HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC), Bangladesh
“A community led process is the key to success.”
The HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC) works with sex workers across Bangladesh who are active in hotels and residences. HARC has around 2500 members, all female sex workers.
What are the priority areas that HARC works in? What is HARC’s are of work specifically?
The HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre is working to improve the quality of life of sex workers. They do so by encouraging social and political change to establish, promote, and strengthen the rights, dignity, and social status of sex workers. HARC works toward the well being of sex workers by:
- Empowering the sex worker community through mobilisation and capacity building;
- Changing the existing norms, policies and practices that limit the freedom of sex workers;
- Improving the quality of sexual and reproductive health services;
- Improving the image and self-esteem of sex worker communities;
- Building formal and informal alliances with individuals, groups and organisations.
One of HARC’s top priorities is responding to violations of human rights such as the arrest of sex workers by police, and brothel evictions and closures.
HARC’s second priority is outreach activities that include the distributions of condom and lubricant, HIV education and sexual and reproductive health education.
HARC also works with twelve brothels to build the capacity of brothel-based sex workers to advocate for their human rights. For example, HARC called representatives of all the brothels of Bangladesh in one city and did a three-day consultation on empowerment and leadership, and to develop a strategy to oppose brothel evictions.
How did HARC start up?
HARC began in 2001 as an organisation that was created to manage some research projects conducted by Carol Jenkins. Sex workers were hired by Carol Jenkins to take the lead in conducting research interviews in her study.
In the course of conducting this research, the sex workers that were conducting the research interviews came across the many problems that sex workers were facing.
“One of these problems was a lack of unity,” said Niger Sultana from HARC, “for example, if there were three sex workers in one place and a person came along and started to beat up one of the sex workers, then the other two would just leave. If the police came and arrested one person, the other two would not say anything. There was no system. Everybody worked in isolation of each other. The rates of violence were very high. There was violence from clients who were sometimes abusive and refused to pay, violence from the general public, and – of course – violence from the police.”
Another major problem was the health and wellbeing of sex workers. There were no services directly supporting sex workers, and where services did exist, sex workers themselves were not aware of them. Knowledge and understanding of STI and HIV prevention was also very low. There was very little knowledge on the benefits of using condoms. “We felt we had more work to do,” said Niger Sultana.
“The sex worker community, which at this time was still just an informal network of people, were discussing what we had found in the research and were reading about sex workers’ rights and sex workers’ issues in newspapers and other places. And we started asking ourselves: what can we do?” they said.
While there were some organisations that were active in working with certain sex workers – such as street-based workers – there was no organisation working with hotel and residence-based sex workers. HARC could see that nobody else had access to this group of people, so it was up to sex workers to form a network.
Niger Sultana, Riya and Sultana Begum, among others, decided to act. The organisation HARC already existed, so there was no need to register a new organisation. They changed the organisation to be sex worker-led and started outreach programs, a health clinic and empowerment work.
What were the biggest events or challenges HARC has worked on in the past?
The Tangail Kandapara brothel area is around 200 years old and home to around 1000 people, primarily sex workers and their families. Originally the private brothel of a wealthy ‘zamindar’ (landowner), over the years his successors sold the land to those living there. The residents have legal ownership registered in the government land office.
In July 2014 a mob surrounded the brothel complex just after sunset and told the sex workers to leave within two hours or they would burn the area. The electricity and water supply were cut off. Residents ran indoors, many sex workers searched for children and elderly relatives in the darkness. Some of the mob entered the complex and chased people armed with bamboo sticks and containers of petrol.
Residents fled with only the clothes they were wearing. All their valuables and belongings were left behind. In the chaos some local people looted the sex workers’ properties and stole their valuable possessions. Residents took shelter overnight in a nearby field, but when they returned home the next day – to find their homes devastated – the mob returned and beat them again, this time also breaking down their houses. The city authorities instructed that nobody should lease property or give shelter to the sex workers. Those neighbours also threatened sex workers who owned private homes outside the brothel area with arson attacks after they fled there.
Investigations revealed a combination of local authorities (including the mayor) in collaboration with religious extremists, local thugs, and the interests of commercial property developers were what led to the attack. It was not the first time local authorities had tried to evict the sex workers in Tangail. In 2006 clashes between local neighbours and members of the sex work community led to a High Court ruling that prohibited brothel eviction without “proper rehabilitation.” Previous High Court judgements had also ruled sex work was a livelihood that was protected as a basic right.
The response from the sex work community in 2014 was equally determined, mobilising the media to cover their situation, meeting the National Human Rights Commission in Dhaka, and swinging public opinion against the ‘land grab’. Local NGOs got involved, and the UNAIDS office sent a fact-finding team. Around half of the community also re-occupied their land, building temporary shelters and tents in defiance of threatened further attacks, and the majority refused to participate in ‘rehabilitation’ programs setup by NGOs at the request of the mayor.
Ultimately, sex workers got back their land and slowly rebuilt their house again. With a very low profile, sex workers are still working.
HARC was closely involved in the whole process. They sent letters of protest to different officials, asking everyone to upload sex workers’ human rights. HARC sent these letters to many places including to newspapers.
“Finally we did a big consultation with all the brothel representatives to strategise on how to stop these evictions in future,” stated Niger Sultana.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for HARC and sex workers in your country in the future?
“The stigma around sex work and the discrimination that results from it is one of our biggest challenges. Many sex workers in the hotel and residence-based sector – a more ‘high end’ sector – cannot reveal to their families they do sex work. Even in the name of our organisation we do not say sex work.
By being a professional organisation, with volunteers and staff who engage in outreach and education work, who carry smart business cards – this is one way to decrease stigma and build confidence for HARC members. When people meet them they can see they work for an official organisation, they can tell their family about the health service work they do for this organisation; and it also offers some protection from the police who know there will be consequences if they arrest someone from this group or try to extort money from them. We can get some respect this way. But respect for sex work itself? That is not going to change anytime soon. It is a long term process.
We also need to do a second stage of registration with the government. Just now we can do any kind of social work but to receive money from an international donor we need this second step. So this is a challenge we face,” said Niger Sultana.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement?
“A community led process is the key to success.”
“Sex work is work!”
Do you have one message for people outside of the movement?
“If you are unable to respect us – at least don’t hate us.”
“Even if you do not understand us, don’t promote policies that harm us.”