Daulatdia, Bangladesh — Nodi was 14 years old when she says she was deceived and sold into one of the world’s biggest brothels.
Already married with a young baby, she had gone to look for her husband, who was known to gamble in the area in eastern Bangladesh. Nodi says she met a driver who offered to help, but he turned out to be a broker, who sold her to a madam in the Daulatdia brothel complex.
“I was tricked,” said Nodi, who only wants to be identified by the first name that she uses with clients. “Then I got trapped here.”
Once her husband and family found out what had happened, she says they refused to rescue her, due to the shame associated with the brothel.
More than a decade after she was sold and abandoned — and with Bangladesh under lockdown to prevent spread of the Covid-19 virus — the 25-year-old is facing a new problem: hunger.
“Because of this coronavirus pandemic, we are now in trouble,” said Nodi. “We have no work.”
As businesses and transport networks were shut down across Bangladesh, government-sanctioned brothels were also closed, with no clients allowed to enter. Since 2000, prostitution has been legal in Bangladesh, but it is regarded by many as immoral.
“Our brothel has been locked down,” said Morjina Begum, executive director of Bangladeshi charity Mukti Mohila Samity (‘Free Woman Union’ in English). “We do not allow any outside customers. Now sex workers do not have any income.”
Begum, who is a former sex worker from the brothel, added that the government, police and local NGOs including her organization are supplying relief to the women.
But several women in the brothel told CNN that the aid is not nearly enough.
Nearly 1,500 women and girls are packed inside the 12-acre site, which resembles an overcrowded slum, with densely packed alleyways lined with corrugated iron shacks, small shops and open sewers.
Many of the women have given birth to children inside the brothel, and researchers say there are currently 500 children in there, including 300 under the age of six.
“We are not getting any (food),” Nodi said. “If it continues, children will die from starvation. We pray that the virus will go away.”
Some women send their children to live with family members or at charity shelters outside the brothel, because they don’t want them to be part of this life. Nodi says she has no contact with her son, now 11, who is growing up with her former in-laws in Dhaka. It’s better that way, she says.
“We want our children to be away from us so that they can become good human beings,” Nodi said.
Usually, around 3,000 men visit the brothel every day, many of them truck drivers or day laborers who stop off at Daulatdia due to its prime location next to a train station and a ferry terminal on the Padma River, a major channel running from the Ganges.
From late afternoon onwards, the women and girls stand around in the narrow lanes as the men walk through. Once a negotiation is complete, the clients enter one of the small rooms, which usually consist of a brightly-colored bed, and a small cupboard or wardrobe. The men pay as little as $2 for sex, and around $20 for an overnight stay.
“Earlier I could have earned ($60) per day. Some days it could be ($20) and some days I would earn nothing,” Nodi said. “Now, everything is dependent on God.”
Each sex worker in the brothel has to pay daily rent to the madams, who act as a go-between for more than a dozen landlords which own this area of land. When the girls arrive via a broker, often for a sum of around $200-300, they are forced to pay off this debt to the madams.
A 2018 study conducted by the non-profit research organization, the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), found that around 80% of the 135 sex workers surveyed said they had been trafficked or tricked into going to a brothel, said Philip Gain, the SEHD director.
“The conditions in the brothel are so horrible,” said Gain, the director of SEHD. “No-one would come unless they had been tortured or abused.”
Gain said there is a country-wide network of traffickers who find girls for the brothels, who are often persuaded with promises of well-paid work in a factory, or brought by force.
“Once a girl is sold into a brothel, she is trapped, it is very hard to get out,” Gain added.
More than 200 girls have arrived in Daulatdia in the past five or six years after being trafficked by a broker, says Sipra Goswami, coordinator for the charity BLAST, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, which helps to rescue underage girls from the brothels. The organization also offers the girls legal aid and accommodation in shelters, or helps them to reintegrate with their families. Most of the underage girls they rescue are aged 12-16, Goswami adds.
“They are socially excluded and vulnerable,” Goswami said. “Nowadays their condition is (at the) very worst (because of Covid-19). The after effects will be awful for them.”
Local police chief Ashiqur Rahman denied there are any underage sex workers in the brothel.
Rahman said that since he took the post in January, there have been three trafficking cases reported, adding that he tries to personally interview the women that arrive to make sure they were not forced.
Bangladesh’s Home Minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, said via text message “the law of the land prohibits trafficking in persons and there are severe penalties for the culprits. Our law enforcement agencies are vigilant and they act immediately on any such culpable crimes. Even during these extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, we are in full alert.”
During a charity aid delivery at the brothel on May 14, hundreds of women jostled in the rain as they tried to secure one of the bags of rice being handed out; their desperation occasionally turning to frustration as tempers frayed in the crowd.
While there are no reported Covid-19 cases in Daulatdia, there was no social distancing during the distribution, although many of the women wore masks.
The local government also made an aid delivery to the brothel on March 28, which included 10kg of rice, hand sanitizer and other items for more than 1,300 women, according to Rubayet Hayat, executive officer of the local sub-district of Goalanda. He added that the country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, also arranged for 200 of the poorest women to receive a $30 cash handout via mobile payment transfer.
The local police force — which is guarding the brothel’s entrance to stop customers entering during the lockdown — has also made multiple deliveries of rice in the past few months, according to Rahman.
“Firstly, we need to save their lives from the Covid,” he added. “Then, we try to help with the other things.
“We support them as much as possible, but this is not sufficient I think,” Rahman said. “They are in a critical situation.”
Nodi says the relief is sometimes unfairly distributed, meaning some women are left hungry.
“Now we are facing a lot of problems here, with the relief, some of us are getting it, and others are not,” she said. “If everyone gets relief, everyone will be happy.”
Shurovi, 22, was born in Daulatdia to a mother who worked there.
She was raised in a nearby safe home run by a charity, and received a good education before getting married and moving to Dhaka. But after four years, the couple separated when her husband found another wife.
Shurovi, who only wants to be identified by her first name she uses with clients, had been doing some part-time work as an actress in Bangladeshi TV soaps — a “dream job,” she said. But when the work ran out, and she was left homeless after the separation, her economic situation deteriorated and she reluctantly returned to Daulatdia, a place she thought she had escaped.
She came back with a target: to be out of there within two years with enough money to buy some land.
But that aim started fading after she got pregnant with her son, fathered by a client. She also had to take out a large loan to pay for an emergency C-section during the birth. And now, her exit strategy is looking more out of reach, as she spends what little she has put aside just to survive.
“I am facing a financial crisis which threatens our survival,” Shurovi said. “If I do not have any income, I cannot support my child. I cannot manage to feed myself as well as my family.”
Shurovi says she can no longer afford diapers or baby milk, which is more than $7 for a carton.
“The support we are getting from the government is not enough,” she said. “They are not providing anything for children or any cash for our family.”
Shurovi’s son is 10 months old, and he lives most of the time with her mother in another room within the brothel complex.
“People who are born in these brothels, it is not their choice, they should always get a chance to live normally in society,” Shurovi said.
But the key to getting out — and staying out — is opportunity and support, she adds.
“It seems like we have died before death,” Shurovi said. “If the government does not think about us, we will be in great trouble.”
Salman Saeed reported from Daulatdia, Bangladesh and Rebecca Wright wrote from Hong Kong.