Updated 8th August 1999

This alert is being sent out by Shonghoti, an alliance of 62 organisations in Bangladesh who have come together to protest the human rights violation of sex workers at Tanbazar and Nimtoli and to build solidarity in support of their rights and demands. Shonghoti has emerged out of the Tanbazar Solidarity Action initiative taken by Naripokkho earlier in July 1999.

Pre-Dawn Attack and Forcible Removal on 24th July 1999:

On 24th July, the sex workers of Tanbazar and Nimtoli were attacked and evicted in a pre-dawn raid by police and officials from the Department of Social Services (DSS). Several hundred sex workers were forcibly removed to government run vagrant homes.

During the eviction late Friday night and the early hours of Saturday morning, the area was cordoned off for several hours. It is reported that several hundred police accompanied by senior officials of the police and social services departments were directly engaged in this operation. Initially, the women were reassured that only those who had opted for "rehabilitation" would be sent to the vagrant homes. However, even those who had not wanted to be "rehabilitated" were forced out and bused away. Although authorities, as quoted in the press, said that only 267 sex workers were removed, eyewitnesses reported that at least four hundred women were forcibly taken away. The rest fled into hiding.

Once inside the buildings, the police beat the women indiscriminately and dragged them into waiting buses. Journalists who have visited the now deserted buildings reported having seen signs of panic and flight.

In the panic mothers were separated from their children. Some mothers were not reunited with their children until several days later. The injured were not given any medical attention. Those who fled were forced to leave their belongings behind. Many who returned later to gather their possessions were forced into buses or trucks and also removed. Those who were able to enter the buildings found that all their possessions had been looted. Relatives of the captured sex workers were not told where they had been taken.

One of the leaders of the sex workers, Sathi, was beaten almost unconscious and dragged into a police truck with her 11 month old daughter. Although it was first reported that she was in police remand, the Narayanganj Police Station denied all knowledge of her whereabouts. The morning after the attack, they denied all knowledge of any untoward incident but later acknowledged that they had "cooperated with the Department of Social Service staff", as reported in several papers.

Immediately after the forcible removal, Shonghoti held a press conference to condemn the Government's actions and expose the horrors of beatings and sexual abuse inflicted upon sex workers being "rehabilitated" at vagrant homes.

The forcible removal of the sex workers violates their fundamental human rights to freedom of movement, shelter, and security. Shonghoti demands that the sex workers of Tanbazar and Nimtoli be allowed to return to their work and homes. They are citizens who have rights like any other citizen. We are concerned that what has happened in Tanbazar and Nimtoli is just the beginning. In the future, all women and children living in brothels in Bangladesh will be under threat.

Recent developments:

Many of those who were nabbed are now being detained under prison-like conditions in homes for vagrants run by the Department of Social Services (at Kashimpur and Pubail, about 50 km from the capital city of Dhaka). In many cases their minor children are being detained with them. While inside the vagrant homes, the sex workers have been constantly agitating for freedom. Those who have been able to speak to journalists have complained of severe beatings and sexual harassment by the staff of the homes. National newspapers have published photos of detained sex workers whose faces are completely disfigured with bruises.

On 27th July:

A habeas corpus writ petition was filed against the Government challenging the illegal detention of Sathi and her 11-month old daughter at Kashimpur. As a result of this legal action, the courts have required the Government to show cause why Sathi and her daughter should not be released, and why the Government's actions should not be considered illegal.

Following the writ petition, so far 80 of the detained sex workers have been released. The government claims that they have been "handed over" to their "guardians". In many cases they were simply released into the custody of pimps who claimed to be relatives. It is clear that the Department of Social Services does not have any clear plan or procedure for the release of the women.

Each released woman was hastily provided with Taka 5,000 in cash and one sewing machine, and alternatively Taka 7,000. It should be noted that this is not even sufficient to compensate them for the loss of their belongings and of rent they had paid in advance to brothel owners. In the name of "rehabilitation" they have simply been made destitute.

On 29th July:

Evicted sex workers who had escaped detention demonstrated outside the Dhaka office of the United Nations Development Programme. They had heard that UNDP had extended assistance to the Department of Social Welfare for a brothel-based development project for sex workers (see the Background section below). They felt strongly that UNDP should not watch in silence while the Government evicted and illegally detained them, especially as such actions are contrary to the Government's own stated project goals. They wanted their voices to be heard by the international community, which is what the UNDP office represented to them.

