The dark sides of Bangladesh: child prostitution

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Child prostitution, garment industry, ship breaking yards

During my trips through Bangladesh, I got to know a country of great and exceptional beauty; a country distinct from others because of its hospitality and soul.

But at the same time, it was a country of great misery.

In this report, I would like to shed light on the dark side of Bangladesh. Though as a side note, I highly urge readers not to fabricate prejudices against the Bangladeshi people.

Child prostitution
Bangladesh is a corrupt country. According to Transparency International, the country is even at the bottom ranks of the world. Even though Bangladesh is an Islamic nation, it is because of this reason that brothels are flourishing. Child workers as young as 10 years old are being allowed by corrupt officials. Kidnappings, drug abuse, and human trafficking are the order of the day. I went to visit the largest brothel in Bangladesh: Daulatdia. This brothel, roughly the size of an entire town, is located at a ferry terminal. The southern part of the country, inhabited by millions of people, still isn’t connected to the capital by a bridge. So, every day, thousands of people have to take the ferry, making it Bangladesh’s busiest ferry crossing.

Although I myself had already crossed the junction a couple of times, I had a hard time actually organizing a trip there. Literally everyone I asked either did not know about the place (or pretended not to know) or highly advised against going there because of security reasons. After I did a bit more research about the present NGOs in the area, I got in touch with a lady who committed herself to the children of sex workers. At the time, I was staying in Dhaka with an intelligent and well-connected guy I met earlier on a boat in Southern Bangladesh. As many people, including the lady I contacted, don’t speak English (or if they do, it is very broken English) and he was a native speaker himself, he played the role of translator between Bengali and English for me.

The lady offered to meet me and showed me around. In Bangladesh, this still didn’t mean we were safe, as even NGOs can be highly corrupt and criminal. Even though it was a woman who offered to help me, that still didn’t make things more relaxed. In fact, Daulatdia is run by women and women alone. There are dozens of stories of young girls getting kidnapped on their way to school, to be sold later as sex slaves. The girls are forced to work for years to clear their “debt” – the price the “boss” has paid for them. All the dirty stuff, including the kidnapping, is almost exclusively done by women.

After they finally pay off their debt, they often have nowhere to go, so they keep working as prostitutes. The ones who were not kidnapped are usually born in the brothels. Hundreds of children are currently growing up in the dirty and unsafe alleyways of the brothels. Most young girls don’t have a choice, other than to become sex workers themselves. They usually already start working after they have had their first period. There are close to two thousand women working in Daulatdia at the moment. The average price of buying a “fresh” (often kidnapped) girl is about $250 USD. Renting their services costs somewhere between 1 and 3 dollars, depending on their age and appearance.

I got used to it after staying in the country for a while, but crowded places in Bangladesh can be perceived as highly uncomfortable and even frightening sometimes. People stare at you from all sides. People even suddenly walk up to you in groups and – due to their lack of skill in English – rudely grasp at your body, and only after a split-second of shock do you realize they only want to take a selfie with you. The visibly highly-neglected children with torn clothes and dirty faces adamantly hold onto your leg or arm and follow you for hundreds of meters. There are sick people lying on the ground with no one to take care of them. And of course, everywhere there are the unbearable smells, piles of garbage, and the sounds of people spitting on the ground.

As is almost everywhere in Bangladesh, the railway tracks just outside the brothel were covered in garbage and dirt. As we walked past the tracks, I saw a surprisingly young girl, dressed in richly coloured saffron, covering her head from my camera. She, like us, entered the brothel through the same somewhat hidden entrance. A girl her age later offered to show me her room. It was a small space of about 10 square meters where she not only worked, but also lived. Most likely, she was going to spend the rest of her life in that room.

The beauty ideal in Bangladesh is chubby. Because of this, many sex workers take hormones to stimulate their appetite in an attempt to gain weight. These medicines, purposed in the West only for cattle, are sold without a prescription and for a low price. Many women die every year from the side effects of such risky medication. Sex workers also have high prevalence of diseases, such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, due to their hazardous way of life. Usually, they seek medical attention at an advanced stage of the ailment, only after they are unable to work. As a result, they suffer more. Sex workers are highly reluctant to access public healthcare facilities due to the high cost and the fear of stigmatization. Some clients, like police or other officials, often force these women to have sex with them, without any form of payment, and usually without using contraceptives.

Al Jazeera recently published a short, high-quality documentary about the exact same place. Please watch it here: click.

Ready-made garment (RMG) industry
After the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed and killed more than a thousand Bangladeshis, a bitter global spotlight shone on the country’s ready-made garment industry. It became harder for outsiders to see what it’s like to work 15 hours a day for a salary of $60 USD a month. Factories closed their doors to everyone without business interests, as they did not want even more pressure on their industry.

I managed to come as close as I could get to these factories by pretending to be a businessman who was looking to place a large order for t-shirts. I got in touch with the director of a mid-sized, but rapidly growing, garment factory. After settling on a date and time, I was picked up by car (a luxury in Bangladesh) from the apartment I was staying in, and brought to the factory, covering a distance of roughly 10 kilometres, which took – as usual in Dhaka’s traffic – more than two hours.

In the hours that followed, I managed to stay in my role as an interested client pretty well. Multiple salesmen, as well as the vice director, were present. During their sales pitch, I took my chance to subtly ask about the working conditions. In this particular factory, the workers were paid $82 USD a month, and worked every single day of the week. The factory could not yet comply with the safety standards, because they were too expensive to implement.

After keeping up the act for hours, I finally got invited to take a look inside the actual factory itself. Unfortunately, new sewing machines were being installed, so I missed out on the chance to meet the workers. All in all, it was an interesting experience.

Ship breaking yards
Another widely discussed issue is the dangerous process of dismantling ships in the harbours near Chittagong, an arduous job notorious for injuring and killing many Bangladeshis. National Geographic accurately describes it: “Where ships go to die, workers risk everything.” Just like the garment factories, due to all the recent exposure, there was no room for cameras here.

I desperately tried, yard after yard, in the kilometres-long coast North of Chittagong, only to find security guards adamantly keeping the concrete gates shut. All of them refused my bribes, no matter the amount. The closest I could get was a small beach where I found a group of young boys covered in mud. They were fishing for crabs, and proudly showed me a big ship visible in the distance. “Ship breaking yard, there!” They told me. Just like my factory visit, as an average traveller, I unfortunately failed to actually witness and capture the misery.