Human trafficking is one of many forms of violence against women. UN Women defines human trafficking as the acquisition and exploitation of people, through means, such as force, fraud, coercion, or deception. According to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, UNODC, 2018, 72% of all trafficking victims worldwide are women and girls and 4 out of 5 trafficked women are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Unfortunately, women in Bangladesh are included in these figures and, although progress has been made, we have a long way to go!
The vast majority of sex-workers in Bangladesh are victims of sex-trafficking. Women, girls and boys who did not choose this profession willingly, but rather under coercion and force commonly associated with human trafficking. Often already members of vulnerable groups, they are lured into the brothels under false pretenses and then have their documents and papers seized. Other scenarios see trafficking victims forced to work for years to pay back the "loan" that the pimps took out in order to buy them from the traffickers.
Shomy Hasan Chowdhury, a Global Changemaker from Bangladesh, strongly advocates for the access to human rights for the sex-work community in her country. Prostitution is legal in Bangladesh but, do to cultural and religious reasons, it comes with much stigma and discrimination. Sex trafficking is a significant sub-form of human trafficking, as it is considered to have a high “Return on Investment” - as though human life and dignity could have a price tag.
The trafficked girls are often victims of child marriage, domestic abuse, poverty etc who escape these situations with hopes for a better life and more opportunities - only to end up in worse circumstances, working in the shadows with no way out. Considered an open secret, these women and girls live in terrible and inhumane conditions inside the over crowded brothels. Some are “floating workers” who are street- or hotel-based. Many are underage girls who are trafficked to these brothels and forced to take harmful steroids so that they look older. Most are exposed to dangerous STIs after being forced by the “Madams” (senior workers who are in charge of the girls) to have unprotected intercourse with clients in return of higher pay. The trauma, treatment and conditions places a huge toll on their mental health, which heartbreakingly leads to many committing suicide.
Even though most are victims and were forced to join this profession, they are one of the most stigmatized and neglected communities in Bangladesh. People’s negative feelings towards them are so strong that even people who advocate on their behlaf, such as Shomy and her team, have to face hateful comments, threats, and disapproval from society. Shomy is a passionate and long time Water, Hygeiene and Sanitation (WASH) activist who works with the most marginalized and hardest-to-reach communities; raising awareness about clean water and sanitation through an organization she co-founded with friend Rijve Arefin called AWARENESS 360.
When the team realized the sex-workers do not have the basic knowledge and access to WASH services, they initiated Project MBBS (Make Brothels in Bangladesh Safe), raising WASH awareness among sex-workers. A recipient of on of the Global Changemakers grants, MBBS has had a huge positive impact on the sex work community. Awareness 360’s pioneering work and courageous steps have motivated many other youth organizations in the country to give this community some much deserved attention, and they aim to continue their efforts to ensure WASH access for this community.
During the COVID19 pandemic, at least 20,000 sex workers have lost their jobs and 8,000 have become homeless in the capital city alone. Given the world is fighting a contagious virus, and their business dependent on physical contact, this community has been deeply affected by the pandemic. Under lockdown these women and girls, who have no income or savings, are more worried of dying from hunger than COVID19 itself! They do not have the privilege of maintaining social distance, or buying masks, or washing hands with clean water and soap due to their situation. Due to the social stigma they face, they cannot even go out and seek help. Awareness 360 took action!
They launched a global COVID19 Relief Fundraiser and were able to provide food and hygiene goods to hundreds of sex-workers. A firm supporter of “No One Should Be Left Behind,” the ultimate goal of Awareness 360 was to shed a spotlight on these sex-workers, giving a voice to the unheard, and visibility to the unseen.