There is a lot of talk these days, about what constitutes a threat to our society and our way of life. Everyone is up in arms about the ceding of public spaces, and about the health of our national identity. Positions are being taken and lines are being drawn according to what is perceived as unacceptable and unconscionable, and rightly so. But if everyone is so concerned about social health, moral fibre and public spaces, why doesn't anyone talk about the very visible prostitution explosion in Dhaka, when simultaneous with all other explosions buildings, rickshaws, cars, universities, pedestrians, political parties- the sex workers have also multiplied? Every foreign diplomat, the Chief Adviser, every industrialist, most NGO and social workers, journalists, religious personalities, me and all my friends have noticed this - sheepishly.
Surely such an awkward occurrence should leave us with something more than an embarrassed expression on our faces and a dirty thought in our minds? It seems it doesn't, since this goes on under our very noses and no one appears particularly ashamed or offended yet. But there are always many ways of looking at anything, and this is no exception. We could see it as the empowerment of women or we can call it their enslavement; it is either the relaxation of social taboos or the erosion of social values; it is freedom of choice and profession or it is choice-less desperation, whichever way we look at it, we can always end up with an indicator. People love indicators. Key Performance Indicators, Economic Indicators, Human Development Index, Stock Market Index, Foreign Currency Index - our lives are awash with indicators telling us about the health of things like reports from a doctor. So here's another one. I am cleverly calling it the PPA index: The Prostitute per Area index.
So what does the PPA do? Well, for a start it tells us that women are selling themselves on the streets. This isn't a new thing, by any means. What is new however is the volume and coverage. Emerging from a few shady streets and back alleys, sex workers have now begun to chalk out territories that include virtually every street corner including the main roads and arteries. They are plentiful and everywhere, even in front of the mosque on Gulshan Avenue. The more successful ones have taken to wearing semi-expensive clothes while some are even in jeans and tank tops. The PPA index tells me that more sex workers are roaming more streets, coming out earlier (around seven in the evening these days), getting younger, wearing better clothes and carrying themselves more boldly than ever before. Evidently, business is booming and everyone wants a piece of the pie.
Like any good index, the PPA exists to help us understand the factors behind the phenomenon. That's what an index seeks to quantify -- the causes and outcomes, so that we may say a rise on the Human Development Index for example, indicates better sanitation for all. Once this is done, it is supposed to help us examine the consequences of these results. So, to properly understand the PPA, we have to have a look at what goes on behind the statistics.
Why are there more sex-workers on the streets? Well, the closure of popular brothels in and around the city hasn't helped the matter. Granted, it was a good move, and a step in the right direction if one wants to outlaw prostitution and the exploitation of women and girls who are often drugged and forcibly kept in deplorable conditions, but it doesn't change the fact that these women or the pimps associated with them are in need of a source of income. That's why they were there in the first place. Simply closing brothels, like smashing slums, can't really do any good in the long run. You might expect that a government would know that, but then in Bangladesh we've come to expect the unexpected. So out they came, into plain view. More sinister causes include a growing demand, a growing supply, human trafficking, sex slavery, an unforced choice, desperation, lawlessness and indifference.
The growing demand can be ascribed to a population boom and to the influx of migrant workers from regional areas. The city is packed with people who aren't from Dhaka. However this would be that much truer if solicitation were occurring in lower income neighbourhoods, but it's not; it's swelling in upscale areas sparked, no doubt, by the relative affluence of its residents. The PPA shows that sex workers tend to converge near diplomatic areas, around guesthouses and in front of homes of the wealthy and influential. Their services are most likely being employed by household staff, drivers, guards and other such workers who may be in Dhaka alone, far from their families. At least we'd like to hope it's limited to just them. Sexual repression and/or depravity would have to be another reason for the rise in demand, fuelled on by pornography and an increase in disposable income; however it's not the demand side of this equation that causes the most concern. It's the steady increase in supply that is at the centre of our seedy little story.
Who are these women? They are coming from the lowest income brackets - this is self evident, and are usually villagers living in slums adjacent to our neighborhoods. Many are women abandoned by unscrupulous men who married them for the dowry and then found another family to scam. Others are put on the streets by their husbands who marry them just to peddle them in this way. Some of them have children. All of them have sorrow. These women, who are as hard as nails and as brave as boulders stand on the roads every night, selling their dignity to make a living. Every night, they risk abuse, disease, disgust, disfigurement, degradation and death to make their rent and food money. Every night they either have to do this choose to do this, or someone else profits from this. Every night we will all ignore it.
We should be so ashamed of ourselves because of the fact that the socio-economic conditions that have enabled such a climate to prevail, is entirely our handiwork. We haven't left them with too many choices, haven't provided them with too many opportunities, but mostly, we haven't cared enough to do so, and desperate people will always take desperate measures. Without making any moral comment on their professional choices, I think I can still say that choosing to be a sex worker can't be something anyone takes lightly. On the other hand, I think I can make a moral and ethical call if the choice to be a sex worker is taken without any serious consideration at all - some sex workers are college-going girls, who do this as a means to make extra money. Either way, we will have played our part in putting her there by neglecting to create a social infrastructure that she could have relied on, by failing to provide civic, moral or any other kind of education on a popular level, by giving her no access to legal redress or providing her with any of her basic citizens' rights and by not addressing the problem at its root, that is at the place where exploitation and economics meet. We are culpable because we haven't recognised those rights, responsibilities, authority and society are all interconnected elements.
Some might say that there is no real problem with such a situation. That prostitution is only abhorrent if one views it from a particularly prudish point of view. There is truth in that argument, but there is also truth in the argument that unregulated prostitution leads to an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, results in countless women and children being left without any form of familial or social security, encourages their peddling either personally or through agents, promotes infidelity and provides a business opportunity that is predicated on exploitation and temptation. It also makes our streets unsafe as they become the haunt of people who are following their base lusts, and causes other non-sex worker women to be harassed and propositioned when they happen to walk down those same streets. Equally, it makes it difficult to explain to an adolescent girl, why women are standing on the streets soliciting, while simultaneously teaching her to be modest and careful. That's why most countries that consider prostitution legal create zones where it can be practiced and issue bills of health for practitioners. There is always a more responsible way of doing anything, even this. In the long run, rampant, unchecked prostitution harms the sex worker, the user and the society at large in ways that are not always immediately apparent. Like rust, you will hardly ever see it build up, but you will certainly see it once it's there. In a physical, social and spiritual sense, turning a blind eye to this trend will eventually just cause rot.
Religion and culture, in their non-esoteric incarnations, exist because they promise to promote the well being of individuals and a society. This is their primary, if not only, purpose. They propose to protect the spiritual, moral and physical health of the person and the nation. Implicit in this, is the belief that these will help a people find their way towards social justice and good governance. Social erosion doesn't occur because someone erects a statue or because someone else pulls it down. Our society isn't at risk because it's likely to lose its pluralism to the dogmatic interpretations of religion, nor is it threatened because pluralism in religio-cultural expression will lead us away from moral cohesion. This is really not the point at all. We, and by extension our society are decaying because we have lost complete sight of fact that there are some vital duties that accompany any functioning social system. Whatever we define ourselves as, as Muslims or Bengalis, as proponents of culture or promoters of dogma, as neither or as both, we can't define ourselves as decent or as legitimate until we are able to address the very real problems which affect the people whose bodies, hearts, minds and souls are at the centre of every ideological tussle and who are most grossly affected by our continuing negligence.
We'll never get it right until we recognise that to the sex worker and the destitute it makes no difference who wins the battle while they keep losing the war.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008