Sometimes the doors of hell swing both ways. This much Shumi knows. She is 17 years old. She is far from her rural home. She is meant to be working in a garment factory, toiling over a sewing machine or cutting table 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to send money home to her ageing parents. But there is no factory here, no city lights or whirring industry. Just a dusty, pot-holed highway with a queue of lorries and cattle trucks and buses stretching as far as the eye can see, waiting their turn for an ancient ferry to cross the vast Padma and Jamuna Rivers.
Leaning into this curve of highway is Daulatdia, a shanty town of corrugated iron and battered bricks. Shumi came here with an older woman who visited her village touting the promise of city jobs. But now she has gone. The last time the wide-eyed teenager saw her chaperone, she was tucking crumpled banknotes into the folds of her sari as she disappeared into Daulatdia’s maze of alleys without a backward glance.
Shumi has been sold. For less than $200, her future has been deposited here, in a tiny room with a rag over a window and blankets strewn across a creaking bed. She has joined a production line, after all, albeit one where the business is lust and the output is pleasure for up to 3000 male visitors each day. With a population of more than 1300 sex workers, almost 900 children and about 500 shopkeepers supporting the trade, Daulatdia is the largest residential brothel in Bangladesh – and one of the biggest in the world. For more than six decades, it has serviced the hordes of men who travel the highway, one of the busiest trade routes in the country, as they wait to cross the Padma River, and anyone else who cares to make the trip from Dhaka, about 70 km east.
And this much Shumi also now knows: she cannot go back to her village. She has no phone number and no money, and even if she could find her way there, there would be no home for her now. She is no longer daughter; she is a whore, the carrier of a scourge worse than any disease: the curse of shame.
And so she waits. She endures the beatings from her “landlady” and gets to know the other young chukri, or bonded prostitutes, who work the madam’s rooms. During the day, Shumi sometimes joins them as they throw back their glittering headscarves, giggling, to share dreams of one day paying off their bonds and renting one of Daulatdia’s 2500 or so rooms independently. But her eyes are always veiled.
Tonight, she lies still as the breathing of the man in the bed beside her steadies and deepens. She sees her chance. Until now, her obvious youth has been an enemy, drawing the gaze of lascivious visitors ever-hungry for new flesh. But this evening, as she stealthily pulls on her client’s hat and coat, she is grateful she is still coltish. She might just pass for a gawky university student who has jumped a train down from Dhaka to take his turn with the girls of Daulatdia.
For once, too, the village’s nightly heave of drug-fuelled hedonism is her friend, as Shumi slips unnoticed toward one of the brothel’s narrow gateways. She has managed what few before her have achieved. As the girl flees towards the railway tracks, she passes first through a rocky, rubbish-strewn field behind the brothel. Denied burial on consecrated ground, it is here, in unmarked graves, that most of the women of Daulatdia will end their days.
At what age does a child realise he or she is unclean? When does a young boy understand his place of birth has robbed him of any right to an education or healthcare, or a girl that she exists for only one awful thing?
The children of Daulatdia seem happy today. They are not thinking of sin or sorrow, but of the unlikely vision of two Western women sipping soft drinks in their village’s main thoroughfare, flushed by the 35-degree heat and a relentless humidity that smothers the body like a warm, wet doona. Nearby, men spit red-tinged betel juice as they haggle with the sex workers, or blow sweet clouds of gunja smoke and play cards, waiting for the oppressive heat to fade before they choose a woman. But this knot of pre-school children has eyes only for the foreigners, erupting into delighted belly laughs when one begins talking to a large goat as it nudges insistently behind her legs for scraps.
“They are trying to tell you this is a goat, not a person,” our interpreter, Tuhin Nazmul, translates helpfully for Karen Flanagan, a child protection specialist with Save the Children Australia. “They are explaining that the goats here cannot understand people.”
Flanagan appreciates the irony. Save the Children has been running projects in and around Daulatdia since 1997, in recent years with support from the Australian government, and its veterans are hyper-vigilant about ideas being lost in translation. While prostitution is officially illegal in this moderate Muslim country, the Bangladeshi government has been no more successful than any other modern administration at stamping out the street sex trade in its sprawling cities. It also tolerates 14 “registered” brothels, most of which are concentrations of 100-plus sex workers living and working in self-contained communities.
“More than half of Bangladesh’s 60 million children are estimated to be living below the poverty line,” says Flanagan. “And among them, children of sex workers, in and out of brothels, are undoubtedly some of the most vulnerable, because they are already ostracised from the community and routinely denied basic rights like education and public health.”
There are three main reasons a child might find themselves in a brothel like Daulatdia, two of which involve forms of trafficking. With rural poverty rife, even as Bangladesh enjoys solid economic growth and urban expansion, young village girls like Shumi are easily enticed by strangers offering domestic work or jobs in the notorious sweatshops that feed the West’s demand for cheap fashion. The girls usually go with their parents’ earnest encouragement – and expectation that part of their pay will be sent back home – but in some cases they may be sold knowingly by their desperate families.
