Hundreds of Islamists vandalized and looted a 250-year-old brothel in the district town Madaripur on August 27th. The brothel, with 500 sex workers, was attacked before the eyes of local police officials in the late morning by a local Islamist organization in a bid to "evict" the sex workers, under the banner of Islahe Qoum Parishad ("Islahe Qoum" means national reform in Arabic, and "Parishad" means council in Bengali). About 50 sex workers were physically assaulted; the rest fled their tin shacks. Due to the lack of security, they did not return the following night.
After the attack, the Islamists organized a rally and threatened to harm the remaining workers further if they did not leave the area.
The Islamist group, led by Mawlana Sharif, has staged a series of demonstrations in recent months, and demanded the that authorities dismantle the brothel. The local police administration echoed the Islamists: "The brothel," they said, "is not recognized by the government," despite High Court rulings on July 22 and August 26, extending the stay on any kind of removal of the brothel for one year, and ordering the Home Ministry not to harass the brothel dwellers -- a demand repeated by half-a-dozen rights organizations, including National Human Rights Commission, in a press conference.
It appears the local leaders of both main political parties of the country, along with the Islamists, are not only competing to buy Muslims' votes in the upcoming election this January, but are also interested in ejecting the sex workers from the downtown area in order to seize the valuable two-acre lot. The leaders of the brothel and the program officer of one of the rights organizations alleged that the local lawmaker and Shipping Minister Mr. Sahjahan Khan was also behind the attack -= most likely to appease the local Islamists and the conservative Muslim voters of his constituency.
Since 1998 many local NGOs, with the help of international donor agencies -- such as UN agencies, Care Bangladesh, Action Aid, Global Funds, Terre des Hommes -- have been working for the empowerment of sex workers, providing education facilities for their children and making them aware of HIV. Simultaneously, Islamists have been regularly torching and burning the sex workers' homes, and looting their belongings, sometimes with the help of politicians and the police.
In 1999 the Tanbazar brothel, one of the large brothels in the subcontinent, established in 1888, was dismantled in the name of "rehabilitation." In practice, however, contrary to the sex workers' hopes, thousands helplessly disappeared into the streets.
Later, the government evicted two more brothels; in last few years, Islamists have torched at least three others, including one of the oldest red light districts.
In 2010, for the first time, the government recognized the profession of sex workers on new national ID cards. But constant pressure from religious groups led the government to change its decision.
One of the election commissioners, Sohul Husain, explained publicly that the words "sex workers" were omitted from civil rights in line with Article 18(2) of Bangladesh's constitution, which states that gambling and prostitution should be discouraged. But the rights activists are depending upon article 40, which gives citizens the right to enter upon any lawful profession or occupation, and argues that women therefore should be able to choose that line of work as a profession.
According to a 2009 study by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Desease Research, in Bangladesh there are more than 90,000 sex workers in the streets and brothels, who do not receive proper health care or any government provision, as exists for other citizens. This community never gets relief during disasters such as cyclones or floods. While NGOs sometimes provide for them, there is nothing in the government budget. The government subsidizes industrialists and other sectors of the population, but does not protect the sex workers in fear the that Muslim community would not like it. This large group of workers is now under threat.