Conditions in Bangladesh are complex and profoundly oppressive. As a
result, I wonder whether abolition of prostitution is the answer for the thousands of
women living in prostitution in Bangladesh. Legalization is not the answer, but a movement
resulting in swift abolition may not be the answer either.
I raise the issue of de jure and de facto legalization of prostitution,
not because we believe in the legalization of prostitution or that we believe there should
be a prostitution of choice, but we have to accept that prostitution exists. We are
committed to abolishing it. There are human beings in the sex industry. We believe there
are human beings in the sex industry who want to get out. It is not a question of choice
for them; it is a question of no alternatives. The alternatives are what the Coalition
Against Trafficking in Women - Bangladesh, which is comprised of 40 organizations, is
working to establish.
Prostitution in Bangladesh is shrouded in mystery. The law treats the woman as a
victim, and the pimps and customers face a possibility of a death sentence. Thus, the law
is beautiful, but when it comes to implementation, the women are picked up for soliciting,
which is a penal offense enacted during the days of the British colonial period in 1860.
We continue to be governed by it; therefore, the offenders go free. Soliciting and
advertising are illegal. According to another law, the Suppression of the Immoral
Traffic Act of 1933, the earnings of the prostitutes, if spent on pimps is
illegal. Unfortunately, this law is not in force, although there are lawyers who believe
the law is operative. The act is not enforced, yet some lawyers believe it is enforced.
This contradiction exists because prostitution is a topic that is not discussed in decent
Occasionally, the government organizes seminars and workshops and holds rallies
focusing on alternatives to prostitution, but prostitutes are not invited to participate.
This reminds me of the year 1985 when the Government evicted prostitutes, then immediately
organized a seminar to discuss alternatives. I was invited to be the keynote speaker.
Seventy of the evicted prostitutes harboring the notion that theirs was a lawful
profession (as they had sworn affidavits stating that they had joined the
"trade" voluntarily in exercise of their fundamental and constitutional right to
profess any trade) approached me for legal protection. I informed them that they had
visited me in a most opportune moment as the Government had organized a seminar to discuss
alternatives to prostitution and I have been invited to be the keynote speaker. I said,
"Why dont you join hands with me by one of you speaking on the
alternatives." I informed the organizers of the seminar of the change. The Minister
in charge of Home Affairs, who oversees the administration of law, was quite upset with my
proposal of having this woman share in my speech and talk of alternatives. He requested me
to dissuade the prostitutes from attending the seminar on grounds of defiling the sanctity
of the hall as respectable people will be attending the seminar. I had no desire to
prevent them from participating, so I did not make any attempt to contact them. They
turned out in large numbers only to find themselves arrested. This of course infuriated me
and I did not mince words. I spoke over the microphone that the organizers were afraid of
being identified as a customer/pimp, and hence, in fear of any disclosure, they arranged
the arrest. I demanded their freedom. That was my speech. What I have done in response to
the eviction of the prostitutes is to initiate a criminal action against the five people
who spearheaded the eviction, charging them with illegal trespassing, and breaking into
At that time, "prostitution" was not discussed in "polite circles"
and no one actually had the guts to take up the issue. It hurts me that now there are so
many women to support Taslima Nasreen in her views, but no one supported me. The only
excuse I can think of is that I wanted to help prostitutes, who are most despised in
society, while Taslima is a doctor, which is considered a noble profession.
In 1997, I talked to a man who relied on the prostitutes for votes to elect him. The
prostitutes are voters, and each political party woos them during elections. The irony is
that political parties, as well as individual candidates, rely on them for votes, and yet
they continue to be despised. The prostitutes live in restricted areas and work in
designated areas set up in the days of the British colonial rule and continued by the
Bangladesh government. The government adopted restrictions on where prostitution can take
place and how prostitutes are controlled, all without prostitution being legal. This man
was elected as the local Commissioner on the vote of these unfortunate prostitutes. One of
the earliest acts, as a representative, was to evict the 800 prostitutes who had lived in
the designated area for more than two decades. They were given just a one-hour notice to
vacate. I should also mention that the elected person was not authorized to evict any one
from the locality. He gathered a few fundamentalists and the police were standing by, and
800 prostitutes, with luggage and children, were forced out of their homes. The
authorities brought in a bulldozer and bulldozed their houses as well as rampaged through
the houses and took whatever they fancied. The prostitutes were evicted, along with their
children, with no place to go. The representative, before being elected, was a pimp and
forced the women to give him a minimum of Taka 200.00 in the guise of savings. The pimp,
turned representative, did not return the savings forcibly collected earlier by him. At
the time this happened it was monsoon season and we are in the midst of heavy rains. The
women have invested many years of savings in their homes. They have accumulated some
jewelry and valuables in their homes. They had built a little abode for themselves. Now,
it was gone. The evicted prostitutes passed their days staying on the footpaths and under
trees with, in many cases, their babies. When I questioned the authorities, they said they
did not find any unusual activity so as to warrant intervention.
