A little over five years ago, Bristi had just turned 15. She is now about to celebrate her 18th birthday.
Indeed, the maths don’t add up. That’s because in 2011, when we last encountered her, Bristi lied about her age.
“I had to say that because, otherwise, the madam would’ve hit me,” she admits now.
Back then, she appeared to be an active, lively and smiling teenager, and so one of the most sought-after girls at the C&B Ghat brothel, in Faridpur, a chaotic town in central Bangladesh.
In the five years since, she seems to have aged excessively and you’d be forgiven for thinking she was now well into her 20s. Her hands tremble from drug abuse, her arms are scarred with self-inflicted cuts and her teeth betray a fondness for nicotine and alcohol. The only recognisable feature of the person we met in 2011 is the broad smile, now flashed rarely.
Bristi’s new place of work, the Town Brothel, Faridpur’s other house of sex, hasn’t changed much; it remains the grimy collection of concrete buildings we found on our previous visit. The walls of the warren-like alleyways and the women’s cells are now dirtier, the spittle stains of red betel – a plant stimulant widely used in South Asia – having climbed higher, a metaphor, perhaps, for the conditions those working inside must endure.
We have returned to Bangladesh in search of the women we shared several days with in 2011, to discover their fate. Although Bangladesh’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world, we find no fairy tales.
On the contrary:the drawings of smiling condoms have disappeared from the walls since the government ended its campaign to eradicate sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); increasing social inequality has led to a stagnation in the rates the poorest customers are willing to pay; and the fight against trafficking has only hiked the bribes charged by the police, whose presence in brothels as non-paying customers is commonplace. In exchange for those bribes, officers turn a blind eye, leaving the working girls more exposed than ever.
Asha is another who lied about her age. Five years ago, she told us she was 20, fearing we would discover she was underage. Unlike Bristi, she never smiled but, having moved in the other direction, from Town Brothel to C&B Ghat, she does at least feel more “free”.
After she had been taken from her parents – to work, they were told, as a maid – “I was raped, I was sold and forced into prostitution when I was 13,” Asha says, in the small, metal-lined cubicle where she lives and works, not far from where her childhood was stolen. “I couldn’t repay the money the madam paid for me until last year. Then I decided to move,” she adds, without emotion, as if she were telling the story of a stranger.
Since then, Asha has become a mother. And she has managed to save 50,000 taka (HK$4,800) since buying an acre of land.
“At the beginning, I wasn’t earning anything at all for my services. I had the right to eat and to stay alive. And I had to be grateful for that. Now I have to share my revenue only with the intermediaries who bring me clients. I would like to retire in two or three years and build a small house on that land, so my son doesn’t have to grow up in a brothel.”
For now, the two-year-old crawls naked through the mud that fills the streets of the C&B Ghat compound, by the banks of the Padma river, every time it rains. Asha cares for him as best she can but when she has clients, and other women cannot watch him, she keeps her son in the room while she has sex, hoping he won’t make a noise – or remember the encounter.
OF THE SEVEN WOMEN we interviewed five years ago, only one has managed to leave prostitution behind. A couple of years ago, Julie starred in her own version of Pretty Woman, we’re told, having fallen in love with a customer who married her and took her to live in a rural area. Her friends say, with a pinch of envy, that she’s happy taking care of a little plot.
For the rest of them, escape remains an economic impossibility. Asha, for example, charges between 100 and 200 taka per client, but if they stay the night, the rate can rise to 1,000 taka. However, she says, “purchasing power has fallen, so my takings barely stretch enough to survive and buy some ‘ganja’. Without [marijuana], it would be impossible to live here.”
Fortunately, Asha has not become addicted to yaba – methamphetamine and caffeine, in tablet form – which is consumed in significant quantities within the brothels.
“People go crazy with them,” says Asha. “Girls lose control and clients use the leverage to demand from them things they would never accept doing without the drugs.” Yaba and marijuana, are, therefore, of enormous benefit to the pimps in controlling the women they profit from.
Many of Faridpur’s 600 prostitutes also take Oradexon pills (Dexamethasone), a steroid used to fatten livestock. None of the girls we talk to admit to using Oradexon but they all “know someone who does”, and empty packages litter the rooms.
“Bangladeshi men like curvy women,” explains Aleya Begum, a madam at the Town Brothel (begum means “madam” in Bengali).
