Nestled in the banks of the Padma river – Bangladesh’s side of India’s famous Ganges River – is Daulatdia. The town bustles and coughs up pollution from the ferries, buses, and trucks that come in droves. Traffic comes to a standstill as hoards of people trickle in and out – mostly men, who come to these parts to be served in what is regarded as the world’s biggest brothel.
The twisting alleyways are a labyrinth of shacks steeped in darkness; the air is humid in the sweltering heat. Almost all the women and teenagers who live in this shantytown are prostitutes. Most are there because they were trafficked – sometimes, sold by their own family members. Estimates are that there are between 1,300 to 2,000 sex workers and the town services more than 3,000 men every day.
The place is overrun with the screams and pitter-patter of small feet. Not always practising safe sex means sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies are rife. As they work and live in the same place, babies and toddlers may be hidden under the bed when the mother works; the older ones will be sent outside to wait until the deed is done.
The ones, who are unfortunate to be born female, already attract the lascivious gaze or passing grope of the visiting men. As their birth right dictates, most of them are destined to end up like their mothers.
Bangladesh is the only Muslim country where sex work is legal.
There is simply one rule – each girl must be issued with a police certificate that verifies that she over 18 and in the trade of her own free will. Yet, this becomes a mere technicality in a largely androcentric and corrupt system.
The average age of new girls sold to the brothels is 14 years old. Yet, it is not unusual to find girls, who are as young as 10, serving clients. And if the girl does look much younger, she is force-fed cow steroids to make her body develop faster so that she will look older.
Moyna did not seek out Daulatdia of her own free will. At the age of 13, her husband sold her to a brothel – nor did anyone bother to explain to her what a brothel was.
“When I first started working, I wanted to kick and bite and hurt every man who came into my bedroom like I was a dog. I begged them to leave me alone, but they wouldn’t stop,” she said in an interview with Elle.
After a few weeks elapsed, she realised it was futile and stopped fighting. She figured that she should just do what they told her to do.
“I think it’s too late for me,’ Moyna concluded. “My life is already over. I should focus on earning as much money as possible for my daughter’s future, so she never has to live through this.”
At 12-years-old – just one year after Moyna was married and seven months after her first period – she started to vomit. Her grandmother told her that “the baby comes out the way it went in”. She said that when she went to the hospital, she was too small to give birth naturally, so a Caesarean had to be performed. Being so young and naive, she did not realise that she was giving birth until her baby was handed to her. Her daughter, Kaya, still lives with her husband’s family.
Yet, the teenager’s stoic facade periodically faltered to be replaced by hopefulness. She daydreamed of taking her daughter away from her husband one day and running far away to live on a plot of land with a couple of buffalos. “Then I’ll pay for Kaya to go to school until she’s 18, and we’ll live a happy, simple life together,’ she hoped. ‘We won’t need anything except each other.’
For these women and girls, there is no going back. There are no phone calls, loved ones to rescue them, or places they will ever be able to call home. In society’s eyes, they are marked by the curse of shame and there they must remain for the rest of their lives. Even death is unforgiving when it finally comes. Denied burials on consecrated grounds according to tradition rites, their bones will rest in unmarked graves in a garbage-strewn rocky field on the edge on the Daulatdia. Neither life nor death, will see them ever escape that town.