HARC, the HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre organized a national sex workers conference in Dhaka Bangladesh on 17th and 18th July 2017. Over 100 sex workers attended this two-day conference with the theme “Nothing for us without us.” Red Umbrella Fund supported the event.
Ms. Niger Sultana Lucky, Coordinator HARC, delivered the keynote address where she highlighted the issues facing sex workers in Bangladesh. The main challenge for sex workers, she said, is stigma and discrimination:
“We face stigma and discrimination in society so we avoid social gathering all the times. We face stigma and discrimination in clinical settings so we don’t look for proper treatment…. There is no place in the society where sex workers don’t face stigma and discrimination.”
The conference brought sex workers from different categories of sex work and from many different organizations together under one (red!) umbrella. This was the first time such a large and diverse gathering of sex workers ever took place in Bangladesh.
Ms. Lucky also identified other issues including violence against sex workers, the negative impact of laws, the lack of meaningful inclusion of sex workers in programs, and the lack of funding for sex worker led organizations.
Dr. Meghna Guhathakurta, member of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh, spoke about working with the Government of Bangladesh to reform the law on discrimination. If a new law is passed then it will help prevent stigma and discrimination based on occupation, race, gender, class and or color. Dr Meghna also informed the conference that sex workers are welcome at the human rights commission if their rights are violated in Bangladesh.
The conference was inspiring for many of the sex workers present. Rohima, a 25-year-old participant said:
“We thought that we have no rights until attend to this conference but now I understand we have human rights like any other people.”
And Sathi, a 30-year-old sex worker said:
“No one think about our human rights because we are sex workers, none of the NGOs in Bangladesh work on our rights.”
Several invited guests addressed and helped facilitate the conference.
Kay Thi Win, Regional Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, spoke about how APNSW works with national partners and members to provide technical assistance to sex worker organizations across Asia and the Pacific – including in Bangladesh. Ms Win also discussed the eight human rights identified in the global sex workers consensus statement that would have the greatest impact on the human rights of sex workers if they were put into practice.
Dennis van Wanrooij, from the Red Umbrella Fund (RUF), Netherlands, spoke about the work of the fund, which includes providing funding to sex workers organizations, network and groups in 80 countries. Red Umbrella Fund is the only donor in the world who provides financial support exclusively to sex workers organizations.
Dennis facilitated a session on good examples from sex workers movements around the world. This session also helped build solidarity among different categories of sex workers in Bangladesh. Soma, a sex worker from Dhaka, said:
“I thought only sex workers of Bangladesh facing challenges but now I can see all over the world sex workers are facing challenges.”
Dr. Lorraine Nencel from Vrije University Amsterdam, Netherlands, facilitated a participatory exercise on roots, causes and consequence of violence for sex workers. Responses from participants included a 27-year-old outreach worker from HARC who said:
“The cause of violence is stigma and discrimination to our profession, so until and unless we recognize sex work as work and sex workers as workers there is no solution to end violence.”
Another 23-year-old sex worker said:
“We want to change the laws and policies which affect our life. Police always make violence against us so most important think is protected by law.”
Habibur Rahman, APNSW Program Officer, highlighted that the conference marked a milestone in the sex worker rights movement in Bangladesh. This is the first time over 100 sex workers had ever gathered and talked about community empowerment and human rights issues in Bangladesh.
In terms of outcomes of the conference, participants and organisers felt that the event:
- built solidarity between different categories of sex workers and between different organisations in Bangladesh by bringing everyone together under one umbrella;
- was a huge community mobilizing and community empowering process;
- encouraged and created new leaders among the sex worker groups in Bangladesh;
- provided the first opportunity for sex workers to meet directly with human rights commission representatives to talk about their issues;
- identified the needs and priorities of sex workers of all categories of sex workers.
- enabled sex workers in Bangladesh to focus attention on the need to work on human rights, community empowerment, and violence – not just HIV.
Participants felt the conference marked the start of a new chapter in the sex worker movement in Bangladesh, and appreciated the unity and solidarity they felt. A number of participants said:
“We must organize this kind of conference every year!”