UN Team Visit Tangail Brothel as a Part of the 16 Days of Activism Campaign against Gender-Based Violence

24 December 2018
Female sex workers welcoming Dr. Asa Torkelsson and others with flowers

According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2015-2016[1], an estimated 102,260 female sex workers (FSWs) exist in the sex industry. Approximately, around 5000 female sex workers are living in 11 existing brothels in the country. In the year 2000, The Bangladesh High Court ruled that ‘prostitution’ as a livelihood is not illegal, implying that the ‘prostitutes’ in Bangladesh now have the legal right to practice their trade, and evicting someone from one's workplace is illegal[2]. However, sex workers are subjected to harassment, violence, victimization and criminalisation in personal and public spaces. This leads to a systemic violation of rights such as the right to life, dignity, equality, and equal protection.

A sex worker carrying out her own business

Since November 2015, HIV and other health-related services have not been available in any of the brothels. In 2018, after a situation analysis, UNFPA and UNICEF with support from UNAIDS jointly started implementing integrated SRH and HIV services including prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in two brothels (Tangail and Mymensingh) through Light House, a national NGO.

The Kandapara brothel in Tangail, around 200 years old, is one of the oldest brothels in Bangladesh and more than 1000 sex workers there were evicted by land grabbers in 2014. With support from the judicial court, it was re-established in 2016. Currently, about 400 Female Sex Workers (FSWs) are living there.

Sex Workers and CSOs

As part of ‘16 Days Activism Campaign to End Violence against Women and Girls’, on 22nd  November 2018, Dr. Asa Torkelsson, Country Representative, UNFPA; Mr. Zahid Hossain, Human Rights Officer, UNRCO; Dr. Saima Khan, Country Manager, UNAIDS; and Dr. Rahat Ara Nur, Technical Officer, UNFPA visited Kandapara brothel. The purpose of the visit was to understand the gaps in services as per the needs of the brothel-based FSW and their children in addition to advocate with local level government officials to address the identified needs


Dr. Torkelsson and the UNFPA team visit a beauty parlour

At the onset of the visit, the female sex workers welcomed Dr. Asa Torkelsson and others with flowers. She walked through the brothel, spoke to the female sex workers, and heard their stories of suffering during their lifetime and even after death. The importance of the collective, comprehensive and integrated services to the brothel-based FSWs to lessen their sufferings was well reflected. 

During the walk-through, the visitors noted that many FSWs are victims of violence and deceit. Minor girls seen in the profession and children are more at risk of further exploitation, abuse and deprivation. Opportunities for at least a JSC degree (grade 8 certificate) for the FSWs exist and some of them are interested to get a further formal education. Younger FSWs earn enough to make a significant bank deposit each month for their future.

Discussion on SRH and Maternal health for sex workers

The sex workers are at greater risk of cervical cancer due to increased frequency of sex work and inconsistency in the use of condoms. Room rents are quite high and local musclemen were active to ‘protect’ the FSWs. Regarding the children of the FSWs, the mothers provide the most support. Outside the brothel, some daughters are engaged in sex work while some in the brothel, is thereafter an unsuccessful marriage. The older FSWs are struggling to ensure that their children inherit their land and property. Use of drugs and alcohol is another major concern that needs to be addressed.

Important people were a part of this discussion

After the walk-through, the advocacy meeting was held at the premises of the brothel.  Mr. Saidur Rahman, Additional District Magistrate; Mohammad Shariful Haque, Additional Superintendent of Police, OC, Dr. Md. Sharif Hossain Khan, Civil Surgeon; Mr. Lutful Kibria, Deputy Director of Family Planning; and Ms. Naznin Sultana, District Women Affairs Officer, the Municipality Counsellor, and Mr. Harun-or-Rashid, Chief Executive of Light House were present there. 

The visitors found that the local health sector officials are fully supportive about ensuring health services for the FSWs and their children from public facilities but unwilling to send health service providers to the brothel. Local police authorities are addressing the FSWs as their “sisters” and the Superintendent of Police committed that he will ensure that their daughters or other legal descendants will inherit the sex worker’s land/house. The District Women Affair Officer committed to ensure vocational training for the FSWs and help them avail social security benefits through government projects (Old Age Allowance, Widowed and Distressed Women’s Allowance, Maternal Allowance Program for Poor Lactating Mothers, etc.).

Dr Asa interacting with a CSO

Dr. Asa addressed the vulnerability of the female sex workers to gender-based violence, human rights violations, and lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. She sought support from the government officials to ensure healthy lives and improve the well-being of sex workers, thus addressing goal 3:  Good Health and Wellbeing among the Sustainable Development Goals.

“UNFPA is the leading UN agency for delivering a world that ensures “Zero” maternal deaths, “Zero” unmet need for Family Planning,  “Zero” gender-based violence, and “Zero” Sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA)” dedicated to leaving no one behind, “Dr. Asa added.

Mr. Harun-or-Rashid, Chief Executive mentioned that a lot more support is required from the government, development partners and UN organizations to ensure integrated sexual and reproductive health services and prevention of HIV and gender-based violence.

Dr. Torkelsson handing over a dignity kit

Finally, the team members visited the Comprehensive Service Center (CSC) within the brothel staffed with a CSC Manager and a Medical Assistant. FSW, their children and other family members received health care from the CSC.

Dr. Asa Torkelsson handed over the “Survivor Kit” to the CBO leaders and Light House, which contains necessary drugs, commodities and supplies to treat survivors of gender-based violence.  As an Ambassador of Change Dr. Torkelsson sought empowerment for the FSWs so they are heard, supported and motivated to make decisions and stand up for themselves.


[1] Mapping study and size estimation of key populations in Bangladesh for HIV programmes 2015-2016, AIDS STD Programme of MOHFW, UNAIDS and Save the Children.

[2] Sex Workers Network (SWN), Bangladesh And Sex Workers and Allies in South Asia (SWASA), Bangladesh Chapter SUBMISSION ON THE STATUS OF SEX WORKERS IN BANGLADESH TO THE UNITED NATIONS COMMITTEE ON THE ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINT WOMEN 65th SESSION, October 24 – November 18, 2016