The Constitution states that each individual is entitled to choose her own
profession/occupation or trade. Taking advantage of the vulnerability of the
poverty-stricken or opportunity seeking people, unscrupulous persons (flesh traders)
either coerce, entice, lure or sell minors and other gullible persons into prostitution.
They make them execute affidavits in front of false magistrates/impersonators stating that
they have gone into prostitution of their own volition and they are over 18 years old.
It took a little 13-year-old girl to trigger the womens movement to respond to
this problem. A small girl committed suicide because she couldnt bear being sold
into prostitution. An initiation ceremony was held. The virgin girl was dressed like a
bride by the pimps and senior prostitutes and then sold to the highest bidder, who then
raped her. Following this she took her own life. These events received much publicity, and
jerked the consciousness of many people.
Prostitution in Bangladesh is not limited to girls and women. Government
representatives and social scientists try to believe there is no homosexuality in
Bangladesh. They dont think there are boy prostitutes, but there are. They deny the
existence of homosexuality or that women may also look for male prostitutes.
In Bangladesh, there are diverse policies and actions undertaken by organizations
working to eliminate prostitution. Some provide health facilities, such as Marie Stopes
Clinics and the Bangladesh Womens Health Coalition. Others work to recover or
prevent girl children from entering into prostitution such as Utshob, Shoishab, and the
Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association. There are others who try to get women
released from the police lock up.
Years ago, being younger, and emotionally charged, I quoted from a book published by
the Islamic Foundation on the occasion of the 1400th year of the advent of
Islam. The book was titled Islam and Women. The relevant portion stated that in
return for sexual services, the wife is entitled to dower. This, needless to say, sparked
one of the hottest debates. Fundamentalists, extremists and obscurantists alike called for
my blood. So much so, even the Dhaka Bar Association took action against me, calling the
authorities to debar me from practicing as a lawyer before the Courts of Law. I feared for
my life. Some extremists were so agitated, they declared me to be a heretic and wanted
action against me. No one spoke up in my defense as they were still hesitant to open any
controversy and be put in a position that obliged them to immediately abolish
prostitution, without considering alternatives.
There are cultural and socioeconomic factors or practices in Bangladesh that encourage
or lead to prostitution. We harbor a notion that unless the parents and guardians marry
off their daughters and wards they cant go to heaven. Girls become vulnerable to any
person who desire the girls without any accompanying demand. Under the Sharia law (Islamic
religious law) it says that a marriage is legal with a proposal and acceptance in the
presence of two witnesses. For the peasants this is more powerful than a simple legal
document. Often, without much ado, the girl is married to the man. In more than one case,
such males are flesh traders who dupe these innocent girls into false marriages. Soon, the
"brides" find themselves in the brothels or sold into prostitution. Under
religious laws there are no requirements for registration of marriages (though our
municipal law decrees otherwise), so most people ignore the legal requirement and opt for
the marriage to be performed under their religious law. As the religious laws are also a
part of our municipal law it creates legal contradictions conflicting with our
Constitution and which has led women activists to demand a secular common law for all
citizens irrespective of religion. The activists hope that this secular law will benefit
the citizens and in particular the women in achieving their rights and remove
discrimination against women on grounds of religious and cultural differences.
Under these conditions, a girl may be married off to a total stranger and find herself
in a brothel the next day. Or she can be trafficked across international borders. Girls
are trafficked to Pakistan, using all the travel routes, namely, air, sea and mostly land
routes. In the latter case, India becomes the transit county, and on many occasions the
receiving country. Pakistan is both a receiving country and a transit country for the
Middle East countries, especially The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Pakistan has
visible slave markets where these trafficked women are paraded and buyers choose the ones
they fancy. The minimum price is 5,000 Rupees. The fairer, taller, and prettier they are,
the more desirable they are, the higher the price. The maximum price is put on virgins. In
Pakistan, the Bangladeshi women and children rate higher than those of other countries for
the purpose of prostitution and sexual slavery. The Sri Lankans and Filipinos rate higher
as domestic help. It is quite common to find the Pakistani males obtain sexual favors from
their female household helps with impunity while their wives and other family members turn
a blind eye. They dont see anything wrong with such activities.