And then there are the home remedies, the composition of which nobody controls. These are sold from small stalls erected early each evening, near the brothels. Punters are told the pills and ointments are good for everything from fighting impotence to preventing Aids.
Like Asha and Bristi, Aleya was thrown into the sex market as a child, she says. She was addicted to Oradexon and alcohol until she was given her freedom. But with no education and without a family to return to, the only future she saw lay within the same brothel she’d been trapped in. There she worked, with the protection of a pimp, until, shortly before she turned 30, she learned the hard way that most customers are interested only in younger women. Others have to lower their rates or agree to “unnatural” practices to survive. The alternative is to become a madam, as Aleya has done, and live off the exploitation of a new generation of prostitutes.
Five years ago, Aleya was an idealistic woman who ran a prostitutes’ union. After a brutal Islamist attack on the C&B Ghat in 2009, madams and prostitutes had joined forces. They took to the streets and won a number of significant rights: to wear shoes in public; to have the word “brothel” removed from the address on their national ID cards; and to be buried in cemeteries, instead of their corpses being thrown into the river, wrapped in a sheet. But she has become disillusioned, worn down by the splintering of madams and their girls into factions and the impossibility of overcoming the economics of prostitution.
“You can buy a girl for about 100,000 taka, depending on her age and how beautiful she is,” explains Chanchala Mondal, president of NGO Shapla Mohila Sangstha (SMS), which manages a day centre and a boarding school for the children of prostitutes. “Then, usually, her virginity is auctioned for a sum that can reach up to 10,000 taka. And, finally, you can make enough money exploiting her for a few years.
“Interestingly, increasing the economic power in certain upper circles doesn’t serve to improve the situation of those who have less. On the contrary, it increases the greed of those who want access to the higher echelons and are willing to do anything [including selling their own children into prostitution] to achieve it.”
Aleya says she doesn’t traffic girls, that all those she offers protection and friendship to work in prostitution by choice, but Mamataz suggests otherwise.
Unlike in 2011, Momo, as she’s also known, doesn’t meet us at C&B Ghat. She is in Faridpur’s jail, having been sentenced to 32 years behind bars. In 2012, she was convicted of trafficking, but Momo tearfully maintains that she was the victim of a plot by rival pimps and madams, including Aleya, to put her out of business.
“I’d had problems with another madam in the Town Brothel. She complained that my girls stole customers from her. So I was accused of having trafficked some of them,” says Momo, from behind a small barred window. She has a black eye and is flanked by two guards armed with sticks, who allow her 10 minutes to tell her story.
“But I never did anything like that. All the girls who worked with me were adults. Although it’s true that some of them had been rescued in raids carried out in India and Pakistan – upon returning to Bangladesh, they failed to find anything better, so I offered them help.
“Yes, I got paid a commission for their work, but I never bought or sold girls.”
Prison officials acknowledge that the prosecution was based solely on the testimony of an alleged victim, who wasn’t underage; and they concede this witness could have been bribed. The judge, however, was convinced by the prosecution’s case and Mamataz is left only with the possibility of an appeal, something she cannot afford.
“The cheapest lawyer will charge 250,000 taka to take the case, and I don’t have that money.”
Her only son is also in prison, for drug trafficking, and her two teenage daughters are struggling to survive outside the brothel. Barring an economic miracle, all she can do is reduce her sentence by good behaviour: three months off for every year spent out of trouble.
Hapeja, however, feels no compassion for the jailed woman. The 22-year-old sees things from a different perspective: that of a trafficked woman.
“My family married me off when I was 15 to a man who demanded a dowry we couldn’t pay. So I had to go to Lebanon as a maid to earn some money and pay him,” she says. “It took me two years, and he spent it all in a few months. Then the beatings started.”
When a man offered her a job in a garment factory in Dhaka, the capital, she says she did not hesitate.
“But he was a drug dealer who sold me to the brothel in Faridpur. The madam [whose identity she will not reveal for fear of reprisals] locked me in for four days. Even after that I refused to have sex.”
But Hapeja could not bear the torture to which she was subjected, which has left scars all over her body. She gave up after 10 days, and was held captive until last year, when she was rescued in a raid supervised by SMS and returned to her family.
“After spending 10 days in hospital I thought everything was over. But I was wrong.”
She was kidnapped shortly after she filed a complaint against her captor, she says. Thugs took her to a police station, where she was forced to sign a document. Since Hapeja is illiterate, she doesn’t know the contents of the document, but SMS fears that it will serve to dismiss the case.
