Over 95 sex workers held a rally for International Sex Worker Rights Day in Shahbagh, Bangladesh on 3 March. Police tried to prevent them from going ahead with the rally, so sex workers rallied without banners and planned a route that was unknown to the police.
In a way, the events mirrored the first sex Workers’ Rights Day ever held in 2001 in India. On that day, 25,000 sex workers gathered in India for a festival, organised by the Kolkata-based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. Sex workers met opposition then too, with many trying to block their plans and stop them from gathering and holding their event.
Chumki Begum, the General Secretary of the Sex Workers Network explained to the Dhaka Tribune how sex workers at this year’s rally in Bangladesh asked the police to let them continue the rally, "but they said we are not allowed by law as we had children and underage sex workers with us.” Police claimed suitable permits had not been granted prior to the march.
But 95 street-based sex workers still gathered in front of the National Museum at Shahbagh- some of them accompanied by their children and rallied for their rights
"We brought our children with us as this is the only day we can inform society that we too are part of it and our children also have rights just as others do,” Shefali Begum told reporters. Shefali, a 26-year-old sex worker, was accompanied by her six-year-old daughter, and her one-year-old son.
Mitu, also 26, demanded legal recognition and rights for sex workers at the march, explaining the current situation: “we don’t receive any recognisation as legitimate workers so we are deprived of our rights.”
As the Sex Workers Network and Sex Workers and Allies in South Asia (SWASA) noted in their the Report on the Status of the Sex Workers in Bangladesh last year, there are a wide range of laws which work to create an atmosphere where sex workers are criminalised.
Although sex work in private is technically legal in Bangladesh, acts such as soliciting and running a brothel are criminalised. Due to these laws sex workers in Bangladesh are perceived as criminals and subjected to harassment and violence from different parts of society, including police and the media. As Shanu, a sex worker quoted in the report says, “thugs and police always extort money from us. At least we work for money, but what about them? Why do they abuse us so? Are we not humans?”
Shanu added, “another group who harass us are members of the media. They are insensitive; they chase us, and photograph us. We might be bad, but our entire family is not. Their image is tarnished when we are photographed. I request you to be sensitive towards our families, our children, and us. Thank you.”
The report backed up what those at the rally continued to point out, arguing that, “Decriminalisation of sex work is a pre-requisite to ensure the physical and emotional inviolability of sex workers, their right to life, right to freedom of labour, health and reproductive and sexual rights. The uncertain legal status attached to their work and identity further make them “invisible” as citizens with associate rights and entitlements.”