‘Every day they go back to their distressing job when night falls’
Sixteen-year-old “Tisha” and 14-year-old “Bithi” are like two peas in a pod. They live on a foot-over bridge in Dhaka’s Mirpur and earn their livelihoods by selling sex to men of different ages and professions. The two teenagers consider each other as best friends and dream that one day they will have a home of their own where they can watch television without having to worry about luring customers. This is what the girls said when asked what they wanted from life.
Two years ago, Tisha gave birth to a baby. She had been in love but the father died in a road crash before the baby’s birth. The apathetic teenager cares little for motherhood and leaves her child with her elder sister.
Tisha’s journey into sex work began after she eloped at the age of 13. Her family lives in a shanty near the Central Shaheed Minar. Sheer anger, triggered by her mother’s constant physical abuse, led her to this choice, Tisha said.
The teen has one customer a day and earns a maximum of Tk500. When the evening comes, she covers her head, except her eyes, with a georgette stole. She sends signals to potential customers: rickshaw-pullers, CNG autorickshaw drivers, college-going students and elderly men.
Bithi is more active. She works with as many customers as she can manage in a day—and earns up to Tk1000. “Oldies of 50-60 years of age are better because they usually pay better,” says the teen. A slope near the shrine of Hazrat Shah Ali is her spot for business.
Bithi claims that she occasionally uses Yaba, smokes weed, and drinks alcohol—but is not addicted to them. Occasional disputes with her boyfriend, who is addicted to marijuana, lead her to the substances, she says.
The youngest of six siblings, Bithi left home a year ago because she was not able to bear the physical assault unleashed by her elder sister. Tisha’s mother, who was abandoned by her husband, works as a housemaid in Dubai. Both Bithi and Tisha can write their names and read a little as they received some primary education at a school run by Brac.
In the daytime, they sleep at a drop-in centre run by the “Combating Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children” or CCSEC project in the neighbourhood. The centre offers them food, board games, and shower facilities. According to Bithi, the sex workers usually go there only to sleep because they are too tired after working from evening till dawn.
The girls said they were unaware of the necessity of using condoms. Some customers wear it willingly while some do not, said the girls, adding that they did not have much say over the matter.
As per a 2016 study, 628 street children (344 females and 284 males aged between 8 to 18), who have survived abuse, live in three wards near Mirpur Shah Ali shrine, said Md Shohidul Islam, technical manager at CCSEC.
The drop-in centre remains open for street children from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, he said. “We know that some children who come here are involved in the sex trade. We try to provide them with a decent environment but every day they go back to their distressing job when night falls. It is like they are stuck in a vicious cycle.”
CCSEC, a consortium initiative of Terre des Hommes Netherlands, runs a shelter home for the children of sex workers in Tangail. Currently, 130 children are receiving an education and other life skills there. Islam claims that these children have completely exited the world of sex trade.
Fawzia Karim Firoze, president of Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association (BNWLA), says to engage in sex work before the age of 18 is illegal under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012.
Bangladesh does not recognize sex work as a legal profession but following protests by sex workers against their eviction from a Tangail brothel in 2013, the High Court issued an order. It states that if anyone above the age of 18 wants to take up the profession then they must be allowed to do so with dignity, says Firoze.
However, according to Article 18, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the state will take effective steps to eliminate prostitution and gambling. This ambiguity in the law provokes tyrants to exploit sex workers, according to senior leaders of the Sex Workers Network of Bangladesh.
Recognizing the alleged ambiguity, Firoze said: “Yes, the Constitution also states that any adult can choose their profession. So for sex workers, the government encourages brothels to conduct awareness-building campaigns about health issues and STD-prevention.
“Putting underage girls in sex work is absolutely illegal. These children must be made aware of the health issues because they are the most vulnerable,” said the BNWLA president.
“Mitu,” 19, entered the industry when she was only 12. The child, who ran away from her village home following a quarrel with her sister, knew little of what awaited her. A broker brought her to Dhaka and sold her to a “shordarni” (female pimp). The lady immediately started using Mitu for business. Mitu recalls how she was taken to a hotel by a customer and raped there. The “shordarni” gave her food and shelter but kept all the money, she said.
Eventually she was fed Oradexon (cow steroids), in a bid to make her look fatter. “The ladies told me that I would become beautiful if I took the pills. They did not say that those would make me fat. The drugs resulted in drowsiness and an increase in appetite. For about four years I had no idea what I was actually taking.”
Shahnaj Begum, former president of Durjoy Nari Shangha, a platform to help sex workers, says she was raped by a former MP in Mirpur when she was only 11. She used to live in the neighbourhood with her father, stepmother and siblings. “It was a maternal uncle who took money from the man and made me sleep with him. It was a nightmare. I bled so much that I almost fainted.”
Shahnaj fled from the family and managed to get a job at a garment factory two years later. But the manager there used to molest her in exchange for her salary. “The problem was that I used to be pretty. Poor girls must not look pretty,” said the 58-year-old who now has a school-going son and has been off sex work for the past 10 years.
An exclusive directorate should be set up for the rehabilitation of children who are regularly subjected to molestation and are unwillingly continuing sex work, believes Azmi Akter, programme officer at Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum.
“We have time and again placed recommendations before the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. Every time we get trite responses that children are not willing to stay at the correction centres or shelter homes,” she said. “But the children have complained that they face immense sexual and mental abuse from staffers and seniors at these government-run centres.”
Akter stressed that there should be funding for the NGOs that are eager to work for street children. The work of such NGOs is limited by a lack of funds. “Flow of foreign donations is thinning. Many shelter homes are not able to function properly, many are closing down.
“We have been told that the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs is overburdened with work and lacks manpower. So, why not establish a separate directorate for children? This area demands exclusive programs designed through extensive research.”