On January 5th and 6th 2020, sex workers from across Bangladesh, representatives from sex worker-led community-based organizations and regional sex worker rights organizations, along with key academics and activists joined together for the second Bangladesh National Conference on Sex Worker Rights. Centered around the theme Collective Action for Sex Workers’ Rights, the conference served as a platform to unite Bangladeshi sex workers and allies around a common vision and strategy for collective action to end violence against sex workers (VASW) and to protect the labor rights of sex workers in Bangladesh. Over the course of the two days long conference, participants built a shared understanding of the state of sex worker rights in Bangladesh; built strategies to challenge legal repression, stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers and their families; and create organizing strategies to develop a sex worker union in Bangladesh. One 22 year old sex work said, “we wait for this conference whole year, it’s the only event when we can meet together and discuss our issues, its not only activities it’s entertaining also for us”.
The major objectives of the conference were:
Empower the Bangladeshi sex worker community to challenge existing norms, policies and practices which perpetuate VASW through mobilization, capacity building and advocacy
Participants collectively identified priority campaign issues to end VASW and protect the rights of sex workers
Bangladeshi sex workers are familiarized with the purpose, scope and potential benefits of unionization as an organizing model; identify opportunities and challenges to unionizing sex workers in Bangladesh;and develop an organizing plan to establish a sex worker union in Bangladesh
Participants identify areas where additional capacity building activities are necessary to support the development of a sex worker union.
Building upon these pivotal moments that have grown the movement for sex worker rights in Bangladesh, HARC hosted Bangladesh’s second movement-wide conference to end VASW and organize for collective action to protect and promote sex workers’ labor rights.
The goal of this conference was to build a collective understanding of the current state of sex worker rights in Bangladesh and create a platform for sex workers to develop strategic advocacy priorities for the upcoming year.
The outcomes of the conference:
The two days long conference was facilitated by representatives from Asia Pacific Networks of Sex Workers (APNSW), HARC, and Mrs. Sultana Begum, President of Green Bangla Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh. Mrs. Sultana Begum explained the purposes, objectives and processes of the development of sex workers union in Bangladesh. She explained that its absolutely possible to build the sex workers labor union if sex workers become united. She promised that she will put sex work as an occupation under the ministry of labor of Bangladesh. The participants also show their solidarity to build the labor union in Bangladesh. One 36 years old sex worker said, “I was a garment worker and I know the benefit of workers union, so it’s time for us to setup sex workers union in Bangladesh.” Another sex worker mentioned, “we can end violence against us through union and its can be our platform to fight for our rights”. Finally, Mrs. Sultana Begum formed a small working group with 5 sex workers to work together with her with government as well as other occupational groups, especially with Garment workers groups as their union are stronger and advance.
The academic group discussed about their research findings with sex workers and also explained the future plan to work together with sex workers. Some sex workers complained that most of the academia do not involve sex workers with their research. They just interview sex workers without any real involvement. One of the researchers from Independent University of Bangladesh ensured that they would always involve sex workers with their research and would give ownership of the research to sex workers. However, she also mentioned some limitation of researchers especially limited funding and no implementation plan of research findings by NGOs/Government and donors. She again mentioned that most of the researches are limited within a report and no actions are taken after research.
APNSW discussed the sex workers movement in Asia and Pacific, and explained the sex workers issues with special emphasis on human rights violation in Asia and Pacific including violence, stigma and discrimination. The Bangladesh sex workers also brought their effort to end violence against sex workers and they mentioned the impact of “safety first” project. They also mentioned about the implementation of SWIT in Bangladesh and how sex workers are benefiting with the SWIT implementation. One 27 years old sex worker said, “because of safety first project I am here today. I was arrested by police and police sent me to court. The HARC lawyer helped me at the court, otherwise I could be in jail today”. Another sex worker said. “In Bangladesh our main problem is violence and we face violence almost every day, we need more work to stop violence, especially police and young political supporters violence”.
Finally, through panel discussions and dialogues, conference participants developed strategies to combat VASW and create a strategic organizing plan to unionize sex workers in Bangladesh. The conference was funded by Red Umbrella Fund and a total of 125 participants were in the conference.