The NGOs and the Nari Mukti Sangha, the local association of sex workers, strongly protested every past attempt at evicting the Tangail brothel.
This year, however, their failure to organise, coordinate and raise a collective voice has made the eviction easy.
Not only that; apart from one, all the NGOs have been mysteriously silent and inactive in protesting and rehabilitating the sex workers, many of whom have been left floating and destitute.
According to the HIV/AIDS and STD Alliance Bangladesh (Hasab), there were 622 active sex workers in the Kandapar brothel. The dependent population comprised 33 elderly former sex workers and 129 children – aged from zero to 17 years. At least 250 of the active sex workers were underage.
Additionally, there were 252 male partners and husbands of the sex workers, according to a survey conducted jointly by Hasab and an international NGO population council in June.
However, some former residents of the brothel claimed that the number of active sex workers was more than 2,000. They also said many sex workers from evicted brothels in Madaripur and Narayanganj Tanbazar used to live with them.
After the July 12 eviction, most sex workers did not have anywhere to go. While many of them came to the capital, others stayed back and were fast spreading in Tangail town and its outskirts as floating prostitutes.
Some of them told the Dhaka Tribune that because they did not have any safe shelter, they were frequently victims of rape and torture. Sometimes their customers would not pay them after having sexual intercourse with them. “Somehow I managed a house after a few days of the eviction. But now, I cannot find any customer. My income has virtually come down to zero,” said one of them.
Seeking anonymity, another sex worker said: “On that night, I had to leave behind all my belongings at the brothel. I lived on the streets for a few days and looked out for customers. But it was a terrible experience.”
According to Hasab official Hirok, the biggest risk with the unmonitored floating sex workers is the fear of spreading sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as AIDS.
The role of NGOs
Seeking anonymity, an official of Hasab alleged that other than their NGO, none of the others had taken any steps to help rehabilitate the sex workers.
He told the Dhaka Tribune: “We have sent around 200 sex workers to brothels in Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Rajbari, Jessore and Khulna. But a large number of them have scattered through Tangail town.”
Other than Hasab, renowned NGOs such as Care Bangladesh, ActionAid, UNAIDS, Save the Children, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and Durjoy Nari Sangha had been running various projects with the sex workers including AIDS awareness, sex workers’ children education, and so on.
However, he also alleged that all of them have kept their offices shut since the day of the eviction. In fact, many of them have been wrapping up their activities in the area since rumours spread around a month ago that the sex workers might be evicted.
Maulana Ashrafuzzaman Kashemi, imam of the Tangail graveyard mosque and vice-president of the unsocial activities prevention committee, slammed the NGOs saying: “Why do they remain silent when innocent girls are forcefully brought and sold to the brothel? Why do they not protest against such human rights violations? Why can they not save the innocent minor girls from prostitution?”
When asked why they did not make protests, an NGO official, seeking anonymity, said: “The failure of NMS [the sex workers’ association] to organise was a big reason.”
The role of NMS
The official said: “The NMS was formed by Care Bangladesh in 1976. The leadership of the sex workers was scattered this time and divided into several groups since [Aklima Akter] Akhi changed its constitution after she became the president of the executive committee last year.”
“NMS was aimed to work for the betterment of sex workers. The executive committee should be elected every two years. The NGOs and the international organisations were supposed to work closely with the NMS. They formed a cooperative society to collect monthly amounts from the income of the sex workers to create a crisis fund.
“But Akhi changed the constitution autonomously after the last election and made herself the chief executive. As the president, she could stay for two years; but the tenure of the chief executive is five years.”
Seeking anonymity, a Care Bangladesh official said: “Three years ago, I heard that the NMS had a Tk3 crore fund. But nobody knows how that amount came down to Tk80 lakh when Akhi was the leader.”
Akhi has allegedly fled with Tk80 lakh from the NMS fund. She has not been seen around since the day of the eviction. Sex workers alleged that they had not been returned the amounts that they had saved with the NMS. Some of them had as much as Tk1 lakh in the fund.
On July 6, six days before the eviction, Care Bangladesh officials took Akhi to meet Mizanur Rahman Khan, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Some sex workers said they did not like it. They thought that the NGO could have taken some more of members of the 11-strong executive committee of the NMS.
NHRC’s strange silence
Since the day that Akhi went to meet its chairman, the NHRC has remained strangely silent.
Upon her return after meeting with NHRC chief Mizanur, Akhi assured that no eviction would take place. But the commission reportedly took no action to prevent the eviction. Neither did it contact the local district administration or the law enforcement agencies as it was supposed to. The commission chairman could not be reached immediately for his remarks on the allegations.