In My Own Words: Why I Work to Ensure Sex Workers Have Access to Clean Water and Safe Hygiene, Too
Shomy Hasan Chowdhury is working to ensure access to water and sanitation in Bangladesh’s brothels.
“In My Own Words” is a content series that promotes and amplifies the voices of activists leading the fight against extreme poverty and its root causes — both in their own communities and around the world. We want to give people the opportunity to tell their own stories, unfiltered and in their own words, because everyone needs to be heard to achieve a world that’s equal and fair for all.
My name is Shomy Hasan Chowdhury and I am a 25-year-old woman from Bangladesh. I graduated with an economics degree from Universiti Putra Malaysia in 2019 and currently I spend most of my time working for Awareness 360, an organization I co-created with my friend Rijve Arefin, that empowers young people to do community service projects in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. One of our focus areas is water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); we reach out to different vulnerable communities to raise awareness for different WASH aspects.
I lost my mother to diarrhea within just one day.
It was then that I realized how critical WASH education could be in saving lives. I knew I would not get my mother back, but I knew I could save many other lives. I turned my pain into passion and began to raise awareness among people who needed it the most. Sex workers are at the top of that list.
With the help of the international youth organization Global Changemakers, we launched Project Make Brothels in Bangladesh Safe (MBBS) in 2017, with the goal of providing WASH education to sex workers.
Bangladesh is one of the few countries with a Muslim-majority population in the world where prostitution is legal. There are 20 brothel-villages across the country and countless other illegal settlements. Unfortunately, due to the stigma associated with this profession, sex workers do not receive any respect and are often deprived of basic human rights, including access to WASH facilities.
I saw it firsthand when I went to a brothel with my team to conduct a WASH campaign in a town about a four-hour drive from the capital city, Dhaka. It was our first time entering a brothel — and one of the most challenging projects we ever undertook.
Getting access to the brothel was really difficult, but convincing the "madams" to let us in was even harder. Madams are women who used to be sex workers themselves and now "rule" a number of workers. We had to make multiple trips just to assure them that we were not there to ruin their business, but solely to introduce concepts related to healthy living. We had to hear this a lot: "Our girls work during the night and sleep during the day. We don’t have time for you."
Managing permission from the local authorities and ensuring police protection for our volunteers was another rigorous struggle.
Our program beneficiaries themselves do not often realize why we are there in the first place and this was uniquely challenging with the sex workers, in particular. Some of our volunteers were teased during the project and we were unsure if they were listening to what we had to say.
Over 1,000 girls and women lived in that brothel’s constricted space in extremely unhygienic conditions. As we walked in, we found garbage lying all around, and the place was suffocating. The sex workers did not have any knowledge of hygiene, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Even though the brothel is in the heart of the city, they are isolated from society. This scenario is not an exception compared to other brothels.
The actual number of people residing in brothels and the statistics reported differ to a great degree, as the people who are trafficked into these brothels are not counted. It is an open secret that corruption feeds into this process. Police and local government officials are bribed by the brothel owners and pimps to facilitate their business.
Underage girls, unwed mothers, orphans, and people from low-income families are highly vulnerable to being sold to these brothels and forced into this profession. The sex workers are supposed to have legal documents proving they are over 18, but making fake papers is apparently too easy.
The underage or "not-so-healthy" sex workers are told by the madams to take pills typically used by farmers for fattening cattle so that they look more shapely. These girls have no idea how detrimental these pills can be to their health or that they may even lead to death. Some actually think they are good for them, since their "demand" rises as a result of their body changing. They are also forced to have unprotected intercourse to receive higher pay from clients, completely disregarding the fact that they are being exposed to different sexually transmitted diseases/
Sex workers who willingly choose this profession often struggle with poverty and have few other options for work. They are often survivors of assault and abuse of many forms, which takes a toll on their mental health.
Shomy is a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Activist from 🇧🇩 who dedicates her life work to ensuring clean water and sanitation for all— The Diana Award (@DianaAward) August 12, 2019
After losing her mother to diarrhoea, Shomy turned her pain into purpose to raise awareness of WASH#YouthDay@WeAreGCM@ShomyChowdhurypic.twitter.com/a2McfTcQVf
Lack of education and awareness placed these girls and women in the dark for generations. Some girls continue in their mothers’ footsteps and the boys grow up to be pimps. Some do not escape even if they get the rare chance to, in fear of losing the acceptance of their families.
These girls and women follow little to no proper personal hygiene regiment, including when it comes to menstrual hygiene management. During our WASH talk, we taught them how to wash their hands properly, how to maintain menstrual hygiene, and that there is nothing shameful about it. We also went over the significance of drinking clean water, having a clean environment, food safety, and more. During a follow-up visit, we found one of our handwashing posters still stuck on their wall, which we believe indicates success.
It is really difficult to get people to change their behavior, especially when it comes to things like proper handwashing. It is important for us as WASH activists to educate them, follow up, track long-term success, and show them how it can be beneficial to them in terms of health, community, and even business.
Building awareness at the grassroots level is the first step. Strengthening the leadership skills of young people and empowering them as a driving force to join the mission is a great way to generate impact. And finally, taking these experiences to world leaders and advocating for greater investment in WASH is the task I take on as a WASH activist.
Lack of access to WASH facilities is linked to many other pressing problems. Better WASH facilities lead to better health, greater productivity, and more success. For every dollar invested in water and sanitation, there is a $4.30 return in the form of reduced health care costs for individuals and society around the world, according to the World Health Organization. It is high time we start prioritizing WASH.
Let us ensure no one is left behind, including sex workers. I would urge young people to take the initiative to educate themselves on these life-saving practices and hold the relevant authorities accountable for ensuring their well-being. Let’s make brothels a safe place for these girls and women, who often do not have the liberty and capacity to step out.