Sex work and safety in Bangladesh: Nazrul’s story

“When I first got to know about HIV, I got scared and thought I must get tested. Now I never have intercourse without a condom.”

Nazrul is a professional sex worker and has been for eight years. Aged 28, from Sylhet in Bangladesh, Nazrul lives with his long-term male partner, who knows he does sex work. Two years ago Nazrul joined a group run by the Reliant Women Development Organisation (RWDO), HASAB’s partner.

“I attend meetings to hear about HIV prevention and where to get condoms. Condoms are convenient and available here,” he says. In Bangladesh, it costs around 15 Taka (12 pence) for a packet of three although sometimes he receives condoms free of charge from other NGOs. “I like the sessions. I meet people like myself, and I have a community now. I get support. There are many others like me there and I get to talk to them openly and discuss freely. I’m happy that I got to know about the group, I even discuss the issues with my friends who don’t attend, I transfer the knowledge on.”

"If I could get enough income from sewing I would stop sex work.”

— Nazrul, 28, Sylhet

Nazrul’s partner, a shop owner, does not attend the group. They have been together for 15 years, have known each other since childhood and his partner knows he is a sex worker. Nazrul sees around 10-12 clients a week and earns between 500 to 1000 Taka (£3.90 to £7.80) from being a sex worker.

“At first it was difficult to be accepted. If I went somewhere, people would say, ‘don’t stand here’. Sometimes clients don’t behave properly, they don’t pay me, and one person even took my phone. I didn’t know about condoms before the sessions but now I use them regularly. My clients have problems to use condoms but I explain about STDs and HIV. Since I’m a sex worker I can explain the dangers. Sometimes people offer me more money to have sex without a condom but I tell them I don’t care about more money, I care about my life.”

Nazrul received training with RWDO to become a tailor and now he also sews blouses and kameez for a living. It took him three months to learn. “Tailoring isn’t much of a profit. A local person pays 30 Taka (23 pence) for making a blouse but I only get 15 Taka because I live in an impoverished community,” he says. He earns about 500 Taka a week from his sewing business. “I hope in the future I get a job so that I can leave sex work, I don’t feel good about it, people are not welcoming. I can’t work as a tailor in a normal shop because I’m not accepted. I just want to get on with my life. If I could get enough income from sewing I would stop sex work.”

Groups like the one that Nazrul attends are vital because despite years of HIV/AIDS awareness programming by the government and NGOs, accurate information about the risk of HIV transmission is scarce. In Sylhet, a survey recently showed that more than one third of young respondents believe that HIV is transmitted via mosquito bite and about 75% had not received any information about HIV prevention. The significance of this is huge, as 43% of young female respondents reported that they started being sexually active before the age of 15.

Bangladesh has a low HIV rate at 0.1% (this may be because many infections go unreported) but it is on the brink of a general epidemic and young people, especially sex workers and drug users, are the most vulnerable. In 2011, Sylhet had the second highest rate of newly detected HIV positive people (12.4%) after Dhaka (22.2%).