Watch interview with Silpi C., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
97 The English word “torture” is sometimes incorporated into spoken Bangla. Here, torture is not meant to denote the strict legal definition of the word but rather, roughly, harassment.
98 Human Rights Watch interview with Sara R., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
99 Acid attacks are a serious problem in Bangladesh. The Acid Survivors Foundation, which gives assistance to survivors, recorded 485 attacks in 2002. This was a 42 percent increase from the number of attacks reported in 2001, despite the fact that Bangladesh adopted a law to crack down on acid attacks in February 2002. The Acid Survivors Foundation estimated that 80 percent of the attacks were against women. “Bangladesh: Acid attack victims rally in Dhaka,” Asia Human Rights News, March 10, 2003 [online], http://www.ahrchk.net/news/mainfile.php/ahrcnews_200303/2791/ (retrieved May 27, 2003).
100 Human Rights Watch interview with Hava V., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
102 Human Rights Watch interview with Khalifa L., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
103 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
104 Human Rights Watch interview with Shahnaz Begum, Dhaka, December 10, 2002.
105 Human Rights Watch interview with Shathi T., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
106 Human Rights Watch interview with Banu N., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
107 Human Rights Watch interview with Shathi T., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
108 UNAIDS, “Fact Sheet on Gender-based Violence, Resource Packet on Gender and AIDS” [online], http://www.unaids.org/gender/docs/Gender percent20Package/GenderBasedViolence.pdf. (retrieved March 28, 2003): “In situations of rape, the victim may experience bleeding and tearing of the genital area. This can create passageways for HIV to enter the bloodstream.”
109 Human Rights Watch interview with Shipna B., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
110 AIDS and STD Control Program, Directorate General of Health Services, Government of Bangladesh, Report on the Second National Expanded HIV Surveillance (Dhaka: 2000), p. 47.
111 Human Rights Watch interview with Sarifa F., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
112 Human Rights Watch interview with Beauty T., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
113 Human Rights Watch interview with Priya Y., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
114 Human Rights Watch interview with Hava V., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
115 Human Rights Watch interview with Silpi C., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
117 Institutional Development of Human Rights in Bangladesh (IDHRB), “Mapping Exercise on HIV/AIDS- Law, Ethics, and Human Rights” (Dhaka: Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, 2002), p. 35.
118 Government of Bangladesh, “Report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women” (1997) [online], http://www.un.org/esa/gopher-data/ga/cedaw/17/country/Bangladesh/C-BGD3-4.EN (retrieved June 5, 2003), Sec. 2.5.2; Carol Jenkins and Habibur Rahman, “Rapidly Changing Conditions in the Brothels of Bangladesh: Impact on HIV/STD,” AIDS Education and Prevention, vol. 14 (2002), Supplement A, p. 98.
119 Institutional Development of Human Rights in Bangladesh (IDHRB), “Mapping Exercise on HIV/AIDS- Law, Ethics, and Human Rights” (Dhaka: Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, 2002), p. 36; Human Rights Watch interview by telephone with human rights lawyer Hossain Shaheid Sumon, Dhaka, March 5, 2003.
121 Bengal Act VI, 1933, Sec. 4-9. See also Government of Bangladesh, “Report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women” (1997) [online], http://www.un.org/esa/gopher-data/ga/cedaw/17/country/Bangladesh/C-BGD3-4.EN (retrieved June 5, 2003), Sec. 2.5.2: “There are laws against forcing anyone into prostitution . . .Soliciting is also against the law . . . However there are no laws against a person of 18 of above engaging in sexual activity in exchange or money.” Several brothels operate in Bangladesh, as noted above, despite SITA’s prohibitions against owning or managing a brothel.
122 See, for example, “Human Security in Bangladesh” (Dhaka: UNDP, September 2002), p. 29.
123 Vagrancy Act, 1943, Sec. 3-9.
124 Institutional Development of Human Rights in Bangladesh (IDHRB), “Mapping Exercise on HIV/AIDS- Law, Ethics, and Human Rights” (Dhaka: Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, 2002), p. 36.
125 High Court Division Judgment, Writ Petition No. 2871 of 1999, March 14, 2000, p. 8 and 16.
126 For more information on section 54, see the Background Chapter.
127 “Abuse of Power by Police Must Stop,” The New Nation, February 8, 2002, vol. 2, no. 480.
128 “Detention on suspicion made illegal: High Court issues 15-point directive on lawmen,” Daily Star, vol. 3, no. 1282, April 20, 2003.
