Monthly Archives: February 2011

BANGLADESH: Mixed messages on sex work undermine HIV prevention

Crossposted from IRIN ASIA

 

Sex worker in Bangladesh: “I don’t want to live this life anymore”

DHAKA, 12 October 2010 (IRIN) – Civil society is preparing to challenge a recent government decision in Bangladesh to exclude “prostitution” as a profession on new voter cards on the grounds it effectively blocks sex workers’ access to HIV prevention and life-saving health care.

On 17 August the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) announced “prostitution” would be recognized for the first time as a profession on new voter ID cards. But pressure from conservative religious groups led the BEC to reverse its decision, according to Shahnaz Begum, president of Sex Workers Network (SWN), a local NGO that works in half of the nation’s 64 districts.

Election commissioner Sohul Hossain told IRIN the term “sex worker” was omitted in order to prevent commercial sex work, in line with Article 18(2) of Bangladesh’s constitution, which states that “gambling and prostitution” should be “discouraged”.

But activists are seizing upon Article 40 of the constitution, which gives citizens the right to “enter upon any lawful profession or occupation”, arguing that women, therefore, can choose sex work as a profession.

This decision is “ripe for a public interest challenge”, said Khaled Chowdhury, a lawyer at the Supreme Court. “Sex work is not illegal, but as moral and social issues are involved, it is not encouraged. The decision of the EC [Electoral Commission] may have an impact [on the acceptance of sex workers], as voter ID cards are now essential in many aspects of a citizen’s life.”

ID cards are necessary to open a bank account, apply for a passport, and to register property. While not required for health services, almost all other government forms require an ID card as proof of identity.

Limited legality

When the government tried to shut down two large brothels in Dhaka, the capital, a decade ago, 100 sex workers fought back – and won. As a result, sex work is now legal for women over 18, pimps and brothel owners.

But the ruling offers sex workers little protection, as police still frequently harass them, which, according to Begum, can lead to unsafe sex practices. “Clients are often taken to a dark alley and the sex workers have to rush because they are on the lookout for police. If sex work was properly recognized they could take the time to convince their clients to use a condom.”

To make matters worse, a sex worker in Dhaka who gave her name and age as Tania, 28, said police often demand half her average daily earnings of US$7. And without police protection, she has little recourse when clients are abusive. “Yesterday a client gagged and beat me. I don’t want to live this life any more.”

Health care

The government has offered no-cost health care to sex workers at designated clinics around the country since 1978, but the Health Ministry reports that only 2,000 sex workers used these services in 2009 (0.5 percent of the 400,000 sex workers the NGO SWN estimates are working nationwide).

Begum said the government’s mixed messages about sex work are hurting the fight against HIV because sex workers who seek medical treatment are often turned away on the grounds they are “bad women”.

A consistent government stance on sex work would help prevent such discrimination, she added. “The legal framework for sex workers exists, but it is not implemented. The mixed public health messages from the government and Election Commission are undoubtedly harmful for reducing the spread of HIV.”

NGO clinics

There are dozens of NGO-run drop-in centres nationwide that provide free HIV counselling, condoms and medicines, and a referral system for HIV testing to sex workers and their clients. IRIN spoke to 10 sex workers: All said they preferred to visit NGO clinics due to the conservative attitudes of public health staff.

In 2007, 67 percent of sex workers reported using a condom with their most recent client, according to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) 2008 Progress Report.

According to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in 2009 estimated HIV prevalence among Bangladesh’s 160 million people was less than 0.1 percent. The rate for sex workers was about 1 percent, according the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

However, the Global Fund warned that a highly mobile population, coupled with poverty and a low level of awareness about HIV, threaten to increase prevalence.

And until the law can protect sex workers and guarantee their access to health care, civil society leaders taking their case to court say that Bangladesh’s status as a low HIV prevalence country may change.

“HIV is not spreading at an alarming rate, but I believe it would decrease further if the government gave [it] full recognition,” said Begum.

Legal protection is one of the issues to be addressed at the first UNAIDS consultation in Asia on sex work and HIV to be held 12-15 October in Pattaya, Thailand.

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Filed under Bandhu BSWS, Bangladesh- Policies and declarations, Media-Indian Subcontinent

LGBT Community Calls for the Repeal of Section 377

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Sam is a university-educated Muslim-born Hindu of 25 years. He is living in Dhaka and works as a university teacher. Six years ago, after graduating from college at the age of 19, he discovered that his sexual orientation deviates from the cultural norm in Bangladesh. Today he is in a romantic relationship with a man. He also has had sexual encounters with women before and describes himself as a bisexual man. Sam and his boyfriend go on trips together, hold hands on the streets of Dhaka and share a bed when staying at each other‟s places. Since male-male friendships are traditionally very intimate in Bangladesh, these practices cast no doubt upon their presumed heterosexual identities. Family and friends consider Sam and his boyfriend to be close friends. “As long as you don‟t come out open to your family, you are safe,” Sam explains. Sam is not his real name. Afraid of the possible social and legal consequences, he agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.

