Bangladesh prostitutes up in arms

BBC Online, Tuesday 13 July 1999, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK

[ Tanbazar ]
Prostitutes in Tanbazar take to the streets
Some 3,500 Bangladeshi prostitutes have defied orders to evict them from some of the country's largest and oldest brothels.

Authorities in Bangladesh want to close the country's biggest red light district in Tanbazar, outside Dhaka. But some of the prostitutes say they do not want to leave.

The BBC's David Chazan says they complained that a heavier than usual police presence in their areas was discouraging customers and preventing them from earning a living.

The women work in Tanbazar's 18 brothels, a red light district since the British arrived two centuries ago. Now the authorities want to close the brothels and they have promised a $1m programme to rehabilitate the prostitutes and find them other work.

But many of the women do not believe they will keep their word. They say water and electricity have already been cut off in many brothels to try to force them out.

“They have given us nothing. They also did not refund crores (tens of millions) of taka they took as security deposits and savings from us,” said 30-year old Nazma of the landlords who are now evicting them.

But a local politician said it was a chance for the women to start a new life.

“According to … our constitution, prostitution is prohibited. Therefore, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has decided to sanction two crores (20 million) takas to rehabilitate them and offer them a new dawn,” said Awami League MP Shamim Osman.

Protection money

Some of the women say they have children to support and they need to keep working as prostitutes because the money is good.

But not all of them are content in the world's oldest profession. Many are young teenagers who were forced or tricked into entering the sex trade and they want out.

Local citizens' groups and religious bodies complained against the brothel, saying it lured young boys and promoted the illegal sale of alcohol and drugs.

But one of the women said that sex workers were forced to pay protection money to police and local thugs.

“They used to get money from us on a regular basis besides having free sex,” said Sathi, 33. “Now they are trying to throw us out and make our lives uncertain,” she said.

The prostitutes earn up to 1,000 taka ($20) a day but spend half of it on rent. Many of the women said they had struggled to save money but now feared their bank deposits would be frozen.

“We have been living here for so long and did not do harm to anybody. We gave toll to political parties, police, even people in the administration,” said Sathi.

“We will fight to the last to stay here,” she declared.

Aid workers, who distribute condoms to the prostitutes, say it will be easier to control Aids, which is spreading fast in Bangladesh, if the brothels are concentrated in one place.

They fear the prostitutes will scatter but continue to ply their trade and it will be more difficult to monitor them.