“Another form of trafficking will involve a man arriving in a village and lavishing an attractive young girl with his attentions,” Flanagan says. “It’s a form of ‘grooming’, when you think about it. The girl genuinely falls in love with him, and he promises to marry her – or will actually do so – and then he takes her away and sells her to a brothel.”
As nightmarish as it sounds, being sold into the sex trade for an average price of less than 20,000 taka ($270) is so commonplace, most sex workers seem surprised to be asked their feelings about it.
“I just accepted the situation as my fate,” says 35-year-old Rina, after describing how an older female “friend” convinced her to run away when she was just 12, after a fight with her parents, only to sell her to a brothel days later. “I don’t like anything about the work here, but what else can I do? I was heartbroken. Then my mother died, my father died, but still my extended family won’t agree to have me back.”
Just as grim is the third pathway to brothel life. “To be born here means you are instantly at risk,” says Flanagan. “Workers usually live in a single room with their children. When mothers are seeing clients, some will put their babies and young children under the bed. Later, they might be put outside in the alleyway, although some workers still try hard to monitor their children, even tying bells around their waists to keep track of them.
“Obviously, girls are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse themselves, and being groomed for future work here, but the boys can be exploited as well. The clients will often use them as drug runners.”
A more recent horror is the increasing use of Oradexone, a drug designed to fatten cattle, which some madams give their young workers to make them more curvaceous. The steroid can cause an array of painful side-effects, including headaches and skin rashes, and long-term use may be deadly.
Neglect is a given. Babies sleep wherever their eyes fall shut, toddlers skitter between boiling cauldrons of soup and gutters choked with noxious sludge: rotting food scraps, used condoms, animal faeces. As friendly and unabashedly inquisitive as they are, many of the older children are also unnervingly intimate.
“Hello, how are you living?” a girl who looks about 11 or 12 greets me. A moment earlier, she had been chatting with her friends about hair ornaments; now she is weaving around me like a cat. “You can be my friend?” she asks, taking my hand as we walk past an open room where a semi-naked man lies prone on the floor, watching Manchester United play on a battered television. “We can be friends.” All the while, her fingers are stroking my palm.
It is what she knows; after all, she has grown up in an environment where exhausted mothers must save their attentions for the highest bidder, and a woman’s ability to deliver physical affection on cue determines her worth. The day before, an older worker smiled as she took my scarf and folded it neatly, re-adjusting it to sit in place across my chest as modesty requires, even in a brothel. Seconds later, I felt a pinch on my rear and turned to find her smiling, rubbing her fingers together in the universal sign for money.
The starting price for sex ºvaries widely, depending in part on the age and physical assets of the individual worker and, in turn, their own assessment of a client’s looks and ability to pay. The bottom-pinching worker has services beginning at about 200 taka. Later, I calculate the exchange rate and realise this is less than the amount I’d put in a brown paper bag for my son’s school tuckshop order just a couple of days earlier.
But moral judgment is a luxury reserved for those with options. Here, life is run to suit men like Akram Shekh, a 40-year-old jute trader who doesn’t see the double standard in spending three days a week in the brothel with his mistress, a powerful madam with 11 sex workers renting her rooms, while his wife raises their two children at home, plus the daughter he fathered with another Daulatdia sex worker.
“I took Eti home because, as a good father, I didn’t want to stigmatise my daughter,” he says proudly, handing me a photograph of a smiling six-year-old. “And I don’t want her to ever re-enter this world … My wife wasn’t happy looking after her at first, nor when I started coming here, but now she accepts it because I am a businessman and a good provider.”
Shekh is just one of many men profiting from a trade they ostensibly denigrate. It is well-established that organised crime flourishes whenever prostitution is criminalised, and only a naïf would believe Bangladeshi police and its politicians are untouchable. So, how do you change things when an entire economy thrives on keeping you powerless? “You start with the mothers,” Flanagan says. “The grim reality is the daughter of a sex worker represents 20-30 years’ worth of earnings in the only work most of these women know … so if we want to change the future, particularly if we want to change the supply and demand for child sex workers, we have to change the mothers’ attitude and give them a stake in managing the solutions.”
True to this philosophy, Save the Children coordinates most of its programs through Mukti Mohila Samity (MMS), a powerful sex workers’ collective that oversees all aspects of brothel life. Both organisations recognize a primary challenge is to help second- and third-generation sex workers to imagine life outside Daulatdia.
That is why today Parul, an MMS educator, is holding a “life skills” class in the shade of a tree near Daulatdia’s rear entrance. Clustered in a small circle, the women study a series of laminated cartoons depicting the life of a sex worker, which ends in penury and shame, in comparison to that of a woman with an education, who funds her retirement after a career as a school teacher.
“Our children see an easy cash flow here,” Parul tells them. “And they don’t have any alternative vision. But if we motivate them to go to school, they can take care of us in later life. If a child gets out of the brothel, they can get a job and take you away as well. They can get jobs that are respectable and live somewhere where people won’t know you as a sex worker.”
