Photo: Allison Joyce
There’s a circular bruise blossoming on the right hand side of 19-year-old Rupa Begum’s cheek, and she’s working hard to cover it. Gently, she smears pale concealer over her face with her fingertips and blends it into the skin.
She checks her reflection in a small turquoise mirror, and breaks into a smile. “Now nobody can tell anything happened,” she says, sitting back on her faded floral bedspread. “When the next customer comes, he doesn’t want to see what the last one did to me.”
It’s 9.30am on a Tuesday morning, and outside Rupa’s windowless bedroom, the Bangladeshi brothel corridors are already thick with the smell of spices and sweat.
Men of all ages in stained polo-shirts and traditionally knotted ‘lunghi’ elbow each other out the way as they make their way through the maze of brightly-painted concrete alleyways and narrow streets to find their chosen girl and hand over 200 taka [£1.75] for ten minutes of sexual activity before work.
Rupa Begum at Kandipara, one of Bangladesh’s estimated 20 legal brothel 'villages'. Photo: Allison Joyce
This is Kandipara – one of Bangladesh’s estimated 20 legal brothel “villages”, with approximately 400 sex workers employed within its mildewed pink and green concrete walls.
According to Bangladeshi law, everyone employed by the brothel is supposed to be over 18 and in possession of a State Magistrate issued license that declares they’re fully prepared to work in prostitution.
But clamber past the crowds of wide-eyed girls squatting on red plastic buckets by the entrance to step inside, and you hear a different story. It’s thought that at least 10 per cent of men in Bangladesh will pay for sex in their lifetimes, but out of 375 sex workers surveyed on behalf of Girls Not Brides across four such brothels in Bangladesh last year, 47 per cent were former child brides, trafficked into prostitution against their will.
Once inside the brothels, they’re imprisoned – held captive until they can save up enough money to buy their freedom, and vulnerable to violence, disease and psychological abuse.
Rupa waits tight in her bedroom, flicking absentmindedly between channels on the portable TV in the corner. An hour ago her phone screen lit up with a missed call from one of her regulars; their private sign that he’s on his way.
“This one isn’t violent,” she says, lifting her sleeve to show a ladder of raised scars and blistered cigarette burns: some self-inflicted, some not. “I get scared when the men start forcing me to do things I haven’t agreed to,” she says. “They say that they’re paying me for a service, so it’s my job to make them happy.”
She’d like to use condoms, she adds, but the 10 – 12 customers she sees daily tend to object. While condom usage in Kandipara used to hover at about 40 per cent 20 years ago, following free distribution and peer awareness programmes, their popularity now appears to be on the decline.
Meanwhile, the last NGO-run medical clinic closed its doors in the brothel in 2014 due to funding cuts, and Rupa hasn’t been tested for any STIs since. This is despite multiple studies showing HIV and STD rates are steadily increasing within the high-risk demographic, potentially giving rise to “a possible HIV epidemic” in Bangladesh.
“I think I know what HIV is, but I don’t know if I have it,” says Jinuk, 16, who’s been working in Kandipara for three years. “None of us do.”
It’s been five years since Rupa was trafficked into the brothel. Married at 11 years old to a man in his 30s who she’d never met, she spent her wedding day playing hide and seek with her cousins in the mud. “I ripped off pieces of my sari to make a little wedding dress for my doll,” she remembers. “When my husband raped me that night, I didn’t understand what was happening. I only felt pain.”
Bangladesh has approximately 20 legal brothel 'villages', employing hundreds of sex workers. Photo: Allison Joyce
She fell pregnant shortly after – but when her husband was killed in an accident at work, her family refused to take her back. “They said they couldn’t afford to look after me or my son. I wasn’t a virgin any more, so no other man would marry me.” Hungry and alone, the then 13-year-old took a train to Dhaka in the hope of finding work in a garment factory. “A woman saw me crying at the station, and said she had a friend who was looking for a maid,” Rupa says. “I followed her home, but she sold me here instead.”
As a Coordinator for Girls Not Brides Bangladesh on behalf of BRAC, Habibur Rahman says Rupa’s story echoes the experiences of thousands of teenage girls across the country.
