Reshmi* (name changed) says she doesn’t enjoy her evening walks in a nice, green park of Dhaka like others do. While a stroll in the park may be a healthy choice for most, for Reshmi it is about survival - she walks every day in the park to hunt clients who will pay to have sex.
“People come in the park to enjoy the greenery of it and have fresh air but for me, I come here for my ignominious livelihood, against my will, so that my daughter can continue her studies,” says Reshmi.
A young bonded sex worker, Reshmi turns 25 this year, but her life changed at the age of four when her father died in a road accident.
“I was living with my family at Khalishpur in Khulna district. My father died in a road accident when I was only four years old and it was very hard for my mother to arrange meals, three times a day, let alone study. I never got a chance for schooling.”
A life of extreme poverty
She continues to share her miserable childhood - “to handle the situation, my mother sent me to Dhaka for domestic work and I had been doing that for a few years. But when I turned 13, my mother forced me to get married to an older man, without my consent. I didn’t want to get married at that age so I escaped with a friend of mine, to change my luck. But worse came to worst, and I was trapped in sex slavery. Since then I am part of this trade,” Reshmi says.
After attending to three or four clients a day at a hotel near the park, Reshmi gets back to her little, damp house at midnight to catch a few hours of sleep. The house is only rented for nights at double the regular price, and on condition that she cannot show her face there during the day. She hardly gets the time to shower or have breakfast before it's time for her to leave.
As a hapless sex worker, she was lured by the promise of a better life by a man she married when she was 18, only to later find he was a human trafficker who planned to sell her across the border. At the time, Reshmi was pregnant and that actually saved her from being trafficked. She became the mother of a beautiful daughter at 19 and was instantly abandoned by her husband. Sh had not a single penny with which to feed her daughter and had to return to the sex trade again.
“Many a time, I faced gang rape and sex without condoms. I was heavily injured at times and managed to escape from being murdered. But I want to give my daughter an education, a good life. That’s why I need money and have to keep myself safe from diseases,” Reshmi says.
As there was no one to look after her baby during work hours, Reshmi was struggling with her daughter. She had no place to rest from dawn to dusk, except under the open sky, and no option of getting a health check. Then she came across the ‘Drop-in-Center’ of Save the Children where she is now enlisted for essential services.
In the centre, Reshmi is learning different life skills, getting basic education and receiving counselling on safer sex and HIV prevention. The lessons enable her to remain in good health to earn her livelihood and increases her confidence to negotiate with the clients for condom use. There is also a ‘Hotline’ and ‘Community Squad’ introduced by Save the Children and its partner organisation for the sex workers for any kind of help, like when faced with violence.
“I wanted to test my blood to be sure about HIV following the advice I got from the drop-in-centre. The test was negative. I go there everyday now. I have learned what to do in emergencies and how to seek police assistance. It helped me save my life,” said Reshmi.
It is estimated that there are 1,02,260 female sex workers in Bangladesh who are at high risk of HIV. Save the Children and its partner organisations have brought 26,000 female sex workers under their coverage to provide essential services through 43 drop-in-centres in 26 districts and bring them under universal health access with financial support from the Global Fund.
While it's uncertain if Reshmi and her daughter can live a happy life in the near future, there is always hope from Save the Children that armed with an education, her daughter will be able to choose a different path.
The author is Senior Manager-Communications and Media, Save the Children