Bangladeshi girls face two kinds of problems if they are caught in Pakistan. Pakistan
has amended its Foreigners Act to raise the punishment for illegal entry into the
country to life in prison. Even a 10 year old girl can languish in jail, while facing a
trial, which might sentence her to life imprisonment because she has been smuggled into
Pakistan and caught as an illegal entry.
Another serious issue is that after being sold for 50,000 Rupees, and being enjoyed by
Pakistani men in a village outside the capital city, the girl faces Islamic law, if she is
caught. Under the Hadood Law, the penalty for fornication outside of marriage is being
stoned to death. This is the fate of every Bangladeshi girl who gets caught in Pakistan.
The Indian government has revealed that 20 percent of prostitutes in India are
Bangladeshi. When we talk to our government as to their failure to prevent trafficking of
persons, they give no response. On the contrary, the governments of all three countries,
Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, penalize the women, but fail to take any action, penal or
otherwise, against the traffickers and sexual offenders such as pimps, traders and
In Bangladesh we have a special law, The Cruelty to Women and Children [Special
Provisions] Act, 1995, which prescribes death or life imprisonment for trafficking in
women and children for any purpose, including sexual purposes. But, the more stringent the
law, the more loopholes through which the traffickers and customers manage to escape. When
we talk to the government, we ask why they did not take action against this particular
trafficking given the obvious discrimination that penalizes the women, but allows the man
to go free.
Custodial rapes of women are rampant in our society. Custodial rapes include rapes by
employers, guardians and law enforcing agencies. Our law does not contemplate any
independent/special definition of rape as custodial rape though our law has provided for
rape of wives below the age of 16 years to constitute rape. In a proposal for amending the
earlier mentioned special law, we have demanded inclusion of custodial rape as an offence,
as well as to make the principal officer equally liable for the offence committed by his
subordinates, even if he was not present at the time of commission of the offence. In one case, a Hindu girl fell in love with a Moslem boy, and they married in a
shrine, under Sharia law. The police intercepted them. The police arrested the girl
claiming she was being trafficked. They separated the boy and the girl. They said they had
to do a blood test to determine her age. The girl, Shima, was locked in the office of the Officer in Charge of the Police
Station for the night. She was raped the whole nightlong. In the
morning she was found bleeding very badly, and she died. When she died they burned her,
cremated her, destroying all the evidence. Many NGOs demonstrated about this crime. The
government was very concerned, because we had embarrassed them. They said she had died of
We have filed a case against the investigating officer for destroying/tampering
evidence. After the news leaked out, women and human rights organizations and in
particular my organization pressured the police to initiate criminal actions against the
perpetuators of the offence. As expected in this case, the accused persons were acquitted
for "want of evidence" and they got the "benefit of doubt." We
immediately initiated a criminal case in court, and after many hassles have finally
obtained the courts cognizance. Unfortunately, the entire prosecution is against us
and we had no other alternative to file transfer petition before the High Court as we fear
that justice will be denied to us and poor Shima will not get the justice.
The court takes its own time. More stringent laws are not the answer. We would rather
have a fair trial when justice is actually given. Talking of courts, I have to mention
here that our courts are not sympathetic to the cause of women in prostitution. A lawyer
had earlier filed a writ application in favor of the earlier mentioned evicted
prostitutes. Our Constitution directs the State to prohibit prostitution and this is one
of the fundamental principles of state policy. The court rejected the prayer of the lawyer
and the prostitutes are still on the roads. One benefit toady there is a great concern for
prostitutes amongst many NGOs and if we can coordinate this properly, we shall be able to
overcome to a great extent the crime of sexual exploitation.
Today, there are over 150,000 prostitutes in Bangladesh. If we call for immediate ban
on prostitution, we are not helping the women who will be then forced onto the streets,
which will not benefit the government, the NGOs or the prostitutes, themselves. Rather a
united movement for gradual absorption and reintegration of victims of sexual exploitation
including prostitution is a better alternative. To this end, I met with 46 different non
governmental organizations and individuals including those wanting to opt out of
prostitution and formed the Bangladesh Chapter of the Coalition Against Trafficking in
Women. We are holding the Global Conference on "Combating Sexual Exploitation
Regionally and Globally" from 26th through 29th January, 1999.
We hope through this, we will be able to achieve our purpose. Please pray for us.
Sigma Huda is a lawyer and Secretary General for the Bangladesh
Society for the Enforcement of Human rights, President for the Association for Abused and
Pregnant Women, Representative of Women Living Under Muslim Laws-Bangladesh, and
Coordinator of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Bangladesh.