“This is a very patriarchal society, where a girl’s worth is defined solely by her potential to find a husband,” he says. “Unfortunately, marriage at that age makes them all the more vulnerable to abuse and trafficking. On many occasions, they flee their husbands and fall directly into the hands of the traffickers themselves, but we do hear about girls whose husbands sell them to the brothels directly. I can’t even estimate how many end up forced into sex work every year, but I know it’s a lot.”
Human trafficking may be punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty in Bangladesh, yet the madams at Kandipara, Mymensingh, Daulatdia and Jessore brothels all maintain they’re operating within the limits of the law. For three days following her arrival at Kandipara, Rupa says she was locked in a room and beaten whenever she tried to leave.
She was fed Oradexon – cow steroids – in a bid to force her body to develop and make her gain weight to look older. “When I was eventually sent to the police station to make my license, I was so scared of being hurt again that I just repeated what my madam had told me to say: that I was 18, and that I was happy to work in the brothel because I had no other options.” The police are paid approximately 10,000 taka [£87.50] for every license they process.
Such hazy legalisation of sex work is all the justification many in Bangladesh need in order to view the buying and selling of underage girls as a “business”. One trafficker, who asks to go by his initials, AMA, estimates that he’s trafficked at least 27 girls over the past eight years into Kandipara – travelling across the country by public transport to the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong to collect them and bring them back.
One man estimates that he’s trafficked at least 27 girls over the past eight years into Kandipara. Photo: Allison Joyce
“It’s a transaction,” he says. “I receive a phone call from someone who has a girl, and I buy her for 20,000 taka [£175], before transporting the girl across the country and sell her for 10,000 taka [£87.50] more.” The younger the girl, the more money he makes – charging up to 50,000 taka [£439] for a 13 or 14 year old, and specifically targeting girls who have already been married “because they make less of a fuss”. He’s not concerned about the police, he adds. “If they stop me, I say I’m the girl’s boyfriend, and they leave us alone.”
Customers also pay more for former child brides. “I like visiting girls who are younger than me, but who still know what they’re doing,” says Mohammed Shohagmia, 38, who has been visiting the brothel for 20 years. “Older women can be more badly behaved and won’t always do what I tell them.”
Out of control
Azharul Islam is the Program Manager of Rights Jessore, an internationally funded Bangladeshi NGO working to counteract child trafficking both across the Bangladesh-India border and within the confines of the country itself.
Islam maintains that neither the police nor the elite anti-crime unit Rapid-Action Battalion [RAB] prioritises the health and safety of child brides – a particularly vulnerable demographic commonly deemed ‘a lost cause’ by society.
At 18 per cent (according to UNICEF figures), Bangladesh has the world’s highest rate of marriage involving girls under 15 – a statistic likely to rise following the amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Act in March 2017, effectively reducing the legal age of marriage to zero and potentially legitimising statutory rape.
Rights Jessore is an internationally funded Bangladeshi NGO working to counteract child trafficking. Photo: Allison Joyce
“The more child brides there are in this country, the more girls are vulnerable to trafficking and sex work,” says Islam. “But everyone from the brothel owners to local law enforcement officials are involved in the same gangs, which means that our access as an NGO to the brothels is restricted.”
As a result, Rights Jessore have had to implement measures so that they can surpass local police and go straight to the superintendent or the Home Office – who can then tell the police to cooperate. “But most of the time, the police do not receive our requests positively. They say they are too busy and that they have other priorities than looking for lost little girls.”
One police officer who says he’s determined to change this is 35-year-old Mohammad Ashra Fulalan. As Town Sub Inspector for the northern city of Mymensingh, he’s responsible for policing the town’s brothel of 350 sex workers – intervening whenever large-scale fights break out in the brothel’s many independently-run bars.
Fulalan says he has been working for the past two years to reduce rates of trafficking to Mymensingh brothel – but admits the national system of a five-to-seven minute long interview to discuss incoming sex workers’ ages and intentions is flawed, and that most of the information he receives is false.
“We don’t ask for birth certificates because nobody has one. I don’t know if the girls are scared – but we do know that they are clearly taught what to say, because they all give me the same answers.” He has a one year old daughter at home, he adds. “But I don’t have much experience in talking to teenage girls.”
In 2016, police headquarters in Dhaka arranged ten days of district-level anti trafficking training, but Fulanan says under-staffing meant he couldn’t spare his police force from service for two weeks.
