Bangladesh: IGLHRC Mobilizes to Defend Sex Industry Workers

This Action comes in three sections. At the beginning is a section framing events in terms of international law. What follows is a description of events in Bangladesh, from the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects. At the end is contact information for letters or other expressions of protest.


IGLHRC is forwarding the following urgent call for action at the request of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects.

IGLHRC is deeply concerned that the State actions alleged in the attached document--including police brutality toward sex workers, withdrawal of health prevention and treatment from them, and eviction of a community of sex workers in Narayanganj, Bangladesh--violate numerous provisions of international law. Many of these provisions are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which is binding on all States. In addition, IGLHRC draws particular attention to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), ratified by Bangladesh on 5 October 1998; and to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Bangladesh on 6 November 1984.

IGLHRC is concerned that:

  • The reported murders and/or disappearances of sex workers Jesmin and Sathi (the latter allegedly detained or abducted by police) violate the right to life.
  • Arbitrary arrests of and police brutality toward sex workers violate rights to protection against arbitrary detention, and against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • * The apparently exclusive targeting of women by the authorities' actions violates numerous provisions against gender-based discrimination, including the core principles of equality embodied in CEDAW and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • The forced eviction of sex workers from their place of residence and work violates the right to freedom of movement and of residence protected in Article 13 of the UDHR, and the right to housing protected in Article 11 of the CESCR. Moreover, it violates numerous other recognized standards and guidelines, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, 1998). The latter provides that "Every human being shall have the right to be protected against being arbitrarily displaced from his or her home or place of habitual residence." The actions of Bangladeshi authorities are arbitrary in a number of respects specified both by the Guiding Principles and by international law. As a form of "rehabilitation", they took place without consultation or consent of those affected; as a form of presumptive punishment for prostitution, they took place in the effective absence of due process. As such they contravene fundamental principles of any just and equitable legal system, including those which mandate "a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal" (UDHR Article 10) and equality before the law.
  • The forced "rehabilitation" of sex workers without their cooperation or consent constitutes blatant, and in this case apparently brutal, police action masquerading as peaceful development. Social progress should not be confused with social cleansing. The intervention by authorities in Bangladesh violates the principles established by the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development (G.A. res. 41/128, annex, 1986), which states that "The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right of development," and mandates the "active, free, and meaningful participation" of "the entire population and of all individuals . . . in development and in the fair distribution of the benefits resulting therefrom." The United Nations Declaration on Social Progress and Development (G.A. res. 2542 (XXIV), 1969), further states that "Social progress and development shall be founded on respect for the dignity and value of the human person and shall ensure the promotion of human rights and social justice."
  • Article 12c of the CESCR provides for "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health." The elimination of peer-based HIV and STD prevention programs prevents sex workers from effective enjoyment of this right. When one population is denied life-saving information about HIV transmission, the right to health may also be endangered for other populations across Bangladesh.
  • The actions of the Bangladeshi government violate the right to work. Article 6 of the CESCR protects that right, "which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain her living by work which she freely chooses or accepts." Article 11 of CEDAW additionally protects "the right to free choice of profession and employment," as well as "the right to protection of health and safety in working conditions."
  • Exploitation is distinguished by the obviation or elimination of consent. Numerous international standards condemn exploitation for the purposes of sex as well as for other purposes. IGLHRC views the reported actions of Bangladeshi authorities with deep concern, as forms of coercion verging on exploitation. Those authorities have reportedly prevented the participation of sex workers in projects and decisions about their fates and futures; have employed not only compulsion but violence to relocate populations, force "rehabilitation," and damage families and livelihoods; and have undertaken these actions in part to secure external grants of aid, for plans developed with no meaningful consultation of the peoples concerned.
  • Provisions against trafficking, exploitation, and coercion, in sex work as well as in other sections of labor and of life, should not stigmatize the persons and groups most vulnerable to abuse. Rather, they should aim at protecting and fulfilling those persons' human rights. Those rights are protected so that they may be enjoyed, not guarded and withheld, not maintained in a blind trust and in unused abeyance: so that those persons may attain full agency in a given society, not subsist in an involuntary second-class status, dispossessed of personhood and disempowered before the law. Sex workers enjoy the rights to work, to equality before the law, to family, to sustenance, and to a sexual life, in the same degree and under the same conditions as do all other persons. IGLHRC urges the protection of those rights in a manner consistent with the promise of human rights: the promise that such rights may be extended to, experienced by, and acted upon by all