Like Sam and his boyfriend, many homosexuals in Bangladesh hide their sexual orientation from their friends and families. “It is easy to live a moderate life with a hidden identity if one is homosexual.” In predominantly Muslim countries, homosexuality is often looked upon as a sin. Accordingly, the consequences of coming out can be severe. Some gay men who inform their families about their sexual orientation are forced into a heterosexual marriage. Other parents consider homosexuality a mental illness and object their gay sons to religious brainwashing or psychiatric treatment. Sam heard of cases in Bangladesh where electric shocks were applied to homosexual men in an effort to “cure” them from their supposed psychiatric condition. He is convinced that, “unless the government, parents and friends understand that a man or woman can be a gay or a lesbian and yet be a very good and devout Muslim, Hindu or Christian, the chances for LGBT (“lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender‟) rights in Bangladesh are low.” Society in Bangladesh is far from that. Homosexuality among men is seen as a morally deprived Western phenomenon that needs to be fended off. “While the existence of gay sex is at least acknowledged by most people though, lesbian sex does not even exist in the dreams of people in Bangladesh.”

The status of homosexuality as a social and religious taboo is also reflected in the Bangladeshi Criminal Code. Its Section 377, a legacy of British rule, refers to consensual oral and anal sex as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and subjects it to punishment up to imprisonment for life. Effectively, this section makes homosexual intercourse illegal in Bangladesh. Interestingly, prosecutions under Section 377 are extremely rare. Section 377, hence, does not impair Bangladesh‟s moderate image in the world and questions about the country‟s human rights record on the issue of homosexuality are avoided in the international arena. Not only in court, but also in mainstream media the issue has largely been ignored. The LGBT community is forced into a shadow existence and its voice is effectively silenced in the public sphere. However, mainly due to new media, times are changing.

Starting out as an online group in 2002, an organization called Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) has become a central forum for gay and bisexual men in Bangladesh. BoB currently has more than 2000 registered members, including school students as well as Ph.D. holders. Their ages range between 16 and more than 50 years. BoB is run by around twenty young men and has increasingly become public in recent years. In November 2010, it conducted the second edition of a festival titled “Under the Rainbow”, in cooperation with the German Goethe-Institut in Dhaka. Under the slogan “accept diversity and end discrimination”, the five-day festival included movie screenings, art exhibitions and musical performances and brought together leading human rights activists from with the country and abroad. Angela Grünert, director of the Goethe-Institut, explains her involvement in the LGBT movement in Bangladesh with the belief that “everyone should have equal rights in the society”, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation. BoB organized various other events, mainly in Dhaka, and its representatives attended international conferences on LGBT issues in Nepal and Thailand. The organization further provides homosexuals in Bangladesh with information on health and legal issues on its website at http://boysofbangladesh.org/.

Change on the subcontinent is also happening on the legal front. An Indian court in the country‟s capital, Delhi, decriminalized homosexual intercourse by repealing Section 377 of the Indian Criminal Code in July 2009, saying that treating certain forms of consensual sex between adults as a crime is a violation of fundamental human rights. For Sam, this is a sign of hope. He is convinced that, due to the profound cultural links between India and Bangladesh, the Indian court‟s ruling will spark a public debate on LGBT issues in Bangladesh and encourage the homosexual youth here to fight for their rights. “It is the youth, exposed to international media and increasingly educated, that is empowering the LGBT movement in Bangladesh.”

Some movements in Islam, such as the US-based Al-Fatiha Foundation, accept and consider homosexuality as natural and work towards the acceptance of non-heterosexual love-relationships within the global Muslim community. Progressive Muslim scholars around the world argue that Qur’anic verses on homosexuality are obsolete in the context of modern society and point out that, while the Qur‟an speaks out against homosexual lust, it is silent on homosexual love. However, in Bangladesh, religion remains the single most persistent obstacle for LGBT rights.

The LGBT rights movement in Bangladesh is growing rapidly and the voices for the repeal of Section 377 are becoming louder. The issue is bound to emerge into a public battle over the young nation’s religious and cultural identity, human rights and modernity and will pose a challenge to policymakers, religious authorities and leaders of civil society alike.

Rainer Ebert is a moral philosopher at Rice University in the United States of America. He is specializing in animal ethics and issues of global justice.

Mahmudul Hoque Moni is the founding director of the Centre for Practical Multimedia Studies at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka. He is interested in human rights issues, social justice, sports media and visual communication.

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Filed under Analysis of Homosexual Issues, Bangladesh persecution of Homosexuals, Bangladesh- Policies and declarations, Media-Indian Subcontinent