The more child brides there are in Bangladesh, the more girls are vulnerable to trafficking and sex work. Photo: Allison Joyce
“If an underage girl came to me and says she wants to leave and return to her family, then I would buy her a bus ticket home and speak to the driver to ensure she gets there,” he says. “But no girls ask me for help. I do feel really helpless.” He had plans to install condom vending machines to reduce STI rates within the brothel, but they were abandoned after the madams questioned who would receive the money.
Back in her room, Rupa lies on her bed and stares at the ceiling. By 10pm, she’s free for the rest of the night, but it’s been a long day, and her body aches from the exertion. She has pain in her lower abdomen, and a bottle of half-empty vodka rests on the floor.
“Sometimes other girls ask me what I’m going to do when I get out of here,” she says. “I like to make up answers like ‘I’ll save up enough money to buy some land somewhere, and buy a house for my son, and leave the brothel for good’. I like to dream about a better future. But I know it won’t happen for me.”
I didn't understand what sex work was'
Papiya, 15, has been at Tangail brothel for two years.
'Now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave'. Photo: Allison Joyce
My parents died when I was about 12, so my older brothers and sisters decided it was best to marry me off. I didn’t understand what was happening – I just wanted to go to school – but they said that it was the only option. The husband they found for me was 22, and the first time he raped me, I remember fighting back. But he beat me until my forehead split open and my face was black and blue, so I gave in. The second time he raped me, I waited until he fell asleep, then I tiptoed out of the house and ran barefoot down the street. I asked a rickshaw driver to take me to my friend’s place. But he took me to the brothel instead, and sold me to one of the madams. When I realised what was going on, I cried and begged to leave – but I still didn’t understand what sex work was – the only thing my madam told me was that it was a way for me to be independent and to earn my own money. When I found out the truth, it was too late. These days, I see about 11 or 12 customers a day, and I’m addicted to Yabba, which is a local drug, because one of my regulars forced me to try it. I’ve had two pregnancies, and lost them both. I try to behave and follow all the rules, but my stomach hurts from when the customers are too rough, and sometimes I can’t help crying out. They don’t like that, so then they beat me. Or they complain to the leaders, and the leaders beat me instead.”
'I blame myself for all of it'
Hassina, 14, has been at Jessore brothel for three years
'I’m in debt to my madam and nobody outside the brothel will ever employ me'. Photo: Allison Joyce
Sometimes I tell people that I came here willingly, but it doesn’t really feel like that. I had an arranged marriage when I was 11 years old, but after one month my husband started assaulting me – hitting me with his hands, and later beating me with a stick. He was drunk all the time and high on drugs, and I didn’t know what was happening. After six months, I couldn’t take it any more, so I ran away. But my mother had died, and my father said he couldn’t support me. A friend told me that there was a community of women who worked independently, and didn’t need men. When I didn’t make a fuss, she sold me here. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Now I’m in debt to my madam and nobody outside the brothel will ever employ me when they know about my past. One time, when I was new, the police came by and asked me how old I was – they said they’d had a report that I was too young to be working, and that they could help me leave. But I don’t have anywhere to go. So I said I was 18. Now when times are bad, I think to myself, ‘this is all your own fault’".
'Nobody told me where I was'
Ayesha, 15, was at Mymensingh brothel for three years – she’s since been rescued, and is currently living in a shelter outside Dhaka
'He fed me alcohol and drugs until I was completely dependent upon him'. Photo: Allison Joyce
I was married before I’d even got my period. He was in his 20s, and he fed me alcohol and drugs until I was completely dependent upon him. One day, when I was feeling clear-headed, I pleaded with one of the elderly housemaids to help me. She said she knew a place for ‘girls like me’, and took me by the hand to a street lined with small houses and rooms, painted pale pink and grey. Another old woman came outside, and they exchanged money in front of me, and that was that. Nobody told me where we were, or what was happening. Nobody told me I was about to be imprisoned, and forbidden to leave, or even to own a mobile phone. Nobody told me I would have to see customers from 9am in the morning until 11pm at night, and that the customers will think they can use and abuse you any way they want to. Nobody told me I would be beaten if I broke the rules or tried to run away. Nobody tells you any of that – you just have to find out on your own.”