Anupa says she doesn't know how old she is. A young bonded sex worker in Bangladesh's largest and oldest brothel, she was kidnapped by a broker and sold for $400. Now she is forced to have sex with multiple clients per day to pay off her "debt." To plump her up and make her look older she has been given steroids used for fattening cows. "After taking the pill, whatever beauty I had is gone now. My skin is ruined and my figure is not like before. I am suffering a lot for this. I am not like before," she tells VICE News.
Nestled between a busy railway station and a ferry port swarming with thousands of men, sprawling Dautladia is home to almost 2,000 sex workers, most of them young girls, and many of them forced into sexual slavery. Built by the British during colonial rule, it is now owned by a local politician's family that profits from the booming business in the area.
The size of a small town, the brothel has everything customers and sex workers need. With beauty salons, markets, and gambling hub inside, the girls who work around the clock have no reason to go out. And they couldn't leave even if they wanted to. Known as dalals, the brokers bring the girls into the brothels and sell them to madams.
And that is what keeps the business booming. Dalals go into nearby towns and cities on a daily basis to find young girls aged 13 to 14 years old. "We roam around the streets in the evening. We talk to the girls for a while. We tell them there's a better place than this, let us take you there. We tell them there is a place where you can work more safely. This is how we bring them to the brothel. Then the girls get trapped by the madams," said a dalal inside Daulatdia. He refused to show his face or say his name to protect his identity.
Many underage girls like Anupa are forced by their pimps to take steroids to look plumper and more developed. Kushi, one of the prominent madams in Daulatdia complained that her girls hardly get any customers, and so she feeds them steroids to make them look "healthier." She complains that one of her girls, Rosina, who she says is about 14 years old, has not gained enough weight.
Local doctors say the steroids are highly addictive and have been used by over 90 per cent of the young girls in the brothel. The drug can cause damage to kidneys and bones, and in extreme cases can lead to death. But that doesn't stop the supply and demand for steroids in Daulatdia. Pharmacies surrounding the brothel sell packs of the medication for less than a dollar each on a daily basis. "It sells. Girls get it, box after box. There's a lot more in other shops," says a clerk at a pharmacist inside the brothel.
Bangladesh is one of the few Islamic countries that doesn't criminalize prostitution. But there has been a history of brothels being shut down. Last year, local authorities demolished the Tangail brothel in northern Bangladesh. That however hasn't stopped customers from pouring into Daulatdia. According to a UN survey, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis visit sex workers everyday. The industry is unregulated and brings men like Karim, a 27-year-old customer of seven years, who says he prefers to have sex with little girls. He encourages them to take drugs with him like Yaba, a methamphetamine, before he has intercourse. "It makes me last longer. Instead of 5 minutes, I can go on for 10 minutes when I have sex," he says.
According to Action Aid, there are about 200,000 women working in Bangladesh's sex industry, most of them teenagers. It is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to work in prostitution but thousands of them end up working in the trade against their will or to survive. And the men come there as an outlet to let loose from mainstream norms where sex before marriage is taboo and gambling is illegal.
With each day that passes the girls lose faith that they will ever leave. "I dream, sister. Like I could leave here holding someone's hand. Men just come here, give me money have their fun and leave. I don't have anyone here who loves me," said a sex worker who didn't want to give her name.
Many in Dautladia are second or third generation sex workers, in some cases descended from women who worked in the brothel under British rule. But despite their futures seeming bleak, there are some trying to ensure their children at least do not follow in their footsteps. Young children are not allowed in the brothel, so for decades, mothers in Daulatdia have sent their children, once they reach a couple of years old, to live outside with local families. Those that develop long-term relationships sometimes officially marry but more often just verbally agree to a second marriage. Then in exchange for money, mothers leave their children in the care of the child's father — if known — and his relatives, or in an informally arranged foster family.
NGOs have been attempting to provide these vulnerable children with an education in the hopes they will aspire to pursue a different life. In a village within sight of the brothel is one of six nearby "second chance" schools run by the development organization BRAC. It is one of 38,000 primary schools in Bangladesh for vulnerable children who have either dropped out of the formal education system or have never entered it in the first place. Primary education is free in government schools but the nearest one to Daulatdia and its surrounding villages is a half an hour walk away. BRAC, once known as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, is not the only NGO with schools near the brothel, but it is the only one that is free.
Mohammed Shahidullah, who supervises BRAC's schools in the area, says that children of sex workers study and play alongside other children without trouble. Teachers are told to be extra patient and loving with all the children so that the counseling needs of sex workers' children are addressed. "Like for the girl," he says referring to 11-year-old Sheuli, a star pupil who made it to the televised finals of Deepshikha, a national talent show for children. "She's a little more aggressive and bolder than the others."
A tall and confident girl, Sheuli is the eldest daughter of an established madam and a local politician. "She isn't allowed by her father to visit the brothel, and I wouldn't let her come here myself," says her mother, 34-year-old Taslima. "He took her outside into civilized society when she was little. My husband's first wife loves my child. She's been taking care of my child from the beginning."
Sheuli and other young children of sex workers are approaching a crossroads, says their teacher Salma Akter. "The sons leave when they're about 14, to find work and go on their own way. Many of the girls go into their mother's profession but not all of them; more of them are studying and moving on,"says Akter, who has been teaching in the area for nine years.
Taslima hopes her daughter will take the road of education and a normal life, a path she never could. "My mother came here (to work in this brothel) after I was born because of my father," she says, not wishing to explain more. She says she came to Daulatdia when she was 18 to bring her mother home, but ended up staying herself. "I was poor and I needed money." She now considers herself lucky, "Nobody in my family, except my mother, knows that I work here. They think my husband married twice and that I'm the younger wife who lives outside in a separate rented house."
Earning a monthly income of $460 (£300) from renting rooms — she denies renting out girls — Taslima can afford to buy electronic luxuries, pay for her daughter's private music lessons and save up for her family's future away from Daulatdia. "I want my Sheuli to be a performer," she says while holding her youngest infant. "We hoped our second child would be a boy, but God gave me another daughter and I'll raise her the way I would have a boy." She adds, "She's quite smart. I want to make her a doctor."
While it's uncertain if Taslima and her children will leave Daulatdia, there is hope that armed with an education, her daughters will carve a different path. Outside the school, one of the foster mothers says: "So what if their mother is doing dirty work? A kid is a kid. Everyone's not equal but our kids can be."