All people, including sex workers, have fundamental rights
Our sex industry comprises of sex workers, managers, brothel owners, marketers, agencies, clubs, and trade associations engaging in sexual commerce.
Human trafficking is one of the most important factors that promotes prostitution. Sex trafficking is a category of human trafficking, where traffickers sell young men and women as sex slaves in order to provide commercial sex services to clients.
According to the Penal Code 1860, forced prostitution is criminalized, but sex work is not. Publicizing prostitution is illegal, as it might disturb the social order and cause public nuisance, whereas privately conducting prostitution is legal.
The main factor that society often neglects is that owners, managers, traffickers are the ones soliciting and running brothels, whereas sex workers are forced to engage into sexual acts and earn for both -- the owners and themselves. The provisions of laws drafted by the legislative bodies contradict one another due to which sex workers are subjected to violence, threats, and harassment.
The stigma linked to sex workers violates their fundamental rights.
Sex workers working in brothels fear that if they don’t give a portion of their earnings to brothel owners or managers they will be evicted, and those living in the streets fear that they might end up being assaulted or jailed by local goons or public officials. In the 1990s, the first brothel founded in Old Dhaka was shut down, which later led to the closing down of brothels in Narayanganj in 1999.
A ruling was issued a year later stating that prostitution was legal and sex workers had legal rights, and that their eviction from their workplace would be deemed unlawful. In a famous case, BSEHR vs the Government of Bangladesh, the court ensured fundamental rights to the protection of privacy of the sex workers -- depriving them of their livelihood results in the violation of the right to life.
After the judgment was passed by the High Court Division, several sex workers were evicted from the Tangail brothels, and sex workers at the Kandapara brothel took the matter to the courts and won.
Women in our sex industry are stigmatized, which makes it harder for them to exercise their fundamental rights. If the government fails to regulate non-contradictory laws for sex workers, the social stigma will continue to haunt and exclude them from the society, making them the discredited individuals of society.
Unprotected sex can be life-threatening, because it is a way of spreading STDs. Sex workers cannot afford condoms or other forms of contraceptives, which pushes them to earn without protection. Sex workers living with HIV are marginalized even by their own community because they are carriers of disease.
Society sees them as unclean or a threat to public health. The exclusion of sex workers with HIV/AIDS from the society and the discrimination against them have a bad impact on their mental health. Violence towards them, repressive laws and policies imposing restrictions on them, lack of access to social and health care, lack of access to protection and justice, lack of housing, are just some forms of discrimination faced by sex workers.
The criminalization of sex workers and considering them immoral is marginalizing them, and making them vulnerable to threats and assault.
Existing laws and precedents for sex workers are of no use because they have failed to protect such workers from oppression.
The law performs critical social functions and maintains order in society. Micro functions of law are supposed to achieve more specific social objectives.
It defines limits of acceptable behaviour by specifying actions that are so morally inexcusable that it will appeal a criminal penalty. Criminalizing sex workers leads to them getting beaten up and harassed by law enforcers and the general public because of the social and religious stigma.
So, is criminalizing or discriminating against sex workers moral? Why doesn’t society act against commercial sex consumers who create the demand? Why doesn’t the society act against human traffickers? The attitudes in society towards sex workers are unacceptable and unjustifiable. It is time to let everyone live according to the law, and with due dignity.
Sarmin Akther is a freelance contributor.