“Political and police corruption help most criminals avoid ever paying for what they do,” Mondal says. In any case, Hapeja’s family want to move on and they have already found a potential new husband for her. But history repeats itself. This time, the chosen man is asking for 100,000 taka, the same amount the madam paid for her, to build a chicken farm. That would help him turn a blind eye to the stigma that haunts women who have worked as prostitutes, he claims.
“I see no way out,” she says.
ALTHOUGH SHE HAS FAILED to leave behind the C&B Ghat shanty, where we first met, five years ago, Rojina says she’s learned to appreciate the little joys in life.
“The key is internalising that we are just a few whores nobody will ever want,” she says, with a grim laugh.
“In the past, I had to give everything I earned to the madam. Now I just need to pay 3,000 taka a month for protection and another 1,200 for electricity. I opened a bank account, saving about 5,000 taka a month, and I can even send some money to my parents,” she says, while posing for the camera on her bed in the same position she adopted in 2011.
Of the prostitutes we’ve revisited, Rojina has changed the least. During our first meeting, she said she felt her life was already ruined, and that her only hope was to make money through sex. “Some people think that’s a tragedy. But I think it’s worse to work in a factory sewing clothes for foreigners, who are going to pay a load of money for them and enrich a band of bastards,” she said, then. She stands by her words, and in the brothels of Faridpur there are plenty who think like her.
Shika is one of them. Tall and slender, with relatively white teeth, the 16-year-old shines in an anachronistic ivory dress that gives her the aura of a fairy-tale princess. She exudes the same allure as Bristi did five years ago.
“Down there it’s still really tight, not stretched at all,” she jokes, graphically. She moves with a touch of arrogance through the brick alleys, knowing she can afford to choose her clients. But it’s all a façade, a psychological shield for a young teenager who is already a mother: her two-year-old daughter is the result of a marriage Shika was forced into when she was 12.
“My parents got divorced when I was two. Since my mother could not take care of me, she thought it was best for me to marry someone,” Shika says. Her mother wanted her to avoid the prostitution trap she herself had fallen into. But “my husband was a drug addict and I abandoned him last year”, says Shika, who moved into Town Brothel, with her daughter, to help her mother.
“She’s already 32 and barely manages to get clients. However, I have no problems getting around seven a day. So now I take care of all of us,” she says, with some pride.
Shika isn’t the only girl working alongside her mother in Faridpur. Lipi and her 17-year-old daughter, Labonno, rent their bodies out in C&B Ghat.
“We are 11 children and my family is poor, so I was married as a kid,” says Lipi. “My husband died of tuberculosis after spending a long time in jail, so I accepted the proposal of a madam.”
While working she fell pregnant with Labonno, who was conceived and born in the same room. The girl knows it’s unlikely she will escape these four walls.
“Once I dreamed of travelling abroad and fleeing all of this,” says Labonno. “Now I’m happy if my little sister [who is five and lives in the SMS boarding school] avoids having to go through the same as us.”
STDs pose a far greater risk to the working girls of Faridpur than they did five years ago. In fact, these women are suffering what they call a “condom crisis”, that thin membrane of protection becoming an ever-rarer luxury now the government no longer funds an awareness campaign.
“At first, they were free, then they were subsidised, but now there is no help to get them and prices have increased so much that customers don’t want to wear them,” says Labonno.
The global economic crisis has also had a detrimental effect, ravaging the budgets of NGOs trying to help the prostitutes.
“International donations have fallen apart, especially after the refugee crisis in Europe, and it’s difficult to keep afloat the various projects we have under way,” says Farah Kabir, ActionAid’s country director in Bangladesh. “We tried to compensate that with local contributions, but it isn’t enough.”
Fortunately, not everything has worsened in the brothels of Faridpur. The prostitutes are no longer subject to as many Islamist attacks as they once were. That may seem surprising, considering religious fundamentalism has been on the rise and has become one of Bangladesh’s biggest problems, but the construction of a wall around the C&B Ghat complex may have helped secure the women inside.
Trade is more precariously concealed at Town Brothel. Filthy rags are all that hide from the city the narrow alleys where only goats scavenging through the rubbish retain some innocence.
The future the prostitutes of Faridpur expect for themselves is echoed behind the smirks of several of those we talk to: “Hopefully you’ll return to see us in another five years. We’ll still be here – if we haven’t died.”