Tales from Banishanta
The state-licensed brothel of Banishanta is a rickety village of sagging sheds built on the banks of River Pashur in Mongla, the country’s second-largest seaport. This brothel is a privately-owned stretch of land which is barely one square kilometre and is only reachable via a boat through the river. The brothel sheds are homogeneous in layout, arranged out in rows, and the facade is opened to the river for displaying the sex workers and for making deals with the clients. Spectators, who are passing along the village, point it out to others, not for its beauty but its lure and seduction. Banishanta is inhabited mostly by women, around 150 female sex workers live here, most of them do not have any sort of existential identity. They are unregistered at birth and possess no passport or document with which to identify them and so officially these female groups do not exist.
“Moushumi”, one of the sex workers shared a fact that it is nearly impossible for them to leave the island in search of a better life after they complete their terms as enslaved sex-workers and their only solace is to retreat into their imaginary world. The women either live alone or with partners but are bound to landladies (locally called Madame). Their children used to stay with them and hardly attend school as there is no provision of any educational institution at present. Previously there was a school which was run by an NGO, but it closed down a long time ago. They face all kinds of atrocities from clients, landladies and the police, who come every evening from Dacop police station for 'protection money'. However, they face a bigger problem, which is the threat of the rising water level.
They believe themselves as sad destined women who are both shunned by society and ruined by the rapid change in the climate. The hostile behavior of the climate has been creating severe intimidations of displacement for the sex workers. Every day its muddy shoreline crumbles like stale bread into the fast-running current of the Pashur River, which, at high tide, threatens to tumble over the embankment. Tidal data from Mongla port, Hiron point, and Khulna depicts that the average sea-level rise due to climate change in that region is in the range of 6-8 millimetres per year, with the water level during high tide rising even more rapidly. The rising level of saline water has also created an enormous threat to the livelihood of the island.
Nevertheless, Banishanta is fighting against the impacts of climate change just like the other twenty-eight coastal districts of Bangladesh. According to the residents, the frontal erosion of Banishanta has taken away close to a hundred-meter buffer of land that once was a part of the village. As the saline water encroaches into arable land, rendering it uncultivable, the land has been converted into a shrimp culture farm. This sort of destruction, erosion and loss of arable land due to aquaculture is creating a new pattern of displacement in the coastal areas and stimulating an explosion of hasty, chaotic urbanization.
The country, already struggling with various predicaments, now faces another distressing migration problem as thousands of people must make an impossible choice between scruffy coastlines and urban slums. With people choosing to move to other places for better livelihoods, how do the residents of Banishanta fare? As these women are enslaved to their Madams with nowhere else to go, society rejecting them for their livelihood ‘choices’, what is in store for them if this small village is ravaged by a cyclone or tidal surge?
The brothel has a bitter history of being tattered by several cyclones like Sidr and Aila which caused the deaths of many sex workers and for those who survived they wandered to neighbouring villages (looking for support). In recent years, Cyclone Bulbul hit the island increasing the suffering and torment of these people and eventually a major portion of the island had eroded into the river Pashur. The outcomes of this problem continue to emerge and this issue demands a national and global level legal convention. Though climate policies and climate-resilient development are discussed at both the global and national levels, the vulnerable communities such as the residents of Banishanta are often overlooked, therefore a more holistic approach is needed.
Nafis Fuad is working in ICCCAD as Research Officer and his main research interest is in urban climate resilience and development.