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The BBC's Jill McGivering in Dhaka
"The earlier clampdown has not stopped sex trade"
 real 56k

Monday, 21 August, 2000, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Sex workers await court decision
A prostitute in Dhaka's red light area
Dhaka's brothels are located in small, squalid areas
By Jill McGivering in Dhaka

Bangladesh is waiting for a final decision on a highly controversial court case - to decide whether prostitution is legal or not.

In May, the High Court ruled that it was legal and that the government had been wrong in evicting thousands of prostitutes from brothels in Dhaka the previous year.

Now the Supreme Court is about to make a final decision and the community is bitterly divided about the outcome.


Our life isn't secure here - we are constantly frightened the government might evict us

Luchee
Most of Dhaka's brothels are located in small, rather squalid areas - a few narrow streets cluttered with hawkers selling drinks and snacks, and row of crumbling houses.

It is from these houses that prostitutes, daubed in thick make-up, solicit clients.

Luchee has worked as a prostitute for 25 years, starting at the age of 10.

She says the government's clearance of similar brothels in Dhaka last year has sparked alarm.

"Our life isn't secure here. We are constantly frightened the government might evict us."

Sex workers in Dhaka
Many minors are forced into prostitution
Her fear may continue for a few weeks as the country's apex court makes a final decision on whether prostitution is legal or not and whether the government's evictions were justified.

Harassment

Enamul Hoque, who provides medical services and counselling for sex workers, says a court ruling against the prostitutes may make their life more difficult.

"The police will take the opportunity and they will have the chance for the harassment of this group. The other miscreants also will have the chance to harass this group."


Prostitution is highly immoral, it is inhuman rather

Jamaat-e-Islami's Gholam Azam
Mr Hoque fears many prostitutes may go into hiding, which will make it difficult for care workers to reach them and provide medical help.

But some others feel that legalising prostitution may lead to an increased abuse of minors.

Many prostitutes rescued from Bangladesh's brothels are minors who were forced into the trade by circumstances.

"There's no birth registration in our country really - and there are always at present the notary public and the magistrate always giving false affidavit that they are 20 years old, even the girls are only 11, 12 or 13 years old," says Salma Ali of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, which represents the minors.

Moral lobby

There is also a strong moral lobby.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country and some religious leaders want a far more comprehensive approach in the battle to eradicate prostitution.

Gholam Azam of the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party, says the government's eviction of prostitutes last year did not work because it did not offer the women a genuine alternative.

But equally, he is very much against moves towards legalising the profession.

"It means that sex life can be a profession. It is highly immoral, it is inhuman rather. If you can rehabilitate them to the society, if people are ready to take them as wives, then this rehabilitation is meaningful."

Many of the women who were evicted from Dhaka's brothels last year are still working as prostitutes, but soliciting in the city's parks and streets instead of in a brothel district.

The clampdown did not stop sex work but it has sparked a fierce debate about what stance Bangladesh is going to take on the issue - ban the industry and risk forcing it underground or accept it and risk condoning an industry which critics call immoral and abusive.

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See also:

24 Jul 00 | South Asia
Sex workers fight for their rights
30 Mar 00 | South Asia
Dhaka sex workers celebration
14 Mar 00 | South Asia
Bangladesh says prostitution legal
13 Jul 99 | South Asia
Bangladesh prostitutes up in arms
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