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Dhaka Tribune

Human trafficking: Climbing out of the depths of despair

  • Ashshash Project is working with victims of human trafficking
  • 6,000 survivors provided with social, economic services 
  • The project will continue until May 2027
Update : 22 May 2024, 03:29 PM

Merry Akhter got married at the age of 12. She was born in a small village in Phul Bari Union, Khulna. At 15, she became a mother. Within six years, she had two children and was living with her husband at her in-laws' house. When she was 21, her 25-year-old husband died from snakebite. Her father died exactly 40 days later.

She moved with her two children to her brother’s family, but they were very poor, and she was mistreated there. Merry started working in a brick kiln to raise her children, and her son worked with her. Despite her efforts, she could not manage to support her family.

Later, she met a woman from a neighboring area who worked in a factory and rented a place there. The woman told Merry she could get a job in a garment factory in Dhaka with a salary of Tk10,000 per month.

In 2018, 28-year-old Merry moved with the woman to Dhaka. She was taken to a house and left there to live with another woman. This woman was not allowed to leave the house, and Merry didn't understand why she couldn’t go to work or even if she was in Dhaka.

Merry described the environment, saying that different people came to the house every day to talk to the woman. When Merry asked why she wasn't allowed to go out, they beat her. After 13 days, she overheard them discussing smuggling her to Malaysia. She managed to escape with the help of a traffic policeman and returned to her village.

While sharing her story with a Dhaka Tribune reporter on Tuesday, she said: "I thought I survived that day. But I did not know my life would become more difficult after returning to the village. The villagers, neighbours, and relatives refused to accept me. No one would give me work. I had to stay with my children day after day without eating."

She said everyone started saying she had been involved in sex work in Dhaka. One day, she tried to commit suicide but was rescued by her brothers. Mentally broken, she constantly thought of suicide.

One day, some people from an organization came to their village and started talking to survivors like her. At first, Merry was reluctant, but later, with the organization's help, she accepted their counselling services. Once her mental condition stabilized somewhat, she started a clothing business with their help. In 2020, she began making handmade clothes with 10 women and also started a cosmetics business, regularly participating in entrepreneur fairs in Dhaka.

She said: "I was lucky, so I got out slowly. Now, the people of the village respect me because I have become upright. But many girls like me have been trafficked. Many have managed to return home, but they could not recover mentally. Counselling gave me my life back. I learned to live anew."

Lucky Akhter is another woman who went through similar misfortunes. Her drug-addicted husband left her when she had two children. Desperate and with no place to live, she went to Saudi Arabia by paying Tk70,000 to a broker. 

The broker assured her she would earn Tk22,000 per month. Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, she discovered she had been sold. She worked as a maid in a house where she received no salary, insufficient food, and inadequate clothing. She was only allowed to speak to her children once every three months. After two years of this treatment, she was sent back home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lucky said: "After I returned to the country, my mother and brothers pressured me to repay the money because I had taken a loan with interest." She was admitted to the ICU for seven days due to Covid-19, and her mother saved her by spending Tk80,000 on her treatment.

Both Merry and Lucky are now entrepreneurs. They do sewing work and have been trained in block batik by an organization. Lucky lives in a remote area of the Satkhira District. Her 21-year-old son works in a restaurant, and her daughter is in the seventh grade. However, she still cannot escape the trauma. 

Lucky said: "There are still signs of damage to my body. I was beaten inhumanely. I cried at night when I was hungry."

Winrock International's Ashshash Project is working with women and men who are victims of human trafficking. Since June 2023, their project has provided social and economic services to 6,000 survivors in nine districts of Dhaka, Khulna, and Chittagong divisions. The project will continue until May 2027, with 60% of the victims being women.

According to their data, they have provided psychosocial counselling to many victims, with 71% being women. Healthcare support has been given to 1,714 individuals, 74% of whom are women. Training support has been provided to 4,162 survivors, 74% of whom are women.

The image shows the launching ceremony of the Framework of Bangladesh National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to protect and assist victims of human trafficking in Dhaka on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

On Tuesday, the Public Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs launched the Framework of Bangladesh National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to protect and assist victims of human trafficking in Dhaka. The Ashshash project, supported by Switzerland, is providing technical assistance to the ministry in developing this document.

At the event, organizers stated that the NRM will be operationalized under the direct management of the National Anti-Human Trafficking Authority, with leadership from the Public Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Md Mostafizur Rahman, BPAA, Senior Secretary of the Public Security Division, Ministry of Home Affairs, said: "The Ministry of Home Affairs has decided to build a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder mechanism for delivering services to victims of human trafficking. We will continue the collective journey until we reach our desired goal of setting up an effective, accessible, and victim-centric system of protection for the victims of human trafficking."

Alena J Tansey, Director of the Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, USAID/Bangladesh, said: "Our supported Fight Slavery and Trafficking-in-Persons (FSTIP) project has been providing technical support to the Ministry of Home Affairs in the implementation of the National Plan of Action for the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking. This step promotes the identification of human trafficking victims and ensures they get referred to comprehensive protective services."

Corinne Henchoz Pignani, Head of Cooperation and Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Switzerland in Bangladesh, said, "This framework of the Bangladesh National Referral Mechanism to protect and assist victims of human trafficking sets a very important pathway towards making the state more humane, empathetic, and accountable to the suffering and plight of the victims of this crime."

Also present at the launching ceremony were Md. Khairul Alam Sheikh, Secretary of the Ministry of Social Welfare; Dipti Rakshit, Country Representative for Bangladesh and Project Director of Ashshash, Winrock International; and A K M Tipu Sultan, Additional Secretary of the Public Security Division, Ministry of Home Affairs, among others.

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