Sixteen-year-old ‘Tisha’ and 14-year-old ‘Bithi’ are like two peas in a pod who live on a foot-over bridge at Dhaka’s Mirpur and earn their livelihood through selling sex to men of different ages and professions. The two teenagers consider each other as best friend forever and dream that one day they will have a home of their own where they will watch television without having to worry about luring customers. This is pretty much what the girls came up with when asked what they wanted from life.
Two years back, Tisha gave birth to a baby. It was the result of a love affair. The lad died in a road crash when the baby was growing in Tisha’s womb. The apathetic yet delusional teenager cares little about motherhood. The baby stays with her elder sister.
Tisha’s journey with sex work began after she eloped from home at the age of 13. Her family lives in a shanty near the Central Shaheed Minar. Sheer anger triggered by constant physical abuse by her mother had led her to make the choice, Tisha said.
The teen gets one customer a day and earns a maximum of Tk 500. When evening comes, she covers her head, except the eyes, with a georgette stole, sending evident signals to rickshaw-pullers, CNG autorickshaw drivers, college going students and elderly men.
Bithi, on the other hand, is more active. She sleeps with as many customers as she can manage in a day and earns up to Tk 1000. “Oldies of 50/60 years of age are better because they usually pay better,” says the agile teen. A slope near the shrine of Hazrat Shah Ali is her spot.
Bithi claimed that she has occasionally tried Yaba, smoked weed, and drank alcohol but is not addicted to them. Occasional disputes with a boyfriend, who is addicted to marijuana, lead her to the substances, she said.
Youngest among six siblings, Bithi left home a year back because she was not being able to bare the physical assault unleashed by her elder sister anymore. Her mother, who has been abandoned by her father, works as a housemaid in Dubai. Both Bithi and Tisha can write their names and read a little as they got some primary education at a school run by BRAC.
In the day time, they sleep at a drop-in centre run under the ‘Combating Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children’ or CCSEC project in the neighbourhood. The centre offers them food, board games, and shower facilities. But the sex workers usually go there to sleep only because they are too tired after working from evening till dawn, according to Bithi.
The girls said they were unaware of the importance of using condoms. Some customers wear it willingly while some don’t, said the girls adding that they did not have much to say over the matter.
As per a 2016 study, 628 street children (344 females and 284 males aged between 8 to 18), who have survived abuse, live in three wards near Mirpur Shah Ali shrine, said Md Shohidul Islam, technical manager at CCSEC.
The drop-in centre remains open for street children from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, he said. “We know that some children who come here are involved in sex trade. We try to provide them with a decent environment but everyday they go back to their distressing job as night falls. It’s like they are stuck in a vicious cycle.”
CCSEC, a consortium initiative of Terre des Hommes Netherlands, runs a shelter home for children of sex workers in Tangail. Currently 130 children are receiving education and other life skills there. Islam claimed that these children were completely detached from the world of sex trade.
Fawzia Karim Firoze, president of Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association or BNWLA, says to engage in sex work before the age of 18 is absolutely illegal under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012.
Bangladesh does not recognise sex work as a legal profession yet but following protests from sex workers against their eviction from a Tangail brothel in 2013, the High Court issued an order that if anyone above the age of 18 wants to take up the profession then they must be allowed to do so with dignity, she said.
But according to the Article 18, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the state will take effective steps to eliminate prostitution and gambling. This kind of ambiguity in laws eventually provokes the tyrants to exploit the sex workers, according to senior leaders of Sex Workers Network of Bangladesh.
Recognising the alleged ambiguity, Firoze said, “Yes, the Constitution also states that any adult can choose their profession. So for sex workers, the government encourages awareness building campaigns on health issues and prevention of STDs be conducted in brothels.
“Putting underage floating girls to sex work is absolutely illegal. These children must be made aware of the health issues because they are the most vulnerable ones,” said the BNWLA president.
‘Mitu’, 19, got sucked into the industry when she was only 12. The child, who ran away from her village home following a quarrel with her sister, knew little what waited ahead of her. A broker brought her to Dhaka and sold her to a ‘shordarni’ (female pimp). The lady hardly wasted any time and started using Mitu for business. Mitu recalls how she was taken to a hotel by a customer and raped there. The ‘shordarni’ just gave her food and shelter but kept all the money, she said.
Eventually she was fed Oradexon (cow steroids), in a bid to make her look fatter. “The ladies told me that I would become beautiful if I took the pills. They did not say that those would make me fat. The drugs resulted into drowsiness and an increase in appetite. For about four years I had no idea what I was actually taking.”
Shahnaj Begum, former president of Durjoy Nari Shangha, a platform to help sex workers, says she was raped by a former MP in Mirpur when she was only 11. She used to live in the neighbourhood with her father, step mother and siblings. “It was a maternal uncle who took money from the man and made me sleep with him. It was a nightmare. I bled so much that I almost fainted.”
Shahnaj fled from the family and managed to get a job at a garment factory two years later. But the manager there used to molest her every now and then by keeping her salaries on hold. “The problem was that I used to be pretty. Poor girls must not look pretty,” said the 58-year-old who now has a school-going son and has been off sex work for the past 10 years.
An exclusive directorate should be set up for rehabilitation of children who are regularly being subjected to molestation and are unwillingly continuing sex work, believes Azmi Akter, programme officer at Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum.
“We have time and again placed recommendations before the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. Every time we get trite responses that children are not willing to stay at the correction centres or shelter homes,” she said. “But the children have complained that they face immense sexual and mental abuse from staffers and seniors at these government-run centres.”
Akter stressed on funding the NGOs who are eager to work for the street children but are stuck only due to lack of funds. “Flow of foreign donations is thinning. Many shelter homes are not being able to function properly, many are closing down.
“We have been told that the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs is overburdened with work and lacks manpower. So why not establish a separate directorate for children because this area demands exclusive programmes designed through extensive research.”