Evicted Tangail Sex Workers: What Happened and Where We are Now

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

Video: Kandapara, The Lost Brothel

In September 2014, APNSW’s Co-coordinator, Kay Thi Win, and Media Director, Dale Kongmont, visited Narichanka, the national Bangladeshi sex worker network, to discuss how APNSW can most effectively support the recent eviction of sex workers from the Kandapara brothel in Tangail district. To increase visibility of the issue amongst the international community a short film, Kandapara, the Lost Brothel, exploring the impact of the eviction on Tangail’s sex workers, was produced by APNSW.

In July 2014, over 1000 sex workers and their families were forcibly evicted from the historic red-light district, Kandapara, which has existed as a sex worker living and working space for up to 300 years. Following the evictions, Kandapara was dismantled over a number of days; its homes, brothels, community services and shops were alleged to have been destroyed by hired staff of the Municipality Mayor Shahidur Rahman Khan Mukti, a man from a powerful local family who many believe to have worked in collaboration with Maulana Ashrafuzzaman Kashemi, Imam of the Tangail Kabarsthan Jaame Masjid, to have Kandapara destroyed under the guise of expelling vice and promoting virtuous behaviour. However, local sex worker believe that the real reason for the destruction of Kandapara had less to do with religious beliefs and more to do with the property value of the land which the brothel complex occupied, and that the eviction was due to Shahidur Rahman Khan Mukti’s plan to develop the land to build a western style shopping mall upon.

When speaking to APNSW about the eviction, sex workers stated that they received notice from a local fundamentalist religious group, the Osamajik Karjokolap Protirodh Committee (the Anti-social Activities Resistance Committee), which stated that they were being evicted from Kandapara and had 3 days to vacate the area, or that Kandapara would be set alight, irrelevant of whether the district’s residents had moved or not. However, evicted sex workers stated that they had been deceived by the head of the Tangail district, who reassured them that the eviction and subsequent threat of Kandapara’s demolition was simply a rumour and would not actually take place. Sex workers allege that due to the promise of the district’s head that the threat of eviction was merely a bluff, they did not begin to pack their possessions or organise to move until the actual demolition process began.

Approximately 39 sex workers owned property within Kandapara, yet they have not been reimbursed for the value of their properties, nor were they consulted or had opportunity to negotiate anything involving the eviction process. Several sex workers, whose properties were inherited or purchased outright, state that they did not have time to gather their ownership and custodian documents; hence, it has been extremely difficult to assert proof of the ownership of their properties and to seek any form of subsequent redress.

As many of Kandapara’s residents and workers were relaxed about the situation, believing the district head’s reassurance that the threat of eviction and destruction of the complex were merely the Osamajik Karjokolap Protirodh Committee posturing, it was not until the actual demolition began that many residents began to pack and move their possessions. As the entrances to Kandapara compound were extremely narrow, sex workers reported that it was difficult for fleeing residents to move their possessions and that whilst they ferried their possessions from their homes to hired forms of transportation waiting outside the compound, many evictees were charged extortionate fees for standard services and/or had their possessions stolen by unscrupulous rickshaw drivers and other hired help.

The eviction and subsequent destruction of Kandapara has had a number of disastrous consequences for sex workers and their families -for many Tangail has been an intergenerational home -being born, raised and residing in Kandapara throughout their lives. Nari Mukti Sangho, the Tangail sex worker organisation, are currently without an office, which has made organising advocacy actions extremely difficult; however, in July, sex workers evicted from Kandapara and Madaripur (a brothel compound which was closed over 12 months ago in similar circumstances) subsequently organised a human chain outside Dhaka’s National Press Club to draw attention to the issue. The Society for Social Services (SSS), which was established to take care of sex workers’ children, was temporarily closed, which impacted on many women’s ability to work. Similarly, many women who had migrated to Tangail from other regions of Bangladesh, leaving their children in the care of extended families and friends, reported that following the closure of Tangail they have found it extremely difficult to regularly send money to their children’s carers, which has impacted on their children’s ability to access educational institutes, due to the high price of school fees and related living costs. The health clinic within the Tangail brothel complex has closed down and sex workers are now without access to sexual health services, including no access to ARV treatment - a significant issue for HIV positive sex workers who must take ARV medication daily or risk developing opportunistic infections, viral mutation and/or immunity to ARVs.

In response to the closure of Tangail, the district’s Mayor has established a “rehabilitation centre” for evictees, which aims to teach sex workers “life skills” and alternative income streams; however, very few sex workers have shown any interest in accessing the rehabilitation centre.

Whilst some sex workers have remained in Tangail to work from public spaces and residential hotels, others have relocated to Jamalpur and Mymensingh brothel districts. Many sex workers have relocated to Doulavir, a rural brothel district which is accessible only by a 1 hour ferry ride, and subsequently is not as economically robust as Kandapara. Some of the sex workers identified the Doulavir brothel compound as their only option for continuing to work and described their arrival in the rural brothel village as being less than welcoming from Doulavir‘s sex workers. One sex worker said that because the industry in Doulavir is so slow, local sex workers were hostile to new arrivals from Tangail, fearing that the meagre trickle of clients visiting the district would have more “choice” of sex workers and would be more likely to “try the new girls”, which would potentially negatively affect the income of the compound’s existing workers. Due to these fears, and the financially opportunistic attitude of Doulavir’s district head, sex workers also reported that they were made to pay money simply to enter the district, in addition to paying “rent” and other fees.

Some of Kandapara’s sex workers have returned to their home villages, spending time with their families and engaging in alternative professions whilst they wait for the situation in Tangail to be resolved. Other sex workers have returned to Kandapara to assert their right to work and are optimistic that the Tangail brothel compound will be rebuilt and that eventually they will be able to rebuild their homes and to operate from a lucrative working space. As for the future of Kandapara - a group of sex workers who owned properties within the compound have launched legal action to prove that their land plots were stolen from them; however, with no official documentation, in addition to taking on the interests of a powerful local family with a vested interest in the property value of Tangail, the situation does not look as though it will be resolved in the near future.