Bangladesh Sex Workers:

The following is a brief on the situation currently faced by sex workers in Bangladesh. The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects urges everyone who receives this note to write to the PM of Bangladesh and protest against the evictions, to UNDP (United Nations Development Program) for supporting rehabilitation programs of sex workers and the High Commissioner/Ambassador of Bangladesh in your respective country.

Sadhana Mukherjee, Chair
Sue Metzenrath, steering committee member


Tanbazar is the oldest and largest brothel in Bangladesh. It is reputed to be about two hundred years old and is situated in the river port town of Narayanganj, 25 kilometres south of the capital city Dhaka. There are more than 1600 sex workers living there with their children and it is said that the earnings from this brothel support not only other commercial activities within the brothel (shops, etc) but also extended families of the sex workers. It is impossible to estimate the true extent of the economic dimension of their support. The reason for the recent murder of Jesmin (a sex worker at Tanbazar) is conjecture but it is widely believed that the sex workers are now victims of power politics. The brothel is largely controlled by politicians of the opposition political party. The local Member of Parliament (MP) who belongs to the ruling party, Awami League, is seeking to establish his control over the brothel. A 51 member Citizen's Action Committee led by Mr. Shamim Osman, the local MP, has been holding meetings and rallies with the aim of eliminating the brothels in Tanbazar & Nimtoli by 'rehabilitating the sex workers. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) is behind the local MP and the local administration is therefore not willing to protect the rights and interests of the women.

The Prime Minister has recently declared an allocation of Takas 20 million (-US$ 400,000) for the "welfare" (eviction and 'rehabilitation') of the "socially disadvantaged" women. In the meantime a five year project of Taka 100 million (US$ 2,000,000) has been launched by the United Nations Development Programme in Bangladesh and the Department of Social Services of the GoB for the rehabilitation of "disadvantaged women and their children" living in 4 brothels in Bangladesh. The project has been designed to provide women with skill training, micro-credit, schooling for their children, health education/awareness, etc. which would all be done in the brothels, without force and with full co-operation of the women. However, the sex workers were never consulted at any stage of the project design although it is always reiterated that this rehabilitation is with and for the sex workers.

The recent murder of Jesmin in Tanbazar has been used to highlight the "underworld" nature of brothels and subsequently local community opinion against them has been strengthened. This has also allowed police and other forces to be deployed in the area, the sole effect of which has been to restrict the women. They are not allowed out and customers are not allowed in. Electricity and water was cut-off. Many of these women and their children faced starvation from lack of income. It is reputed that many women have begun to sell their jewellery and other belongings. Several meetings have took place between the local authorities regarding the future of the brothels. The sex workers were not allowed to express their views in any of these meetings. The local authorities have decided that the brothels will not continue to exist in their present form and eviction/rehabilitation will begin as early as possible.

Naripokkho (a feminist ngo) along with 23 other organisations such as Bangladesh Women's Health Coalition (BWHC), Nari Maitree, HIV/AIDS NGO Network, CARE Bangladesh, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, Bangladesh Human Rights Journalists Forum, Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh, Women for Women, Utsho Bangladesh, Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangstha, Ain-o-Salish Kendra, Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Foram, Bangladesh Association of Women for Self-Empowerment (BAWSE), Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP), Bangladesh Environment & Lawyer's Association (BELA), Legal Awareness Forum, Phulki, Bangladesh National Women's Lawyer's Association, Ulka
(association of evicted sex workers of Kandupatti brothel), Durjoy (association of floating sex workers of Dhaka) and Mukti (sex workers >from a brothel in Tangail), have come together to express solidarity and mobilise public opinion in support of the sex workers in Tanbazar. It is their belief that the forces acting to evict the sex workers from the brothel have only their own interests in mind. The women in the two brothels are being forced out against their will, violating all human rights, right to movement, right to shelter, right to security. We, therefore, demand that the sex workers of Tanbazar and Nimtoli be allowed to return to the brothels and not be forced out of their profession and homes. These women are citizens who exercise voting rights and therefore have rights like any other citizen of the country.

