Is called Daulatdia, the largest brothel in the world.
Beautiful and colorful blooming trees surround what looks like a small town, but actually is a prison without an escape. A gigantic trap with over two thousand shacks, each housing a prostitute. Built by the British during the colonial government, it is now owned by a powerful local family and it’s strategically located between a railway station and a busy harbor.
Bangladesh is one of the few Islamic-majority countries where prostitution is legal and Daulatdia, between drug consumption and trafficking in human beings, is the epicenter of this market. The brothel is the size of a small town, a city inside the city, a place that lives on its own, and has everything that customers and prostitutes need: markets, betting parlors, bars, beauty salons and shops of any kind so they have no reason to leave. In any case, they could not leave even if they wanted to. Inside the brothel, there are very strict rules and different power hierarchies compared to the life beyond its walls. Ever since you set foot inside, you are catapulted into a new reality with a festive atmosphere. It's not easy for me to approach the girls, sometimes it's even dangerous to get close to them and to their customers.
They are scared of foreigners and most of them run away to protect their identity. Some were more curious and adventurous, and they get close to me. They wanted to touch my skin, my tattoos. It seemed as though they have never seen skin this clear and these weird drawings on a body. Some others posed proudly in front of me, asking me to make them famous by putting their portraits “in the internet.”
“How is the life outside there, in your world?” they ask me. They call themselves “sex workers” and every day they momentarily satiate the ardor of about three thousand men. Inside their small tin sheds, they alleviate the solitude of tourists, sailors, longshoremen and myriads of deadbeat of all kinds. The average age of newly arriving sex workers is 14 years old, meaning some are even younger, and they earn about two, three or four dollars at a time, depending on the man's satisfaction. Sometimes the man thinks the woman is not worth paying anything at all. In a country of 150 million people where 50% live on a less than a dollar a day, many girls see prostitution as an economic necessity to provide for their families so they choose to live here. Others, however, are brought here by deceit, promising them a well-paid job.
In some other cases, poor farmers in misery sell their daughters to intermediaries, known as Dalal, that deliver them to the “madame," a figure that from that moment on will become a mother, a protector and also the owner of the bodies of these poor souls. Once their debt is repaid, which could take up to five years, they become independent sex workers and are allowed to start refusing customers or are free to leave the brothel.
But these women are socially stigmatized outside their ‘homes,’ and thus often choose to stay continuing supporting their families with their earnings, with the awareness that if they leave, society would reject them. After sunset the narrow streets are illuminated only by the soft light coming out of the “mini night club.” This is the perfect time for me to come out and do work. The girls are busy dancing at the rhythm of the distorted music that comes out from huge broken speakers, in front of drunk customers. The use of large quantities of drugs is ordinary here. The most used one is named “Baba,” a derivative of methamphetamines known as "the drug that makes you crazy" because it makes aggressive to folly, as it burns the brain. The pills are chopped and heated on an aluminum plate and the smoke coming out of it is inhaled through a straw. Customers drink bangla from huge plastic bottles and behave as if girls were objects. They shout to dance naked, to perform the act, dance, perform again and again throughout the entire night till morning. I met Rani here in one of these streets sitting alone in the dark. No luck for her tonight, she was not chosen by any client. She’s not afraid of me and she wants to show me where she lives. She arrived here when she was 15 years old and she never found a way out.
“Since I was born, everybody around always told me that sex was the best thing I’ll ever have in life and that in this place many people would love me. I was happy till the day they sold me to this factory. Nothing about what they said was true. Men come here, they like me and they are happy with what I give them. But at the end they always leave me. No one ever loves me or brings me away with them.”
On her skin reside the indelible marks of violent clients- bruises, cuts and burns. Like so many other girls, Rani has been using Oradexon, a steroid that she has been forced to use as it facilitates more child-like, smoother and sinuous shapes. Look “healthier” to be able to attract more customers. They call them “cow pills” simply because they are usually used by farmers to fatten cattle. “At the beginning they convinced me to take it saying that it was ‘medicine for good health,’ but that is not true. Every time I take them I have pain in the kidneys and bones. They create dependence, my skin looks old, the shape of my face and my body changed.”
Her room is small but cozy. Smiling dolls are laid over the bed on a red bedspread. On the walls hang posters of famous actors: Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. They represent her heroes. And then pictures of houses with gardens, a pond, parrots and flamboyant red cars parked in the yard.
“It’s too late to even dream about a place like that” she tells me.
“My skin already smells like the metal of these tin walls. My life is pretty much screwed up, but I’ve have no time to waste thinking about sadness. Me and all the other girls have sad stories, but we are strong. We manage to live our lives under these circumstances and we do not give up.This is our everyday fight to survive and enjoy life in the best way we can and people should know that we exist. That we are human beings, not commodities to be bought and sold”.