129 Human Rights Watch interview by telephone with human rights lawyer Hossain Shaheid Sumon, Dhaka, March 5, 2003.
130 Human Rights Watch interview with Beauty T., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
131 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
132 Human Rights Watch interview with Hava V., Syhlet, December 24, 2002.
133 Human Rights Watch interview with Shipna B., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
134 Human Rights Watch interview with Lani N., Syhlet, December 24, 2002.
135 Human Rights Watch interview with Lucky K., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
136 Human Rights Watch interview with Hena E., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
137 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
138 Ibid. Durga R.’s mother recounted this conversation to her.
139 Human Rights Watch interview with Shahnaz Begum, Dhaka, December 10, 2002.
140 Human Rights Watch interview with Banu N., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
141 Human Rights Watch interview with Rahana H., Dhaka, December 17, 2002. Human Rights Watch did not record Rahana H.’s age, but she looked like she was in her thirties.
142 Human Rights Watch interview with Hena E., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
143 “Eviction of Magura brothel inmates protested,” The Independent, December 27, 2002.
144 Human Rights Watch interview with Rupali P., Dhaka, December 26, 2002.
145 Human Rights Watch interviews with Yasmin S. and Rupali P., Dhaka, December 26, 2002.
146 Human Rights Watch interview with Yasmin S., Dhaka, December 26, 2002.
147 Human Rights Watch interviews with Yasmin S., Rupali P., and members of the Sex Workers National Network, Dhaka, December 26, 2002.
148 See Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network, “Operation Clean Heart: Bangladesh’s Dirty War,” October 11, 1999 [online], http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/hrfeatures/HRF72.htm (retrieved January 13, 2003); “Immunity for actions during anti-terror drive,” The Hindu, February 27, 2003.
149 Human Rights Watch interview with Shathi T., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
150 Human Rights Watch interview with Lani N., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
151 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
152 Human Rights Watch interview with Silpi C., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
153 Human Rights Watch interview with Hava V., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
154 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
155 Human Rights Watch interview with Silpi C., Sylhet, December 24, 2002.
156 Human Rights Watch interview with Sadin D., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
157 “Immunity for actions during anti-terror drive,” The Hindu, February 27, 2003.
158 National Policy on HIV/AIDS, p. 57.
159 One literature review conducted by UNAIDS, for example, found that out of seven of the “more rigorous” studies of the effectiveness of peer education programs, “all but one found that the interventions that included HIV/AIDS peer education had a positive impact on [sexually transmitted infections] or HIV incidence and/or risk behaviour.” UNAIDS, “Peer education and HIV/AIDS: Concepts, uses, and challenges” (Geneva: 1999), p. 21.
160 National Policy on HIV/AIDS, p. 57.
161 Human Rights Watch interview with Lani N., Dhaka, December 24, 2002.
162 Government of Bangladesh, “National Integrated Work Plan on HIV/AIDS,” (Dhaka: 2002), p. 1. This document lays out a plan for the loan agreed upon by Bangladesh and the World Bank in December 2000. See also Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Bangladesh, “Bangladesh National Response to HIV/AIDS Epidemic,” (Dhaka), p. 8.
163 Police abuses against HIV/AIDS outreach workers are not unique to Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has documented similar abuses in India, for example. See Human Rights Watch, “Epidemic of Abuse: Police Harassment of HIV/AIDS Outreach Workers in India,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 5(C), July 2001.
164 Human Rights Watch interview with Shathi T., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
165 Human Rights Watch interview with Shahnaz Begum, Dhaka, December 10, 2002.
166 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga R., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
167 Human Rights Watch interview with Banu N., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
168 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Rahman, Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
170 Human Rights Watch interview with Shathi T., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
171 Human Rights Watch interview with Jahan H., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
172 Human Rights Watch interview with Shipna B., Rajshahi, December 18, 2002.
173 Human Rights Watch interview with Hena E., Dhaka, December 17, 2002.
174 Human Rights Watch interview with Yasmin S., Dhaka, December 26, 2002.
175 Human Rights Watch interviews with Sara R., Silpi C., and CARE Project Officer Syed Shaifullah, Sylhet, December 24, 2002. Brutal as this incident was, the aftermath reflected the potential effectiveness of advocacy by NGOs and offered some small hope for the possibility that police can act responsibly. A representative from CARE took up the case with the police, and there was an investigation the following day. Police arrested three or four students involved in the beating. In the presence of the police, the principal of the madrassa, and CARE representatives, the perpetrators apologized to the sex workers they had beaten. Ibid.
176 “June Declaration by Sex Workers National Network” (June 18 and 19, 2002). See Appendix.
177 Article 7(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that each child “shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality, and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989) (entered into force September 2, 1990, ratified by Bangladesh, August 3, 1990), art. 7(1).
178 Human Rights Watch interview with Beauty T., Dhaka, December 12, 2002.
179 Human Rights Watch interview with Sadin D., Rajshahi, December 24, 2002.
180 Human Rights Watch interview with Shahnaz Begum, Dhaka, December 10, 2002.