Journalism

The living hell of young girls enslaved in Bangladesh’s brothels

This article was originally published by The Guardian on July 6th, 2019, by Fuller Project correspondent Corinne Redfern.

Girls wait for customers in Jessore brothel. Photograph: Allison Joyce

Sold by traffickers, trapped for years and raped many times a day … this is the life of tens of thousands of underage girls in Bangladesh. We hear their stories.

After five years in the brothel, Labonni stopped dreaming of being rescued. Ever since she had been sold to a madam at 13 years old, customers had promised to help her escape. None had followed through. Over time, their faces began to blur together, so she couldn’t remember exactly who had visited before, or how many men had come by that day. There’s usually one every hour, starting from 9am.

“Sometimes I wake up and I don’t understand why I’m not dead yet,” she says.

Now 19, Labonni says she’s resigned to life – and death – in Mymensingh, a brothel village in the centre of Bangladesh. Here, between 700 and 1,000 women and girls are working in the sex trade – many of them against their will.

Girls as young as 12 sleep five to a room; their beds only cordoned off by torn cotton curtains. Music blares from heavyset sound systems and homemade liquor is poured from plastic bottles to numb the pain. Men swagger shirtless down the alleys looking for girls. Ten minutes of sex will cost them TK400 (about £3.66) – but it’s money that mainly lands in the pockets of those running the brothel.

Like the majority of girls in Mymensingh, Labonni was trafficked into sex work. On the run at 13 years old, she left her six-month-old daughter behind to flee the abusive husband she had been made to marry the year before, in a ceremony that took place on the same day she started her period. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she remembers. “I thought maybe I could find work in a garment factory.”

A woman saw her looking tearful in Dhaka railway station, and offered her food and a place to sleep for the night. Two days later, Labonni was sold by her to the brothel for about £180 and forbidden to leave.

A graveyard for sex workers in Tangail. Photograph: Allison Joyce

Overnight, she became a chukri, or bonded sex worker – imprisoned within the brothel until she repaid hundreds of pounds in fabricated debts. “The madam who bought me said that I had to pay her back,” Labonni says in a flat voice. “She’d bribed the police to say I was 18 [the legal age for a registered sex worker] and told me I owed her more than £914. Then she confiscated my phone and locked me in my bedroom. She said that she’d hurt me if I tried to run away.” After two or three months, Labonni gave up trying to escape. “They always find you,” she adds.

A quick breakdown of the figures involved shows how girls like Labonni are a vital part of a hugely profitable business model for brothel owners in Bangladesh. For the past six years, since being trapped in the brothel, she has worked continually to pay off her phantom debt. Yet over those six years she has earned upwards of £46,500 for madams who enjoy lives of considerable luxury.

Until last year everything Labonni earned went to her madam. All she was given back was a £37 as a monthly allowance for food, clothes and toiletries. Labonni has now paid her original £914 “debt” back 50 times over.

Last year she was finally told she had paid off her debt, but she has yet to move on. Her mental strength is worn down by years of abuse. “I feel worthless,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t even know I’m her mum.” Even with her “debt” gone, she’s still obliged to pay half of her weekly earnings – approximately £78 – to the madams in exchange for electricity and a place to stay.

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