Published in The Daily Sun’s Unseen Magazine in October 2010 (Archive unavailable)
A few months ago, a social worker spotted a baby girl and her mother lying underneath a tree in Dhaka’s Mirpur. The infant seemed to be struggling to climb onto her mother’s chest, so the field worker went closer to investigate. She was just in time – the baby’s mother, a sex-worker, had been dead for several days and the infant was on the brink of dehydration. Little Brishti was brought to Dujor Child Care Centre in Mohammadpur and nursed back to health.
Ekanto has a different story. His mother, also a sex worker, did not die, but she stopped being a parent when she threw him in front of an oncoming car. Miraculously, Ekanto survived, but his body bears horrific scars and the psychological impact is obviously incalculable. When his mother confessed to a social worker that she would make further attempts to kill her son if Durjoy didn’t take him in, Ekanto was moved to Mohammadpur.
There are an estimated 200,000 sex workers in Bangladesh, and according to government figures, there are around 15,000 in Dhaka alone. Whilst it’s more difficult to estimate how many sex workers have children, conservative estimates in Dhaka place the figure at around 5,000. A recent survey by Durjoy found that less than a quarter of those children attend school, and that they are highly vulnerable to abuse, neglect and poverty. The Durjoy Child Care Centre was established in 1998 to provide relief to the children of sex workers, and it is run by the NGO Durjoy Nari Sangha. Shahnaz, the president of Durjoy and a former sex worker, said that the push to create a care home for the children of sex workers followed a conference held in Kolkata in 1998. Shahnaz said, “We realized that we were doing nothing for the children. We never wanted to drag them into this profession. We want them to become decent human beings.”
The children of sex workers face multiple problems. Most are effectively invisible to the state, because birth registration forms require the names of both the mother and father – the latter of whom is either unknown or unwilling to become involved in the child’s life. School admission forms also require the parents’ names, and whilst some have used false names to gain entry, many children have been kicked out of school once authorities discovered they are the children of sex workers. Similarly, the government’s department of social services runs 74 orphanages, but somewhat ironically, they are barred to children without a father’s name.
According to Shahnaz, not attending school may be the least of the children’s problems. She said, “I have lived that life. I know all about it. I have seen mothers give their children money to buy her condoms, which just feels so bad and wrong.” Durjoy conducted surveys amongst sex workers and found that many mothers entertain their clients in front of their children – often because there is simply no practical alternative.
Shahnaz said, “Children sleep on the other side of the bed while their mother does her job. If you ask the child what she is doing, he or she will say, ‘She is working.’”
Such sordid lifestyles may have a profoundly negative effect on the child’s development and well being – and the damage is further compounded if the mother decides to sell her own daughter into the sex trade, which happens frequently due to poverty and a lack of opportunities for education.
According to Shahnaz, even if a mother decides to raise her child, they are frequently kidnapped and abused by pimps and thugs. Furthermore, prostitutes and their children live a precarious existence, with many being evicted from brothels and suffering physical and emotional harassment from police and goons.
Around the time that the Durjor Child Care Centre was set up, research conducted by Care Bangladesh found that HIV was not the main problem for sex workers, as prevalence of the illness is relatively low. Sex workers in Bangladesh, as in many other parts of the world, reported that the harassment is the worst aspect of their lives.
“In Bangladesh, sex workers are not treated as human beings,” said Shahnaz.
Although the constitution of Bangladesh declares that the state should discourage prostitution, it is one of the few Muslim nations in the world that doesn’t make it illegal. However campaign groups were disappointed in August when the Electoral Commission overturned its earlier decision to recognize prostitution as a profession. Many believed that it would reduce the levels of harassment faced by sex workers, and that it would make it easier for their children to become enrolled in schools.
Durjoy Child Care Centre is currently battling to stay open. Since 2009, no donor has been found to support the center and its 70 children. Durjoy has been forced to stop paying staff salaries and to compromise the variety of food given to the children. Shahnaz said that the only field trip that Durjoy could afford for the children this year was a visit to Jahangir’s University campus grounds. The funding crisis became so acute that Durjoy recently requested several mothers to take their children back into their custody. Shahnaz said that some of the girls may have been sold into the sex trade, and that some of the boys have turned to drug peddling. Shahnaz is appealing for individuals to sponsor the remaining children, which costs Tk 1,000 per month.
Durjoy is also looking for new premises, because the landlord has asked them to vacate the center due to unpaid rent. Despite appealing to a number of different premises, both inside and outside Dhaka, Shahnaz said that most landlords are unwilling to offer Durjoy a lease due to the stigma associated with prostitution.
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