Though it is assumed that UNDP does not recommend violent means, large scale violence IS being used at Tanbazar and at Nimtoli. Nearly 30% of all the brothel-based sex workers in Bangladesh live in these areas. Here HIV prevalence is 15 per 1000 persons and syphilis prevalence is about 50%. Hence the impact of the scattering away of these workers all over the country will result in the spread of the HIV epidemic all over Bangladesh.

The situation took a particular ugly turn at 3 a.m. 24th July, when police entered Tanbazar brothel in collusion with the project staff of UNDP. The women were herded out, beaten by police and forced into buses. Sathi, the leader of the sex workers, rights movement against eviction and forced rehabilitation has been kidnapped by the police (though they deny it) and her whereabouts are unknown. Some of the sex workers lost their children in the melee. The fate of the women captured by the police is abuse, torture and rape. Some have fled and are living as fugitives.

All this is in blatant violation of the UN Human Rights charter, women's rights championed by the UN, the HIV and STD reduction policies of WHO and UNAIDS.

The Tanbazar Movement Solidarity Council are going to mount a legal challenge against the "illegal eviction", as the authorities had no court order as required for eviction.

Now Tangail brothel (where CARE Bangladesh works) has been threatened with eviction by Aug 4. The sex workers there have had their lives threatened in anonymous letters and the mullahs are showing up at their houses.

We, therefore, urge all concerned groups, individuals, and organisations to rally against this eviction and attack on the livelihood of sex workers.


We would like to encourage sex worker rights and human rights organisations to demonstrate at UNDP headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Geneva and create pressure on UNDP to stop their so called "rehabilitation program" immediately at Tanbazar

The points we would like people to make are:

  1. Many of these women want to remain in the sex industry and are demanding better working conditions. This includes access to HIV/STD education programs and knowledge on safe working conditions, with access to condoms and other tools of the trade.
  2. That peer based and self-empowerment based support programs have been proven worldwide to reduce STD transmission and better outcomes for sex workers.
  3. Any rehabilitation programs initiated must involve consultation and guidance by sex workers. Those that sex workers feel are important are those that involve skills development and literacy programs, and they must be VOLUNTARY.
  4. The sex workers of Tanbazar also want the following demands to be met:
    1. bringing back evicted sex workers to their respective brothels,
    2. payment of compensation for loss of income,
    3. rehabilitation of sex workers as per the plan given by them.
  5. UNDP funding to be made available for self empowerment/rights based programs rather than rehabilitation based programs, ideally run by peers.
  6. Allow sex workers free choice as to whether they remain in the industry or choose rehabilitation.
  7. An end to the violence and abuse of all sex workers.
  8. Forced eviction and forced rehabilitation drives sex workers underground where they are harder to access for HIV/STD prevention programs provided by NGOs.

Addresses for protest letters and actions:

Prime Minister, Mrs Sheik Hasina
Old Sanzsad Bhaban
UNDP, Washington
United Nations Development Program
1775 K Street, NW, Suite 4th Floor
Washington, DC, 20006
Fax: (202) 331-9363
UNDP, Bangladesh
House No. 60, Road No.11A
Dhanmondi Residential Area
Fax: 880-2-813196, 817811
UNDP, Geneva
Mr. Bertrand Coppens
Palais des Nations

The UNDP has a web site with a page for comments. The URL is We encourage you to leave comments here.