Silent tears within the brothel walls
By Andrew Biraj
“Hashi cannot be sad ever. Sadness is a part of our lives, so we don’t bother with sadness. My parents will not be able to identify me anymore. There is a huge difference between my present appearance and the malnourished look of my childhood. I am healthier than before and fit to serve a lot of customers in a day.”
- Hashi (which means happiness), a seventeen-year-old sex worker at Kandapara brothel in Tangail
It was a quieter evening than in hectic Dhaka. The gentle breeze of spring surrounded the cold atmosphere of the small town of Tangail, a town in the north east of Bangladesh. A small walk through a calm neighborhood took me to a place which looked similar to any of the country’s slums.
The bright tungsten lights of grocery shops and the high volume of Bangladeshi pop music from the tea stalls mesmerize the whole area. Between those stalls the alleyways on the other side of wide drains are dark. Following my fixer I suddenly found myself inside one of those narrow lanes, where young girls with heavy makeup and colorful clothes were lined up. The girls of different ages, though mostly teenagers, try to draw the attention of men by laughing, chuckling and pulling their hands.
The neighborhood of around a hundred of buildings with more than 800 small rooms is one of the 14 official brothels of Bangladesh but are in essence a prison for around 900 sex workers. The young sex workers of this brothel must serve at least 10-15 customers each day. Being a “Chukri’ or bonded girl, they are bound to follow the orders of their Sardarni (House owners, who were prostitute before and purchase girls to run their business).
“When I first took a customer; I didn’t realize what was going to happen. He raped me again and again. It was bleeding severely and I was crying. I didn’t have any idea what sex is,” said Hashi, who has been working as a prostitute since she was 10.
“I used to serve customers one after another during the whole day. I don’t know how many, but I guess I had to serve around 20-25 customers in a day. I found at least four to five customers waiting in front of my room after waking up in the morning,” said Hashi inside the brothel.
Hashi cleans some small fish as she prepares for dinner. She didn’t get any customers that whole day. I notice that despite her age, physically she looks mature.
It is common practice among prostitutes of Kandapara brothel in Tangail to take steroids like Oradexon — a steroid used by farmers to fatten their cattle — in order to gain weight and appear “healthier” and more attractive to clients. The drug can be found in any tea or cigarette stall around the brothel. No one needs any prescription to buy Oradexon.
“Six to seven years back my Sardarni forced me to take a tablet; I didn’t know that was a drug. She said, I have to look more healthy and beautiful. I first rejected her offer. She beat me up and stopped giving food. She threatened me and reminded me about my loans.” Hashi tells me her story inside her small, packed room.
“Four years ago my Sarderni left me as she needs young girls to run her business. But I have no choice to go back to normal life anymore. I have a four-year-old son. I gave him to one of my relatives. I can’t even go to see him for last couple of years.”
“In this brothel customers always look for healthy girls. I take Oradexon. I need customers to pay my bills and repay my loans. I hope to save some money for my son. If I don’t get customer, how can I survive? I have to pay 6,600 taka ($8-.48) rent for this small room. Every evening debtor knocks at the door for money. If I don’t get any customer in a day, I cannot eat in the next day.”
According to research by ActionAid sex workers between 18-25 years of age are most prone to taking the drug Oradexon as they need to attract clients and entertain them in the way their competition does. The drug’s side effects include headaches, chest pains, skin rashes, gastric, swelling of the body, stomach aches, high blood sugar and pressure.
Shipra Gowshami, a lawyer and human rights activist, who has been working with the sex workers of Faridpur for a long time said, “Steroids are a life saving as well as a life destroying drug which is used by sex workers in poor countries very desperately. Lack of awareness, easy availability and malpractice of quacks are the prime causes.”
As I roamed around the brothel seeking an opportunity to portray their situation through my camera, Maya, a sixteen-year-old sex worker welcomed me in her tiny room. She offered me food, and became surprised when I accepted her offer. Sex workers are treated as untouchables in the conservative Muslim society of Bangladesh.
For the last eight years, Maya has been working as a prostitute at Kandapara brothel in Tangail. She earns about 300-500 Taka per day ($0.85 – $1.22) serving around 15-20 customers every day. Maya’s four-year-old son Halim lives with her parents in another town, Barisal. Maya can’t save enough money for her child as she has to pay a lot of bills and is in debt.
“When I was under my Sardarni, I didn’t know how much I used to earn, because my Sardarni took away all my income. In exchange she served me food three times a day. For me, that was enough. I couldn’t tolerate the pain of hunger,” Maya said.
“But when my Sardarni left me, I was all alone and couldn’t even eat properly during the day. I was drying up, there was no glow in my face. I noticed my number of clients was decreasing. I started to take back the medicine just to survive.”
“After taking the drug Oradexon, I found myself very fresh. It increased my appetite and I started feeling more hungry. I feel more proud in myself.” Sitting in Maya’s room, I found several mouse holes in the floor.
“I couldn’t save even a single paisa for myself or for my son. I need more clients to raise my son. In this atmosphere of my shattered room, no clients want to visit. I weep silently every night. I weep for myself, as I don’t see any future. I weep for my son, as I rarely meet him,” said sixteen-year-old Maya.
(View a selection of images here)
(Update March 27: Corrects age of Hashi when she began prostitution)