HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC) organised a three-day workshop for sex workers in Bangladesh from the 17th to 19th of April, 2016. A total of thirty-nine sex workers took part in the workshop in Rajshahi, a city in northwest Bangladesh close to the border with India. APNSW Regional Coordinator Kay Thi Win, and Consultant Habib Rahman facilitated the workshop.The workshop focussed on three themes: human rights, community empowerment and leadership. Using discussions, presentations, group work, role-playing, brainstorming and videos, participants explored the real issues that sex workers in Rajshahi experience and suggested recommendations to minimise the challenges they face.“This has been a milestone in the history of sex workers in Rajshahi,” said Shoeuly, a 32-year-old sex worker. “I have been working for sex workers for over ten years, but I have never received a training on human rights, community empowerment or leadership.”
Sex workers at the workshop said both community empowerment and leadership were new topics for them. They had never heard any organisation talk about empowering communities of sex workers before. World Health Organisation recommendations have emphasised for several years the need to address community empowerment, violence against sex workers and organisational development as part of HIV/STI interventions. However, all the NGOs working with sex workers only provided training on condoms, STIs and HIV testing and counselling. There was no other training or discussion for sex workers in Rajshahi.Some NGOs working with sex workers actively resisted the idea of sex worker empowerment and leadership. Several participants shared stories about when a sex worker in their community became more confident and addressed important issues with their boss, only to lose their job as a result of speaking up.Participants also shared that some sex worker organisations in Rajshahi are closing due to lack of funding. Meantime, all the HIV and STIs related funding in the city is going to non-sex worker organisations that have no idea about human rights, community empowerment and sex worker leadership.One of the highlights of the workshop was on the third day, when the Superintendent of Police in Rajshahi City contacted the meeting to request more information about police harassment of sex workers. Local journalists had been invited to the opening workshop session, and had been writing each day about the issues sex workers were raising at the meeting. Two sex workers went to meet the Superintendent of Police and discussed the issues in detail. The Superintendent said he had not been aware of this issue, but took it very seriously. He committed to addressing treatment of sex workers during the police coordination meeting with all police officers, with a clear message: stop police violence.At the end of the workshop participants drafted and shared a press release. It called on all the people and decisions-makers of Rajshahi to stop violence, stigma and discrimination against sex workers, and to protect the human rights of sex workers.The workshop was made possible through funding from the Red Umbrella Fund.