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Trafficking and Prostitution in Bangladesh - Contradictions in Law and Practice, Sigma Huda









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 society.

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 don’t 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 houses.

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 women’s movement to respond to this problem. A small girl committed suicide because she couldn’t 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 don’t 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 Women’s 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 can’t 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 don’t see anything wrong with such activities.

Bangladeshi girls face two kinds of problems if they are caught in Pakistan. Pakistan has amended its Foreigner’s 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 customers.

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 natural causes.

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 court’s 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.




Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu