In her airless tin bedroom, 16-year-old Yasmin gulped back sobs and described the day she got married.
She was tricked, she said. Four years ago, a neighbour had locked her in his house and raped her. When it was over, he informed the 11-year-old girl that the assault was her fault, and that marriage was the only way to save her reputation. With Yasmin’s family’s permission, he drove her to the local registry office. Two days later, he started inviting other men to the house to rape her too, pocketing two Tk100 notes each time.
Within a year, Yasmin ran away – and stumbled into the trap of a trafficker, who sold her to a brothel four hours drive from Dhaka. She has remained there ever since: one of thousands of women and girls in Bangladesh who are trafficked into prostitution following an underage marriage, imprisoned by both violence and shame, and lacking any source of outside support.
“I have never spoken about it before,” she said, gold bangles jingling along the length of her wrist as she tried to wipe her face. “Everyone’s story is the same, so nobody ever asks.” She stared at her lap. Kohl tears had already dripped onto her sari and left the burgundy blouse freckled in inky black.
It is stories like Yasmin’s that human rights organizations were most concerned about in 2017, when the government amended the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929. The legal development was supposed to strengthen child protection, but it came with a caveat: child marriage could now be allowed under “special circumstances,” such as if a girl under the age of 18 was to become pregnant – or, activists feared, if she had been raped.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the clause as a “devastating step backwards for the fight against child marriage.” “Judges are now the last line of protection against this law being used to force girls into marriage against their will, or even allow rapists to escape penalty by marrying their victims,” said Heather Barr, acting co-director of HRW’s Women’s Rights Division, in a statement that she gave at the time. “Girls at risk of unwanted pregnancy face real problems in Bangladesh, but the answer isn’t child marriage.”
But the “special circumstances” condition remained. Since then, Bangladesh has been named one of the most dangerous countries where girls can grow up in the world. Unicef statistics show the country still has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia. Out of 300 girls here, who were surveyed by Plan International, more than three quarters said they never made decisions about their lives.
Throw the threat of sex trafficking into the mix, and the danger escalates: between 150,000 to 200,000 children and young women across the country are estimated to have been trafficked into prostitution – both within Bangladesh and over the border to India.
Trafficking victims insist both forms of abuse are tightly intertwined. If child marriage could be stopped, they say, fewer girls would be at risk of trafficking too.
In 2017, photojournalist Allison Joyce and I visited four brothels across Bangladesh, including Daulatdia, which is widely believed to be the largest brothel in the world, and Kandipara, which dates back over a hundred years and is thought to be one of the oldest. In an investigation funded by an NGO named Girls Not Brides, I interviewed over 400 women and girls of all ages, religions and backgrounds who were currently enslaved behind the brothels’ walls, including Yasmin.
Half of them told me that they were convinced they would not have been trafficked into prostitution if they had not been married while they were under the age of 18.
At first, the girls’ stories were distinct in their differences, but as time passed, patterns began to take shape.
Almost every former child bride who I interviewed in the brothels had been abused by her husband at some point. Through tears, they echoed Yasmin’s story as they told me about the men who raped them first, then forced them into marriage and raped them again. Others described husbands who believed marriage papers equaled sexual consent, even if the girl they had chosen was 11 or 12 and had to be physically dragged away from playing with her dolls.
I spoke with girls who recounted being sold straight to the brothels by their husbands, and girls who said that their husbands had beaten them so violently that they were forced to flee on foot – only to end up falling so smoothly into the hands of traffickers that some of them believed they must have been watching and lying patiently in wait for weeks.
The traffickers whom I met initially dismissed that idea, before mulling it around and deciding that in one way or another, it was essentially true. One man, who went by the initials “AMA” and admitted he had been buying and selling girls for over eight years, told me that child brides were by far his easiest prey.
It came down to their families, he said, as we sat on a rooftop overlooking one brothel so large that you had to squint and stand on tip-toes to see its outer wall.
The currency of shame worked to his advantage. For as long as mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters could be counted upon to close their doors on their newlywed daughters – even when they returned home bruised and begging for help – there would be trafficking, AMA said. Parents were telling 13-year-old girls to return to their abusers, because they believed the stigma of divorce would be worse than a lifetime of violence and rape. And the girls, who were determined and smart and knew they deserved better, would refuse and run away to find work. “That is when I would find them,” he said. “Or someone else would find them and bring them to me.”
He could buy and sell girls with relative impunity, he added. He was in his late 40s, but police rarely questioned him if they saw him travelling alone with a girl in her early teens. In 2017, only one person in the whole of Bangladesh was convicted for trafficking. Last year, the number rose to a total of eight.
When the protector becomes the tormentor
There are also incidences of police officers doing the trafficking themselves. Two years ago, Mohammed Mazumder was heading up law enforcement at Dhaka railway station: one of the main points of transit for underage girls heading to the city in search of work, and for the traffickers who pick them up along the way.