She holds up another card, depicting several accomplished Bengali women. “We should motivate our daughters with stories of successful women, like Begum Roquia,” she says, pointing to the Muslim feminist writer whose science fiction short story, Sultana’s Dream, depicts a futuristic world where women take over after an enormous, futile war fought by men. Female scientists discover how to control the climate and build flying cars, while men are kept in seclusion. It was written more than a century ago.
At the end of Parul’s presentation, I ask whether the women would like to nominate any practical initiative that would help them achieve their own dreams for the future. There is a brief silence, then their voices rise and several crowd around me. “They are saying this brothel is no place to live and the children need to get out,” Nazmul, the interpreter, says. “And they are asking you to take their children away.”
Vee-see-tor!!” dozens of tiny faces line the fence of the MMS early childhood development centre, as the cry goes up to alert those playing tag nearby that a new distraction approaches. It is mid-afternoon, and several hundred children have assembled for “education support”, a classroom-based program for brothel children who remain ostracised from mainstream schools, or need tutoring to support their efforts within it. Meanwhile, their younger siblings, who attend the early childhood program, linger to play and sing. Crucially, the centre’s activities extend into the evening, giving the children a respite from the pumping music and grinding flesh that proliferate behind Daulatdia’s grim walls, just metres away.
“It’s out of control in there,” says 12-year-old Banna, softly-spoken in her neat, blue-and-white uniform. “I don’t like my mother’s profession. She understands I don’t want to be involved there and they [MMS] tell her she should try to protect me.”
Everyone knows Banna has reached a critical point. As puberty approaches, her body is becoming more enticing to visiting men – and more attractive as an income source for her ageing mother who, like almost all brothel workers, has no retirement savings, no pension and no access to public healthcare. Fortunately, Banna is able to board with her older sister Ria, 22, who was educated with support from Save the Children, and is now married.
“After school, I visit my mother,” Banna says. “She sees no escape for herself but now she is trying to help me. I tell her I’m an average student – but I’m hoping to become a doctor.”
There was a time when Save the Children did something very similar to what the women in Parul’s life skills group requested, establishing a “safe house” for girls who wanted to flee the brothel. “But the problem with building institutions like that is the children keep coming, while the underlying issues don’t change,” explains Flanagan. Instead, now the focus of the agency, and other charities like it, is to help the workers themselves run education and childcare programs, as well as a “Safe Space” for children within the brothel.
Staffed around the clock by sex workers who are trained and paid for their shifts, the neat little room is tucked just a few steps beyond one of Daulatdia’s busiest thoroughfares, a rare and orderly oasis amid the brothel’s tangle of human flesh. It is here that I discover Faith, as delicate and watchful as a sparrow, who hopes that while Safe Space represents a temporary escape for its young visitors, it might also herald a permanent one for her. “I told [MMS] I would take any kind of job to get out of here, and here they are giving me new training,” she says quietly. “I want to have a better life.”
Educated in a conservative religious madrassa, and paired to a violent man in an arranged marriage when she was just 15 years old, Faith had no idea what a brothel was when she arrived in Daulatdia via a now-familiar route.
“I needed to get away from my husband because he was beating me every day,” she explains. “So when a woman said she could get me domestic work, I took my baby and went with her … It was only when the landlady started bringing men to the house and I saw the other girls with them, that I worked it out. I started shouting, saying I didn’t want to be here and I was going to leave.”
Faith’s voice trails away as she pulls up the shirt of her son Nabeeh, now six years old, to reveal an angry scar that extends from his hip to his ribcage. “She picked up a hot frypan and burnt him in my arms. He was 23 days old. Then
she said if I tried to leave, she would kill him – and me, too.”
And so, like Shumi, Faith tucks her hope away behind veiled eyes and waits for her chance. But unlike Shumi, she has a support network now and is slowly building a life raft from her new skills.
“It is hard outside, even for girls who we help with vocational education and jobs,” says MMS executive director Morjina Begum.
Last year alone, the collective removed 22 underage workers from Daulatdia, as part of an ongoing awareness and intervention program aimed at stamping out underage sex work within the brothel. “But without training, it is almost impossible. They come back and we can’t stop them if they say they are over 18 years old and they want to be here. They are alone out there and this is what they know.”
It takes a long time to retreat from the doors to hell. But at a drop-in service for street sex workers in Dhaka, we find Shumi. Having escaped Daulatdia, she was reluctant to work in a factory, or anywhere else where she felt she might again be trapped.
“The money is better [on the street] and I decide,” she says defiantly. She can’t imagine the future, but she says she has a plan of sorts. “I want to leave this profession when my son Shawon is four or five years old, so he never has to face any comments about me, about what I do.” Now, she pays an elderly woman to care for him at night, while she sells sexual services for 100 to 300 taka.
“I have no dreams for myself any more,” Shumi says. “But I want Shawon to get a good education and become a lawyer.” Only later, when the young woman has been absorbed back into the mayhem of the Dhaka streets, do I learn what she has named her son. The English translation for shawon is “evening”.
Good Weekend travelled to Daulatdia with the support of Save the Children Australia. Names of some sex workers have been changed to protect identities.