The daily sexual violence faced by street girls at Mirpur majar
“They come at night, they beat us and try to scare us, they tell us they will drive us out of the area if we don't do what they want – that's how they prey on the girls here and do bad things to us.”
- Amena, 14
On the streets of Dhaka, “doing bad things” is just a less shocking way of talking about rape and sexual violence – an almost daily occurrence in the lives of a group of young girls who live on the streets outside Mirpur Shah Ali Majar. Almost all of these girls have been living rough since they were children, usually driven out of their homes by abusive parents/step-parents.
According to Unicef, there were a total of 249,200 children living on the streets of Dhaka in 2005, with more recent numbers putting the total to 600,00 in Bangladesh, with 75 percent of them (450,000) in the capital alone. Out of this, a large number of these children are concentrated in Mirpur, living in and around the majars during the day and sleeping outside them at night, with nothing to protect them in these incredibly vulnerable conditions.
A constant fear of sexual violence
The Mirpur Shah Ali Majar closes its gates at 10pm and charges Tk 30 for a mat for whoever wants to sleep on the street outside. According to 14-year-old Dilara, five to six girls share this mat, but they are constantly in fear of local goons and influential men.
“They abuse us at nights and do bad things to us. They threaten us, sometimes they even use blades to strike at our cheeks, and no one can do anything,” she says.
“If threats don't work, they wait for you to fall asleep and sometimes they even lie down between us and touch us. If you are weak or under the influence of drugs, they just lift you up and rape you in the nearest field. There's also a specific house in the slum, where those guys play cards and have heroin. Who will stop them in the dead of the night? It's an insult to their man ijjot (honour), so the girls can't talk about it openly. We know quite a few girls who have tried to kill themselves after this has happened,” adds 15 year old Tanzila.
At first, very few of the girls admit to having gone through this terrible ordeal, but slowly their stories come out. “Almost every girl who is here has had something like this happen to them. It's not always thugs from the local slums, but the people from within the majar harass us too. When I first came here, a man from the majar called Kallu used to harass me,” says Shahinoor, a 15-year-old with a straight face and defiant eyes.
“There are always local boys who try to take us away. I'm not afraid of them, I kick and scream and fight. I've saved three other girls just by my strength alone, but it's not always possible. I couldn't save this girl called China, and she had seven boys abuse her. Take Mala's case, when she first came here, they took her and more than 10 boys did things to her all night. Isn't that right Mala?”
The young girl she turns to lowers her head and nods softly, but no words pass between her lips.
Doorway to drugs and prostitution
But who are the men abusing these girls on the streets? According to local development worker Mahmuda Khaled, every slum has a group of local thugs who tend to be the ones sexually abusing these girls, as well as men who work within the majar.
“There are also people who want to recruit these girls into prostitution who don't abuse them directly, but coax and coerce them into accepting money for the act, after which they have control over them,” she adds.
“Just last week we had two women come here and we outed them to the police. They gave us Tk20 each for our efforts,” says Amena. “We know that girls get sold there for anything in between Tk10,000 to Tk20,000, with darker girls costing less,” she adds.
By “there” she means Daulatdia, and it is common knowledge that girls who get recruited are taken to pimps in the notorious brothel-village of Bangladesh. When asked if they are afraid of these recruiters, the girls reply that at least they offer to pay them, and they are “nothing compared to what we face at night.”
In fact, there is a sinister link between the sexual abuse faced by these girls in the street and their slow decline into experimenting with drugs and prostitution. This is most obvious in the case of Tanzila, who met an older child who taught her to sniff dandy (a highly addictive and harmful adhesive) when she was around 9-10 years old. He also taught her to find clients who would pay for sex, giving her the funds she needed to fuel her drug addiction.
At first, Tanzila vehemently denies engaging in sex work any longer but after a little coaxing, she admits that she still engages in sexual activities for money sometimes. “Especially when I really crave the drugs, and I can't take it anymore, I'll do it. It makes no difference to me after a while. Why not? I'm used to this life, and men try to force themselves on me all the time anyway. I might as well make money off it.”
This sentiment is echoed by Shahinoor, who first left home at the age of 12, when her step-father tried to force himself on her. She admits to having a regular customer who gives her and Tanzila Tk100 everyday. When asked what they give this man in return, they reply “sometimes we give him company, sometimes a bit more”, and refuse to say any more.
They also tell me that most of the girls at the majar are hooked on dandy, which they buy in Kalyanpur for Tk 30 per bottle. When asked why they take this drug, Amena replies, “we have it to get rid of our hunger, and sometimes we have it for fun. Most times we have it because we can't stop. It makes it easier to deal with living on the streets. But it also makes us weaker, and that's when men take advantage of us.”
No happy endings
Is there no one who can help break this vicious cycle? Dilara says their assailants only visit at night, when there are no police to scream out to. A more cynical Amena adds, “even if they were there, why would they help us?”
According to Sha Alam, OC of Shah Ali Police Station, “we take steps against sexual abuse, but the girls have to step forward first. It's difficult to catch them if they don't, but once they tell us, we file cases according to the law.”
While this seems reasonable on paper, this is hardly the case on the grounds. Shahinoor says that the police only take them seriously if they give information about people involved in drug or prostitution rings, but at any other time, they are on their own.
According to development worker Mahmuda, “both government and NGOs have failed these girls massively. We focus on education and healthcare, but what is that if we can't guarantee physical safety? But that is a really difficult thing to do. Our projects don't have enough money, and even then locals don't want to rent out rooms to street children. The only happy ending they might expect, if the drug and sexual abuse don't end them, is to find a good man to marry.”
Are there any such happy endings? The pretty and demure Mala, who had faced unspeakable horrors during her time at the majar, finally speaks up about her marriage. Unfortunately, this is not a story of true love.
“My husband stalked me, threatened me and forced me to marry him. I had my first child and I thought I might be happy, but now he abuses me daily. I am pregnant again, even though I didn't want to be, and he still beats me.”
She looks away again with a listless expression on her face, while her toddler plays with Tanzila next to her.“All we can do here is look out for each other and provide for our own,” says Tanzila. “Like this little boy here. We can barely feed ourselves, but then he cries, and he calls us Maa, and we do everything in our power to take care of him. If we don't do it, who will?”