The 200-year-old Kandapara brothel in Tangail town wears a deserted look following the eviction of about 600 hundred sex workers. Photo: Star
Tangail municipal mayor Shahidur Rahman Khan Mukti has come up with a most intriguing theory explaining why more than 600 sex workers left the Kandapara brothel in a single night.
If he is to be believed, these women left the brothel in the district because they decided to quit the work they have been doing for years. What motivated them all of a sudden into deciding, and collectively too, to go for a change of profession is not explained.
At the level of the local residents, though, there is a different story. They assert that Shahidur and his men forced the sex workers out in order to grab the land of the brothel and its adjacent areas.
Having been thus forcibly evicted on the night of July 12, these sex workers find themselves in double trouble -- they have nowhere to go and they have no income.
Many have taken shelter on the streets of Tangail sadar. Others are working as floating sex workers.
One of them is 25-year-old Punnyo (not her real name). She said she made the streets of Tangail sadar her home along with some 1500 brothel residents, including children, aged sex workers and middlemen.
She claimed she was sold to a sex trader in Kandapara by her lover, who betrayed her trust, a few years ago.
"Inside the brothel, customers had to pay and I had some kind of guarantee of financial security. But now, heroin addicts assault me on the street, force me to have sex with them and leave without paying."
Akhteruzzaman, director of Population Service and Training Centre, an NGO implementing the health ministry's national HIV-AIDs prevention programme in 12 brothels of the country, said such unplanned eviction of the sex workers was fraught with great risks.
"We used to supply every active sex worker with condoms for free," he said. "Sex workers are at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). We used to give them two strong antibiotics every three months as per WHO and health ministry's guidelines."
Both the programmes have now been hampered, he said, adding: "How can we locate them now?"
Akhteruzzaman cited a study by ICDDR, B that shows floating sex workers are at greater risk of HIV-AIDs and STDs than those in brothels.
After the eviction, Punnyo and a group of about 150 other sex workers are constantly on the run in fear of retribution by local goons and those who drove them out.
"They are driving us away from this town," said Punnyo.
She described how on Monday night someone posing as a customer contacted her and made a deal to buy her sex for Tk 30, about eight times less than she got in the brothel. As she went to the agreed place, the man beat her up and left.
"I'm hungry. I don't have a place to live and I can't go back home," she said, "I left the brothel at 9:00pm on Saturday night, without a penny. So unlike many sex workers who were a little well-off, I could not move to other brothels in Mymensingh or Jamalpur."
In fact, there is no way to go back to the Tangail brothel either.
Visiting Kandapara on Wednesday, this correspondent found about 20 labourers knocking down the rooms built on over 300 decimals of land.
Asked why they were doing it, they said the owners had sold the bricks of the rooms.
Abdul Mannan, one of the owners living close to the brothel, said he owned 10 decimals of land and that he sold the bricks of his rooms.
"I am not going to rent this place to sex workers any more," he said, adding that nobody had forced him or other owners to knock down the structures.
"I will go to the mayor and seek his advice on how best the land can be used," he added.
One sex worker, who claimed to have owned 11 rooms there, said, "How can I sell anything? I am running for my life," she said.
According to her, of the 357 decimals of land there 310 decimals belonged to 49 sex workers.
But the municipal mayor, Shahidur, said most of the land was owned by 51 locals. "One or two of the owners might have been sex workers but now they live in other neighbourhoods."
Talking to reporters on Tuesday, he caused fresh surprise when he said he was not aware that the sex workers had been evicted.
But he admitted to The Daily Star that he was present at a meeting where members of a local mosque committee had spoken about demolishing the brothel.
"I am the chairman of the mosque committee. I was attending the regular monthly meeting, where a few people stood up and delivered speeches on the issue," he said.
"Their non-violent movement had been going on for long, and we did not realise anything like this would happen. And there is nothing to be done if someone willingly quits his profession."
The district administration is aware of the eviction and its consequences.
Mahboob Hasan, deputy commissioner of Tangail, told members of the Sex Workers Network on Tuesday that he would look into their demand for a resettlement of the evicted sex workers.
But the victims do not see much of hope.
"Do you think I can ever get back to my land?" said a female owner who rented out about 20 rooms in the brothel.
"I was forced to sell the bricks of the rooms at a loss of 40 percent. If we had the courage to stand up against the eviction, we would not have left the 200-year-old brothel on a single night," she said, requesting anonymity.
(Our Tangail correspondent contributed to this report.)