Neela (not her real name) fell in love and moved to Dhaka. She was only 12 years old, hailing from a poverty hit region in northern Rangpur. Before she even knew what she was doing, she had been talked into boarding a bus to Dhaka. The first three days were too wonderful - they roamed around Dhaka on rickshaws, visited parks, had street food and spent the night at a Dhaka hotel, but the fourth day - Neela’s life changed forever.
She thought it was a romantic trip to the Padma riverside. But her boyfriend sold her at the cost of Tk35,000 to a Sardarni (brothel owner, usually previously a prostitute herself) at Daulatdia, the largest brothel in Bangladesh.
“I lived there for four years. Each day, I used to have intercourse with 10-12 customers as the demand for chukri (bonded prostitutes) are always high, but at the end of the day, I would get none of my earnings. It was all pocketed by the Sardarni as a means of paying off the price at which she bought me,” Neela, now a floating sex worker in the capital, told Dhaka Tribune.
After fleeing to Dhaka from Daulatdia, Neela’s profession may not have changed, but her life has changed a bit. She now roams around Chandrima Udyan and Manik Mia Avenue, and earns about Tk500-Tk600 a day.
“The major problem the floating sex workers face is harassment by local goons who not only have sex with the workers without paying any money, but often take their earnings as well. But at least in this life, I am free to earn my own keep,” she said.
Neela is now trying to save some money to build a house, back in her home village. “I will leave this job once I have somewhere to go. Then I will do something else.”
What makes her happy? “Despite whatever that is going on in my life, I love to watch the cinema and I try and go see it almost everyday at the cinema hall.”
[caption id="attachment_262291"align="aligncenter"width="750"] Mahmud Hossain Opu
A high number of children are victims of trafficking
Most of the floating sex workers in Dhaka have similar stories of escaping from brothels in Tangail, Daulatdia and Faridpur – they had been trafficked, cheated or sold by their loved ones. It is chilling to think of how many were children at the time. Recent estimates are difficult to find – a 2004 UNICEF report estimates around 10,000 underage girls being used for commercial sexual exploitation in Bangladesh – but other estimates have placed the figures as high as 29,000.
“There are many cases of traffickers luring susceptible young girls to the city with the promise of marriage, better jobs and a better life – and selling them to brothels for Tk20,000 to Tk50,000 on average,” said Ivan Ahmed Kotha, vice president at Sex Workers Network, a platform of 29 organisations.
Currently, about 102,260 female sex workers are engaged in this trade through brothels, hotels, residences and street based sex work. Among them, about 4000 work in ten registered brothels, 41,350 work as floating ones, about 17,976 work in hotels, and about 29,078 work at homes, residences or what they call 'mini brothels'.
Irrespective of their categories, most sex workers across Bangladesh are constantly deprived of their human rights and security, and constantly face social stigma.
“Until the state recognises sex work as a profession, the workers will continue to face harassment at every stage of their life,” said Kotha, adding that most sex workers have little to no access to health care facilities, basic education, are unable to access to justice, and are always in constant fear of eviction.
A lifetime in the industry
Rabeya Akhter Rani, now 52, was raped when she was 17.
She had gone to a tailor to try and learn the trade, when the trainer raped her and sold her to a brothel in Jessore. She then spent the next three decades working her way up the industry, eventually becoming a Sardarni herself 19 years ago.
“I have four children. I have kept them in a separate place so that they cannot join in this profession. I am luckier than others - my elder daughter has done her MBA and is now looking for a job in Dhaka. The elder son drives a car, the third child is now a HSC examinee, and the youngest one is at tenth grade. I was able to do this only because I had a good Babu (a regular customer or lover), but not all sex workers end up having a good quality Babu.”
“I saved my money and built a house at Manirampur in Jessore. I now receive some cash as rent from the house. Also, I rent my room in the brothel to the chukri, and earn about Tk3000 per week,” she said.
“It's not possible to do anything else,” she added, urging the government to take the initiative and organize training for alternative professions for sex workers alongside sex work. However, she argued that recognition of sex work as a legal profession was necessary to ensure rights.