Mazumder recalled one officer who had been caught keeping seven or eight children in his home. “So he had to go,” Mazumder said with a shrug from behind his desk, mopping at his forehead with a pale pink towel. Behind him, Samsung TV screens were stacked one on top of another, showing the train station’s platforms from 24 different angles.
Despite reports from NGOs such as Save the Children revealing that between four and five children are trafficked to Daulatdia brothel every month – not to mention the other 10 so-called “brothel villages” around the country – Mazumder does not believe the threat facing girls in Bangladesh is very severe, although he accepts law enforcement still has a long way to go. “But it is very challenging to identify trafficked girls, and sometimes we do miss cases.”
Once the girls are trapped inside the brothels, police interest appears to drop off altogether. While reporting this story, I came across two plain-clothes policemen who were frequenting one brothel as customers, while RAB officers in full uniform regularly patrolled the brothel streets – apparently blind to the 12, 13 and 14-year-old girls enslaved metres away. Every sex worker and trafficking victim within a brothel must be interviewed by the local police station to check that she is over the age of 18, but bribes are common, and the girls say they are threatened with extreme forms of violence unless they lie.
When the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) receives evidence of children who have been trafficked into prostitution, they organize raids, but say they cannot inform the local police of what is taking place in advance, for fear of someone inside tipping the brothel off in advance.
As a result, thousands of women and girls are trapped within the brothels without hope of escape or support. “No one wants to do anything about it, but these women are being exploited on a terrible level,” said Mahmudal Kabir, Bangladesh country director for the Netherlands-based NGO Terre des Hommes. “I imagine my daughter in this situation, and it makes me feel sick. If you look at the rate of globalization and economic development across the world, there is so much potential for change, but nobody will help save these few thousand women and children. We should all be ashamed.”
A day in the life of a (child) sex worker
The abuse begins at around six in the morning, as men stop by on their way to work in local government offices, high schools and construction sites: each handing over two Tk100 notes to one of the 400 women and children trapped within the maze of concrete and corrugated tin. What begins as a trickle builds through the day, and by nightfall the brothel is awash with shirtless men stumbling from one hut to another. On average, Yasmin said she sees between 8 and 12 customers, aged between 17 and 65.
Of more than 20 men whom I spoke to who frequented the brothels, more than 50% admitted that they were also aware of the abuses that took place inside. Yet they shunned responsibility for the role they play in driving up demand for the underage girls who are trafficked into prostitution. When I pressed them, keen to understand how they justified paying a girl for sex who was trapped in sexual slavery and who they knew was too young to consent, the majority showed little concern.
“It is unfair that the girls are here,” said a 30-year-old man named Moksed. “Girls in this country have monetary value, and that is what needs to stop.” But for as long as the brothels remain open, he said his own visits would continue – even if the girls were trafficked into the business, and even if the sex he was paying for was actually rape. “What else is there for men to do?”
Mohammad comes from Sirajganj. At 47 years old, he has been visiting brothels in Bangladesh for over two decades. One of the girls who he pays for sex is Mina, who is 16, and mother to a three-year-old boy. “I know that she is a victim of this place,” he admits. “But I think that if I am with her, I can protect her.” He brings between Tk300 and Tk400 into the brothel on a daily basis, of which Mina receives about half.
One of Yasmin’s regular customers is Azizul, 27. “It is all about fun,” he said, perched on the edge of the teenager’s bed and twirling a cigarette between his fingers. “It is all glitter and lights and beautiful girls around. What could be more fun than this?” He started visiting Yasmin when she first arrived to the brothel at 12 years old – back when she was locked up in her bedroom by the woman who bought her, and beaten with a wooden stick if she tried to escape.
Azizul said he did not remember whether Yasmin seemed happy or not at the time. “It is wrong that girls this young are brought here, but I think Yasmin is the love of my life,” he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. In the corner, Yasmin did not look up from her phone. As soon as Azizul left her bedroom, she headed to the water pump around the corner to wash. “Sometimes there are guys who will not use condoms, but I have to do it with them anyway because I need the money,” she said later, adding that she has heard of HIV but does not fully understand what it is.
Yasmin’s family knows nothing of the violence in their daughter’s life. She has never told them that she was raped, or trafficked, or forced into sexual slavery in a brothel less than five hours’ drive away from home. They still believe that she is married, and that her 40-something-year-old husband has provided Yasmin with a better life.
But after four years in the brothel, Yasmin is too scared to tell them the truth. Instead, every week, she calls home and recounts bright, colourful stories of life in Rangpur, where she has told her older siblings that she works part time as a maid. Once or twice a year, she takes the bus across the country to visit her family, bringing folds of embroidered cloth that she bought at a market nearby as a gift, and which she endured hours of sexual abuse to buy.
The brothel madams do not keep Yasmin locked up any more. They know she will always return. She does not have anywhere else to go. “If I wanted to stay with my family, then I would have to tell them what has happened to me and everyone would know,” she explained. “It would shame me, and it would shame everyone.”
In a world where a girl’s reputation is more valuable than her wellbeing, telling them she had been trafficked would not mean she would be rescued, she added. “It would mean I would be completely alone.”