The Ekota Sex Workers Association in Bangladesh uses surveillance teams made up of older sex workers to rescue girls who are being kept against their will in brothels.
Senior sex workers play an important role in the sex trade. Most are madams or rent rooms to sex workers who stay in the brothel. They have more spare time than younger workers and they also have a deeper knowledge of the industry. Their position of economic power within the brothels offers these senior sex workers a unique ability to influence who can be in the brothels and when they rent quarters to younger sex workers they clarify that no underage girls are allowed.
Despite this policy, however, younger sex workers sometimes bring girls into a brothel. When this happens, the senior sex workers keep track of where the girl is being held and communicate with her through small windows and openings. They try to find out whether she came there willingly, what village she is from, how old she is and who her relatives are. They then notify the sex workers association, which sends a trusted person to the girl’s home to inform parents or relatives of her whereabouts. In many cases the family is able to come to the brothel to rescue the girl. In some, however, the family itself has sold the girl into prostitution and is unwilling or unable to help her.
When it began rescuing girls from the brothels, the sex workers association contacted a range of local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to support their work and help the girls. The NGOs play a critical role in rehabilitating those girls who are unable to return to their families.
Despite their efforts to remove underage girls from brothels, the sex workers receive little support from the local community, which views prostitution as a social threat. In addition, the rescue of children by the sex workers threatens those who benefit from the sex trade. This places the senior sex workers and the association in danger. The women rely on the local NGOs for support in influencing local government officials to increase protection for the sex workers and to remove underage prostitutes from the brothels.
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In Bangladesh, a local association intervenes in private sector activities that violate human rights.
This tactic is effective largely because the older sex workers who are involved are in a unique position both to monitor and to recognize the problem. They have also built a solid network, through their association, that can safely gather and transmit information. This tactic intervenes at the very last stage of abuse, when the girls are already in the brothels, and facilitates their physical removal from the situation. Other exploited groups — perhaps survivors of domestic abuse, forced labor or forced migration — would also be in a position to use their experience to keep others from suffering the same fate. But it is important to note that they, like these women in Bangladesh, would be placing themselves in physical danger.