Violence against female sex workers in Dhaka city
Sex Workers Network (SWN) organized a research findings dissemination session titled "Qualitative study on violence among the female sex workers in Dhaka City, Bangladesh" on September 22, 2022. The study was funded by CREA, an international feminist human rights organization. Here we publish a summary of the discussion.
Furkan Hossain, Chairman and CEO, Research and Management Consultants Ltd.
The Sex Workers Network (SWN) is leading the coalition of 29 community-based organisations of sex workers and, therefore, it is well-acquainted with the real scenario of violence experienced by sex workers.
SWN recently conducted a qualitative study titled 'Violence among the Female Sex Workers in Dhaka City'. The purpose of the study was to understand various forms of violence that female sex workers experience in Dhaka City. The study also identified ways to prevent these violence and exploitation.
Two types of data sources were used for the research -- primary and secondary sources. As primary sources, we took in-depth interviews of 40 female sex workers (FSWs) and conducted eight Focused Group Discussions (FGDs) with 49 female sex workers. The study team also did 15 Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) to collect information about policy, key interventions and recommendations.
Previous study reports such as Mapping study and size estimation of key populations in Bangladesh for HIV programs 2016, National AIDS/STD Control Programme (NASP), Integrated Biological and Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) 2020, AIDS/STD Programme (ASP) were used as secondary sources.
In 2016, the National AIDS/STD Control Program (NASP) divided female sex workers into several categories such as street-based, hotel-based and residence-based. The study team has tried to find out whether these categories have changed over time.
From August 15 to September 5, 2022 the study team collected data in Dhaka North City Corporation and Dhaka South City Corporation. They focused on three categories of female sex workers: Street based Female Sex Workers (SBFSW), Hotel based Female Sex Workers (HBFSW) and Residence based Female Sex Workers (RBFSW). The study findings reveal that the settings/catagories of sex workers have changed significantly. Now, a FSW works in multiple settings in the city.
Among the 40 female sex workers, 31 received some sort of schooling, formal or informal, and 29 are below or 30 years of age. The study finds that most of the participants live in rented house. They generally live with their husbands or alone. 37 FSWs had their first sex under 17 years of age, and 55 percent of the study participants had their first sex against their will. 10 participants are now involved in various occupations such as housemaid and garments worker, besides being sex workers. 77 percent FSWs earn more than 15,000 Tk per month from sex work. However, 31 study participants shared that they were forced to give a share from their earnings to dalals (pimps), members of law enforcement agencies and babus.
The study further reveals that 19 FSWs went outside Dhaka to have sex with their clients within the last 12 months. Most of them went to Cox's Bazar with their clients.
Among the 40 participants, 27 became pregnant at least once and 17 of them at or under 17 years of age. 26 participants had abortions/MR and 76 percent of them had abortion/MR on their own will.
55 percent of the study participants use smartphones, and among them, 95.5 percent use imo and 52.6 percent use Facebook. They face various types of online harassments by the clients such as blackmailing and threat of sharing of images and video online.
The study reveals that all the participants faced violence while working outdoors; indoor workspaces were also not safe for most of them. The most common forms of violence they face are being beaten up by clients, threat of physical violence and rape attempt. Some of them were also raped by their clients.
The dilemma regarding sex work as a profession prevailed among sex workers and key informants due to legal barriers. Some of them regret being sex workers as society doesn't accept them or their children. Schools don't allow their children to study, and therefore, the children go astray; boys become drug peddler or engage in petty crimes, and girls often choose their mothers' profession. FSWs struggle to find suitable housing and they have to pay high rent. They suffered greatly during COVID-19 due to the lack of savings, food and clients. They had to borrow money with high interest rates. They also faced police violence during the pandemic. Sex workers are in total darkness about the laws that can safeguard them. They also believe that the government wouldn't be able to bring the issue of their rights into a legal framework in Bangladesh.
The doctors and male pharmacists, according to the female sex workers, don't treat them well. However, they get better treatments from the NGOs. 37 out of the 40 female sex workers received COVID-19 vaccines.
The study made the following recommendations:
- Engage and organise female sex workers so that they can demand their rights
- Establish a dedicated helpline for sex workers so that they can report violence and seek support.
- Establish day care center or shelter home for sex workers' children
- Sensitize government officials about the rights of sex workers as human beings
- Provide internet safety orientation to sex workers
- Develop an advocacy framework for preventing violence against female sex workers and improving their health and social well-being.
- Mobilize resources for supporting the sex workers network and its member organizations
- Conduct more research on the problems faced by sex workers
Aroma Dutta, Member of Parliament and Member, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Welfare
Understanding the life of sex workers in Bangladesh is not easy. They lead a vulnerable life and face a lot of challenges such as harassment, violence and denial of basic rights. The study has done a recommendable job in finding out the problems faced by female sex workers in Dhaka city. However, the study has mentioned nothing about the class dynamics of FSWs which has a significant impact on their life.
We need to ensure that all the sex workers get benefits of the social safety net programmes as a citizen of Bangladesh. They must be provided with NID cards. They should also be provided with technical training so that they can become entrepreneurs and find alternative livelihoods.
The SWN should identify the loopholes in the implementation of the laws regarding the protection and welfare of sex workers in Bangladesh.
Dr. Lima Rahman, Director, Health, Nutrition & HIV/AIDS Sector, Save the Children
We don't have much data regarding stigma, violence, and discrimination against sex workers. Although this research is not a national-level study, several of the indexes from this study are very useful. I would request data triangulation such as finding out the changing patterns of violence among sex workers and the reasons behind young married women coming to this profession. These additional data will help us choose a right direction and design our programs better.