Many of the placards they held complained that there was no one else to whom they could turn, as Bangladesh has neither an independent judiciary, nor an independent human rights commission, nor an ombudsman's office.

On 30th July:

About 40 people representing Shonghoti attempted to hold a silent, peaceful demonstration at the Tanbazar brothel area to protest the violation of the sex workers' rights. Almost as soon as it began, the demonstration was attacked by a handful of well-known local thugs, who created a panic by firing shotguns and pistols into the air and exploding bombs.

Though this incident took place in broad daylight only 50 yards from the Narayanganj Sadar Police Station, the police took no action to protect the demonstrators, though they were informed of the protest in advance. Though the police had been deployed in the Tanbazar brothel area for over a month, they were conspicuously absent during the demonstration and attack. This incident shows beyond doubt that Narayanganj is held hostage by armed thugs who enjoy the collusion of the police and local administration.

Local thugs, with full support of the Narayanganj police, had patrolled the riverside all morning preventing any woman from crossing the Sitalakhya river suspecting she may be an escaped sex worker attempting to join the human rights workers protest or to return to the brothels.

On 1st August:

Five NGO's and voluntary organisations on behalf of Shonghoti (Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, Naripokkho, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, Bangladesh Manabadhikar Sangbadik Forum, and Ain-o-Shalish Kendro) filed a writ petition in the High Court. The writ asked the Court to require the Government to show cause as to:

  1. Why the sex workers in confinement should not be allowed to return to their accommodations in Tanbazar and Nimtoli, and

  2. Why the Government's actions should not be considered illegal, in which case the Government should compensate the sex workers for their loss and injury.

Officials of the Ministries of Home Affairs and Social Welfare and the Deputy Commissioner of Narayanganj were made respondent to the complaint. The court issued a Rule Nisi against the Government, granting four weeks in which to reply why its actions should not be considered a violation of fundamental human rights and why the detainment in vagrant homes should not be considered illegal.

On the same day, representatives of Shonghoti met with the UNDP Resident Representative, who is also the Resident Coordinator of all UN agencies in Bangladesh. The UNDP was urged not to remain silent while the sex workers' human rights were violated, and to issue a press note clarifying the fact that the government's recent repressive actions are not linked to the UNDP assisted project. UNDP was also given a letter written by Shonghoti to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights to be forwarded to Geneva.

On 4th August:

Shonghoti held a demonstration outside the Department of Social Services in Dhaka to condemn its leading role in the repression against them. During this protest some DSS officials explained that the forcible removal took them by surprise; they had been preparing to take part in the UNDP assisted project for the sex workers. It is obvious, then, that an arbitrary decision taken at a political level has undermined the government's own efforts to engage in a phased, longer term project which could improve the living conditions of the sex workers while creating alternative livelihood options.

Demonstrations continue:

On 5th August, Shonghoti held a demonstration outside the Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka where the Ministers of Health and Education were attending a seminar. On 8th August, Shonghoti held a demonstration in front of the Department of Women Affairs demanding their intervention in the situation in support of women's human rights.

In the meantime, the government has continued its repressive actions by now apprehending floating sex workers in Dhaka. In the Tanbazar area, the apprehension and harassment of any burqa clad (veiled) woman continues. The Prime Minister, during a high-level government meeting on 5 August, has issued directives to expedite the "rehabilitation effort" and has condemned journalists, human rights workers and women's rights activists for protesting the government's noble initiative ! It was also stated that the brothels in Tanbazar and Nimtoli could not be allowed to continue in order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially, HIV/AIDS ! On 6 August, the State Minister of Social Welfare presided over a meeting in Narayanganj where he announced that all brothels in Bangladesh would be eliminated.


Tanbazar is the oldest and largest brothel in Bangladesh. It is reputed to be about two hundred years old and is situated in the river port town of Narayanganj, 25 kilometres south of Dhaka, the capital city. Not long ago there were over three thousand sex workers living there with their children. Many of them supported their extended families with their income. Profits from the brothels also supported many local enterprises.

The recent murder in Tanbazar of Jesmin, a sex worker, on 30 June 1999, was used to highlight the underworld nature of brothels to strengthen local opinion against them. The murder provided the pretext for the deployment of police in the area. Once the police were deployed, it became evident that their main purpose was to prevent clients from entering the area, and to prevent sex workers from leaving. Water and electricity were also cut off. These measures left many women and their children facing starvation.

