Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution is legal. The Kandapara brothel in the district of Tangail is the oldest and second-largest in the country—it has existed for some 200 years. It was demolished in 2014 but has been established again with the help of local NGOs.

Established again? With the help of NGOs? Remember, many of the women were born in this brothel, grew up there and didn’t have any where else to go when it disappeared. Supporters of the brothel believe that sex work is also work—and that these women don’t want to do something else. The women themselves even demonstrated for their rights as workers. As a result, at the end of 2014, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association convinced the country’s High Court that the eviction of the sex workers was an illegal act. The sex workers quickly returned to their homes—i.e. the brothel.

Today, the area’s “brothel district” is surrounded by a two-meter wall. In the narrow streets, there are food stalls, tea shops and street vendors. The brothel is a place with its own rules and hierarchies of power which are completely different from the rest of society.

For example, inside the brothels, the women are much weaker in some ways, but also much more powerful. The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel—she is called a bonded girl. Bonded girls are usually 12 to 14 years old. These girls come from poor families and are often the victims of trafficking. They have no freedom or rights. They belong to a madam, have debts and are not allowed to go outside or keep their money.

But when they have paid all their debts, which takes somewhere between 1 to 5 years, they become independent sex workers. Then, they can refuse customers and keep their own money. These are women who believe in the power that their work has given them. After all, once a woman has paid her debts, she is free to leave the brothel—but many choose not to. Complicating the matter is that even those women who would consider leaving face deep social stigma outside their “homes.” Plus, their earnings are relatively high in the brothel. So, they stay and continue working, in the processing providing much needed financial support for their families on the outside.

Besides the financial gain, many women find some measure of personal strength in their profession. For example, a good number of women arrive at the brothel by choice, after fleeing their controlling husbands and needing to find a way to secure their livelihood. One resident has even turned down the marriage proposals of her most faithful client because she doesn’t trust that he will let her keep her money. She’d rather maintain her independence as a sex worker than take the risk of entering into a conventional home. She is just 17 (officially, sex workers must be 18 years old, but most are underage).

On the other side of the equation are the customers. They are varied and from different levels of society: policemen, politicians, farmers, fishermen, factory workers, groups of teenage boys. Some of these men are looking just for one-off sex; others stay for longer, hoping to find love and the company of a woman.

In Bangladesh, a young man has no chance to hold hands with his girlfriend in a public area and cannot have sex before marriage. If he goes to a brothel, there he will find a moral-free environment. Indeed, I saw many men going to the brothel just to drink tea with the women who live there. Normally, in the public areas of Bangladesh, it would be impossible for a man to invite a strange woman for a tea. Similarly, many of the clients enjoy drinking alcohol, which is forbidden outside for Muslims. Likewise, the women inside never wear the hijab. Only when they step out, back into the real world…

—Sandra Hoyn

Editors’ note: This important and sensitive project was selected as a series winner in the Photojournalism Category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 winning photographers—remarkable work in all genres from around the world.