Suborna Islam, 17, came to Kandipara two years ago from Mymensingh. She allowed us inside her bedroom in the hope that we'd understand the reality of life as an underage sex worker.
At the same time, Robin Seyfert, Founder of BASHA Enterprises, provides insights into what is being done to help girls like Suborna, Moyna and Kajol.
Suborna: When I was 12-years-old, I went to work as a maid with a family. One of the teenage sons would torture me whenever we were alone – tying me up by my hands and feet while I screamed into a towel he'd stuffed in my mouth. When I escaped and ran back to my mum, it was too late; I was already pregnant. I had an abortion, but afterwards, the only option was to get married to whoever would take me. When he started torturing me too, I decided to come to the brothel. I thought, 'my life is ruined anyway – at least this way, I'll be able to support myself.' So I left him and took a rickshaw to Kandipara. I've regretted that decision every day since, but in Bangladesh, divorced girls don't really have any other choice.'
Robin: There are many fantastic organisations and projects which work to empower women within brothels across Bangladesh, but very very few which help them to actually escape or sustain a livelihood outside of the sex industry. They run tailoring classes and provide medical check ups – and they're teaching these women their rights, which is hugely important. But they're still not providing alternatives to prostitution. So many women and girls say 'it's too late – there's no hope for me anymore'. But there <is> hope for them. We <must> get them out. And they <can> lead hugely successful, happy lives away from the brothels.
Suborna: My favourite thing in the world is my doll, Mimi. My mother bought her for me on Valentine's Day last year. I used to have so many more dolls and teddies – like, what you see here is nothing – but some of the children who live here sneak in and steal them because they want to play with them too. There are lots of children who are born here, and who grow up in the brothel. I wish I could go back in time and be a kid again – I had so many dreams back then. Now it feels like I've forgotten them all.
Robin: We have five centres across Bangladesh which provide former sex workers with paid training and full-time employment making jewellery and textiles. Since 2015, we've managed to provide 41 women from Tangail with work outside of Kandipara, and in February we are opening a hostel to accommodate more women in Jessore. Most of the women we work with are rescued through raids, but occasionally, madams will send the girls to us directly – maybe if they develop severe psychological problems and are physically unable to work in the brothel. And we are also trying to identify girls who might be at risk of trafficking – girls who are child brides, or widowed or orphaned – and prevent it from happening before it's too late.
Suborna: I bought the windchimes from a street seller here because the butterflies reminded me of the village where I grew up. There aren't many opportunities to buy pretty things here in the brothel, so sometimes I put a hijab on so nobody will know I've come from the brothel, and then I go outside to the market. But I have to be feeling brave to do that. People outside in the town think we're bad girls, but they don't understand. This could happen to anyone. It's not like I'm doing this willingly.
Robin: When the girls come to us, they're often very scared and very aggressive. They've been abused so much that they think it's OK to abuse those who are younger or weaker than them. We have to teach them how to love, and how to be loved. How to trust, and how to be trusted. How to survive without a husband. We have a doctor joining our team soon from Norway, who specialises in mental health, and I'm really feeling positive about that. If we really want to make a difference, we need to provide quality services.
Suborna: I want my room to be pretty, because I spend all my time here on my own.
I don't have any friends any more, and I don't like sharing my stuff. There isn't much privacy here – sure, you have your own bedroom, and technically you can lock the door, but I never feel safe. That's why I have a big cardboard box under my bed. I've sealed it with sellotape and I check it every day. You can't trust anyone in this life. But I also know I won't be here forever. I already have an escape plan. It's a secret, but I know it's going to work.
Robin: Despite everything the girls have been through, they're still so hopeful. That's what I love about this job – it really shows female strength and the capacity for resilience. They might feel like it's too late for them to achieve anything, but they're also not willing to give up – if not for themselves, then for their sons and daughters. They're so driven. And as soon as they're given the freedom to make choices for the first them, then most of them are incredibly successful.
Translation by Ali Ahsan. Reporting was supported by .
'The Warriors' is a year-long reporting project by LouisvuittonShop and the , funded by the via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.