Independent Appeal: Sex workers dicing with death in Bangladesh

Charities must overcome the disapproval of a conservative society to teach prostitutes about safe sex
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The Independent Online

Ajij lives a double life – half in public, half in the shadows. During the day he works as a helper in a restaurant kitchen. In the evening, the slightly-built 25-year-old has sex with men for money in one of Bogra's many cheap hotels.

His customers are students, rickshaw drivers, police and soldiers – everyday people. Away from prying eyes, they pay anywhere between 10p and a pound, depending on what they want from the young man. Afterwards they quietly leave and return to their other lives.

"At the weekend I have a long line of police and soldiers," says Ajij, who says he has up to 25 clients a week. "Some are married, some are unmarried. We don't question them."

Bangladesh's male prostitutes operate on the edge of this conservative Muslim society. Commonplace but little discussed, they are vulnerable to harassment, extortion and violence. They are vulnerable, too, to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.

Ajij's double life could hardly be more complete. Having started selling sex when he was just 10 years old, he married at the age of 18 under pressure from his family. His wife and five-year-old daughter live in a village outside the city, unaware of his real existence. Meanwhile, he lives and works in Bogra, where he also has a male partner. That relationship, he stresses, is about love, not money.

"When I got married there was a lot of social pressure. I did not know I was homosexual until after I got married," he says. "In Bangladesh, the life of a homosexual is very secret ... There is restriction from society but the [male sex trade] is growing."

The potential dangers from this secretive trade are obvious. But educating sex workers about safe sex and the use of condoms is not as straightforward as it perhaps should be. NGOs and charities working in the field are constantly having to fight disapproval from certain sectors of Bangladeshi society, notably religious conservatives. What a charity might consider health awareness and education can be just as easily be seen by critics as promotion of an irreligious lifestyle.

There have been instances where outreach workers have been harassed by local police and government officials. Sometimes maintaining a low profile is the most effective option. Sometimes, however, the staff battle to persuade their critics of the value of what they are doing.

"I think it is still secret. We are working with an area of the community that is very vulnerable," says Muradujjaman, the health manager of a drop-in centre in Bogra run by the charity Light House. "It's very challenging work to try to reduce their risk level. Sometimes the people we are working with are not very educated."

Light House, a Bangladeshi-based partner of Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) – one of the charities for which money is being raised by The Independent Christmas Appeal – has for the past 10 years been running health education programmes for both male and female sex workers in Bogra. Around 500 men are on its books.

Kathy Peach is one of the British VSO volunteers who have worked with Light House. Before volunteering she had worked in advertising and with the Department for International Development. Once in Bangladesh she brought her professional skills to bear on the sex workers' problems – and those of Light House's outreach workers who were also afraid.

"It's a tough, often thankless job with huge stigma attached to it," she says of the work done by the outreach staff on the streets of Bogra. "I was impressed by the resilience, courage and dedication of all the outreach workers I met." But the workers were regularly being attacked by members of the local law enforcement agencies – or else subjected to extortion. "The result was that many outreach workers were scared to do their jobs and it was becoming harder to get condoms ... to the sex workers who had gone into hiding."

Using her advocacy skills she devised a strategy through which the workers were able to build bridges with the community. She arranged meetings with the police and army in which the Light House staff were able to convince them of the vital need of the organisation's work. Since then the harassment has fallen off significantly.

All the same, 22-year-old Ekalas still keeps a low profile. This shy young man works at a tailor's shop, but as evening descends on this dusty city of a million people, men will come to the shop in search of more than needlework. "Most of my clients I know," says Ekalas. "If it is someone new they will come to the shop and ask for me by name, so I know."

Having started in the sex trade when he was 17, Ekalas estimates he has around seven or eight customers a week. He says he earns up to £3 a time. He has four brothers and five sisters and he says none of them know that he works as a male prostitute. Since coming to the regular sessions organised by Light House, he says he has been persuaded of the importance of condoms and tries to demand that his clients use them.

"There are huge numbers of male sex workers in Bogra. They range in age from 13 to 67," says Ekalas. But it is dangerous work. The young men say that after sex, customers often refuse to pay the agreed price. And there is always the hovering threat of violence; on one occasion Ajij went with a customer to a construction site where he discovered there was a group of men waiting for them. He was forced to jump from the third floor of a partly constructed house in order to escape being gang-raped.

As for the future, Ekalas says he would like to get out of prostitution. But, as he explains, the key factor is economics. His boss at the shop pays him only a quarter of what their customers pay for the shirts that Ekalas makes. Sex is a much more lucrative option. At least with the help of Light House he is a little safer in that perilous profession, and considerably less likely to assist with the spread of the Aids epidemic. It is progress, of a kind.