HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC) is an NSWP member organisation that works with sex workers across Bangladesh. HARC submitted this news story to NSWP that documents a national planning meeting that took place with women-led organsations, human rights organisations and sex workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 22 August 2021. One important aspect of the meeting was a discussion on National Identification Cards (NID) for sex workers.
“On 22 August 2021, HARC, HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre in collaboration with Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) organised the National planning meeting with women-led organizations, human rights organisations and sex workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
It was a day-long meeting with a total of 27 participants. Participants came from various national and international NGOs, sex workers organisations, women organisations, garments union, human rights organisations and/or individuals, with many participants being leaders in their communities. The honorable parliament member, State Minister of Social Welfare and women leader Aroma Dutta was the chief guest at the meeting.
The objectives of the meeting were:
- To analyse the current situation and challenges of sex workers in Bangladesh;
- To develop an action plan to move the sex workers rights movement forward based on the CEDAW recommendations;
- Finalise the activities and implementation plan to move forward the sex workers rights movements in collaboration with wider women rights movement.
At the beginning of the meeting Niger Sultana, coordinator HARC Bangladesh, presided over the key issues of sex workers’ situation in Bangladesh. She pointed out that, navigating a context of social exclusion and political marginalisation, female sex workers (FSW) in Bangladesh face daily threats to their personal and collective safety. Legally marginalised and socially stigmatised, FSWs suffer precarious social protection, economic insecurity, and are targeted with physical, sexual, and emotional violence by police, managers, clients, and intimate partners. In an effort to understand the nature of the violence FSWs face and identify anti-violence strategies, HARC is working in Bangladesh to improve the quality of life of sex workers.
Representing a workforce of 140,000, FSWs in Bangladesh work in hotels, residences, brothels, and street-based venues. Across venues, FSWs have reported consistent exposure to violence by state and non-institutional actors. There are a wide range of laws that criminalise components of sex work and support the perception among law enforcement and society at large that sex workers are involved in criminal activity. This context results in a socio-legal environment where sex workers experience human and labor rights violations due to stigma and discrimination within weak policy and legal frameworks that violate and or fail to protect sex workers’ rights.
Over the past ten years, however, sex workers in Bangladesh have been building power to challenge the violence they experience as a result of their marginalised status; exercising an organised voice to demand protection of their human rights and recognition of entitlements as citizens. It is in that spirit that HARC undertook several researches, to clearly identify the rate and vulnerability to violence FSWs face, elucidating key learnings and recommendations to prevent and respond to violence against sex workers.
FSWs in Bangladesh employ strategies to mitigate their exposure to state violence and increase control over their working conditions by adopting mobility between working environments. However, self-protection strategies need to be supported by institutional protections which decriminalise sex work and destigmatise sex workers. Punitive law, policies and law enforcement practices which target and victimise FSWs must be reformed to promote their public health and safety and their right to earn a living through the occupation of their choice. As FSWs’ self-protection strategies demonstrate, violence against sex workers can be reduced, however, sex workers must be supported by government, NGO and law enforcement stakeholders in order to create an enabling environment which centers and prioritises the health and safety needs of sex workers and their families.
Aroma Dutta mentioned that there is so much work to be done for sex workers. She went on to say that we must apologise to sex workers because of our injustice, negligence, and discrimination towards them. She also mentioned that to protect the human rights of sex workers first we need to ensure the NID (National Identification Card) to all sex workers in Bangladesh. It should be the first work because once all sex workers get the NID then they will be able to enjoy all the rights like any other citizen. She gave HARC the responsibility of making a list of sex workers who don’t have NID to submit to her. She said she will meet and talk to the Prime Minister very soon and ensure the NID for all sex workers. She also emphasised her commitment to supporting sex workers during this COVID crisis to help provide them with all necessary benefits. She said she doesn’t believe in rehabilitation of sex workers rather the need to protect the rights of sex workers.
Niger Sultana, coordinator HARC Bangladesh, reassured sex workers who may need support to apply for their NID. “From now any sex worker can use the HARC office address as their address to obtain ID card, we also talked with city counsellor to get endorsement letter for sex workers to apply for ID card and HARC will cover transportation to go to the office to submit the documents for NID”
Thoughts from sex workers on the need for NID
“I could not travel and overnight in any hotel because I don’t have a NID card. It is so important to move another place” – Nazma, a 34 year old sex worker in Dhaka.
“I could not open a bank account because I don’t have a NID card. It is impossible to open a bank account without a ID card.” – Rohima, a 36 years old sex worker.
“During the lockdown period I went to our counsellor for support but I don’t get any support simply because I could not show my ID card. To get any support from the Government we need to show the ID card first.” – Razia, 29 years old sex worker in Dhaka.
“Now in Bangladesh we cannot do anything without national ID card, if we go to hospital for services, they ask for NID but many sex workers have no NID because of lack of residency in Dhaka.”
 UNAIDS. 2017. Country factsheets: Bangladesh. http://www.unaids.org/en/regionscountries/countries/bangladesh