Aleya Akhter Lily, President, Sex Workers Network
The study tried to understand the nature and magnitude of violence against female sex workers in Dhaka city. It also tried to find out some effective solutions to this problem. We are presenting the findings of the study to experts and activists to get their feedback and formulate an action plan to combat violence against female sex workers. We are seeking support from all of you since the Sex Workers Network would not be able to bring the change alone. We will enhance our engagement with all the relevant stakeholders, including decision-makers, concerned ministries, and donor organizations to carry forward the cause.
Dr. Rawnak Jahan, National Consultant, UNAIDS
Due to the lack of representation from sex workers in today's programme, we have missed the opportunity to know about their observation and demands. Although we have gained some significant insights, a larger sample size would have been preferable.
Sex workers typically lack savings, and they don't get support from the social safety net programmes. Many sex workers become dalal in order to subsist after retiring from their profession. Thus, it is crucially important to engage in advocacy with the relevant agencies to ensure social protection supports for the vulnerable elderly female sex workers.
Abdullah Al Hasan, Technical Coordinator, Advocacy & Capacity Building, CARE Bangladesh
The study followed the four settings mentioned in the National AIDS/STD Control Programme (NASP), 2016. However, the study should have included two more settings -- spa or massage centres and dance bars. The study only mentioned physical violence; we need to look at the psychological aspects of violence as well.
The government has taken a few good initiatives such as establishing one-stop crisis centres, shelter homes and a hotline number to combat violence against women. I don't think any special helpline for sex workers is required at this moment.
Jahanara Khatun, Assistant Program Manager, Naripokkho
The Sex Workers Network should have shared the findings with its affiliated organizations before public dissemination. It is important to inform sex workers about the study's findings because it is about the challenges they experience in their everyday lives. I always want them to lead the solution.
Instead of establishing new hotline numbers or services we should focus on increasing the efficiency of the existing one-stop crisis centres and help lines.
Nurun Nahar Begum, Sr. Program Officer, ActionAid
Sex workers are not aware of their fundamental rights. They also face various challenges due to the lack of formal recognition of their profession and the hostile attitude of the law enforcement agencies. Without protecting their fundamental rights, it is impossible to bring changes in the lives of sex workers. As citizens of this country, they must enjoy the rights guaranteed by the constitution. They should exercise their right to bargain collectively.
Md. Abdus Sobhan, Technical Specialist, Save the Children
We always ask sex workers about their problems not the solutions they want. Future studies on sex workers can consider this neglected aspect. I would like to request the Sex Workers Network to discuss the findings of this study with policy makers and inform them about the problems female sex workers face in their everyday lives.
Babul Kumar Adhikary, General Secretary, STI/AIDS Network of Bangladesh
In most cases, sex workers are not aware of the legal concepts of violence and harassment. It is the responsibility of the Sex Workers Network to educate and make them aware of these issues. The Network should also work for reaching the findings of the study to the policy makers.
Joya Sarker, President, SomporkerNoyaSetu
Generally, we collect data to understand a problem. However, in this study, the problem is apparently absent. The study, for example, could have covered issues related to the reproductive health of female sex workers or the risk of HIV infection among female sex workers due to violence by clients.
I strongly feel that representatives from sex workers should have been invited to today's programme. They could have identified missing points and errors in the study better than us.
MD. Hafizuddin Munna, General Secretary, PLHIV Network (PN+)
In Bangladesh, a sizable portion of the sex workers are HIV positive. Sex workers and drug users are considered potentially risky groups in the government's HIV program because of the connection between HIV, sex, and drug use. The use of drugs is widespread among sex workers. Information about HIV-positive sex workers and risky sexual behaviour among clients could have been included in the study.
Shahdat Hossain, Member, Network of People Who Use Drugs (NPUD)
Building awareness is essential for combating violence against sex workers. Creating a separate helpline for sex workers can be an option since they are unwilling to seek help from the law enforcement agencies. The platform can also help build a strong collaboration between the government and the organizations who work for the sex workers.
Rabiullah Islam, Program & Resource Officer, SEHD
We published a study report in 2018 on the conditions of floating and brothel-based sex workers. I believe, we need to reach the voice of sex workers to the policy level to prevent violence against them. Sex Workers Network can play a big role in establishing communications between sex workers and relevant government bodies such as the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Department of Social Service.
Rajkumary, Volunteer, Oboyob
The study has produced a lot of data but lacks an intersectional approach. It, for example, doesn't give us a clear picture of the relation between violence and earning. It's not like that a sex worker can avoid paying to a dalal if she gives money to the police. They are often forced to share their earnings with dalals, members of law enforcement agencies and babus.
Ivan Ahmed Katha, President, Shacheton Shamajsheba Hijra Shanga
Sex workers generally have reservations about disclosing personal information. Therefore, this study holds critical importance since it analysed the experience of 40 female sex workers in Dhaka. If the recommendations of the study are implemented properly it will bring positive changes to the life of sex workers in Bangladesh.
MD. Niaz Morshed Khan, Sr. Research Investigator, icddr,b
The study followed a mixed methodology by combining both qualitative and quantitative data. Therefore, we must exercise caution in analyzing the findings of the study. While disseminating the study findings, it must be mentioned that the study selected a small sample size purposefully and the aim of the study was not to make a generalization. I am not sure whether the study got approval from any ethical board. If not, then, that should be mentioned in the limitation section of the study.