The sex workers at Tanbazar and Nimtoli appear to be victims of power politics. The brothels were largely controlled by supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition political party. Shamim Osman, the local Member of Parliament (MP) who belongs to Awami League, the ruling party, now seeks to curtail BNP influence and access to an important source of funds by eliminating the brothels. A fifty-one member Citizen's Action Committee, led by Mr. Osman, held meetings and rallies under the banner of rehabilitating the sex workers. The ruling party supported Mr. Osman and the local administration was unwilling to protect the rights of sex workers who feared forcible removal.

The Prime Minister's subsequent declaration of an allocation of Taka 20 million (about US$ 400,000) for the welfare of sex workers appears to have provided a pretext for the Government's repressive actions, all of which are being taken in the name of "rehabilitating" sex workers.

The attack and forcible removal of sex workers in Tanbazar and Nimtoli has disrupted a five-year project funded by the United Nations Development Programme and implemented by the Department of Social Services of the Government of Bangladesh. The project was to have spent Taka 100 million (US$ 2 million) to rehabilitate sex workers. The project would have provided on-site services to sex workers in the country's four largest brothels, including Tanbazar and Nimtoli. Skills training, micro-credit, schooling for sex workers' children, health education/awareness, and other services were to be provided. All services were to be delivered in the brothels, without coercion and with the co-operation of the women. The UNDP claims that this project was designed in consultation with representatives of the sex workers.

The week before the police attack on the brothels, a survey was carried out by DSS. The sex workers were asked whether or not they wished to be rehabilitated, although the conditions of rehabilitation were not specified. Most of the women in the brothels had decided that they wished to remain there and that the Government should provide basic services to them there. They stated this clearly in various meetings and press conferences, and particularly in the public rally held on the 22nd of July.

Suggested Protest Actions:

We urge all concerned groups, individuals, and organisations to protest against this gross violation of human rights. If there is a Embassy or High Commission of Bangladesh in your city, you can send a very strong message to the Government of Bangladesh by protesting outside it. Otherwise, please send faxes or letters to the Bangladesh Embassy or High Commission in your country.

Messages of Solidarity:

You can send messages of solidarity to:

  • Shonghoti
    C/o Naripokkho,
    House 91/N, Road 7/A,
    Dhanmandi, Dhaka 1209, Bangladesh
    Fax: (880 2) 816148
    E-mail: convenor@naripkho.pradeshta.net

Members of Shonghoti:

Naripokkho, Bangladesh Women's Health Coalition (BWHC), CARE Bangladesh, Hotline Bangladesh, Nari Maitree, Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, Bangladesh Human Rights Journalists Forum, Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh, Women for Women, Utsho Bangladesh, Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangstha, Ain-o-Salish Kendra, Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, Bangladesh Association of Women for Self Empowerment (BAWSE), Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP), Legal Awareness Forum, Phulki, Ulka (association of evicted sex workers of Kandupatti brothel), Durjoy (association of floating sex workers of Dhaka), Mukti Nari Sangha (association of sex workers from a brothel in Tangail), Odhikaar, Bibartan, Gonoshasthaya Kendra, Badda Self Help Centre, Steps Towards Development, Nari Uddug Kendra, Theatre Centre, Prodipan, SARPV, Association for Social Advancement, Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, Concerned Women for Family Planning, Massline Media Centre, National Forum of Organisations Working With the Disabled, Uddipan, Breaking the Silence, Institute of Democratic Rights, Action Aid, Assistance for Slum Dwellers, Prottoy, Thengamara Mohila Shabuj Shangha, STD/AIDS Network, Voluntary Health Services Society, Proshika, Shoishob Bangladesh, Shaptadinga, Rural Health and Development Society, Organisation for Mothers & Infants, SSUK, Bangladesh Nari Progoti Sangha, Dustha Shasthya Kendra, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, Nari Unnayan Shakti, CATW, Aparajeyo Bangladesh, Social Welfare Organisation for the Poor, Society for Environment and Human Development, PEDAB, Oxfam Bangladesh, BRAC, Monisha, Integrated Social Development Network, Nijera Kori.

News coverage... [Rights Groups]

Created: September 2, 1999
Last modified: September 4, 1999

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