Editor’s Note: The following story contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers
Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution is legal. The district of Tangail is home to Kandapara brothel, the oldest and second largest brothel in the country where it has existed for the last 200 years.
The Kandapara brothel
Though it was demolished in 2014, many women who grew up there didn’t know where else to go after it disappeared, so it was restarted again with the help of local NGOs. German-based photojournalist Sandra Hoyn recently went to Kandapara to document the inside of the walled city. She shared what she saw with NextShark via email.
Custumers inside the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.
“The brothel is like its own microcosm, it is a city in a city.” Hoyn told NextShark. “In the narrow streets, there are food stalls, tea shops and street vendors. I spent every day from morning till evening in the brothel and some days I forgot where I was. It was sometimes like everyday life in another city with it’s own rules.”
Sex workers in Bangladesh are not treated like normal citizens — they have no freedom or human rights. Girls often come from poverty and are usually victims of trafficking. They are owned by a madam, must pay debts and are not allowed to go outside or keep the money they make.
Meghla, 23, with a customer in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail. She started working for a garment factory when she was 12 years old. There, she met a man who promised her a better job with more money. He sold her into a brothel.
“Officially, [sex workers] must be 18 years old, but most of them are underage.” Hoyn said. “Some of them take steroids like Oradexon, a drug used by farmers to fatten livestock, to look older and healthier. The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel at the beginning as a bonded girl, usually from 12 to 14 years.”
Asma, 14, with a customer. She was born int the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.
Asma stopped attending school when the students harassed her because her mother worked as a sexworker in the brothel. She started as a sex worker when she was 14 years old. Before that, she danced in front of customers.
Once their debt is repaid, which could take up to five years, they become independent sex workers and are allowed to start refusing customers.
“From the moment that a woman has paid her debts, she is free to leave the brothel.” she said. “But these women are socially stigmatized outside their ‘homes’ and thus often choose to stay and continue supporting their families with their earnings.”
A customer tries to kiss Priya, 19, on the cheek. She began working as a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel at 17.
During the first week of her arrival, Hoyn didn’t take any photos and simply walked around with a translator to observe and talk to locals.
Kajol with her 6-month-old baby Mehedi and a customer on her bed. She thinks she is 17, but does not know her exact age. She was married at 9 years old. Her aunt sold her to the Kandapara brothel. Two weeks after the birth, she was forced to have sex again with customers. Because of the baby, her business is not so good.
“At the beginning it was difficult to get access to the women and customers. Some customers didn’t want to be in the photographs, especially those with a rich family. But other customers didn’t care at all about it. Some told me they want to “refresh their mind” inside the brothel and there is nothing wrong with it, so why should they hide?
Pakhi, 15, with a customer in her room in the Kandapara brothel. She’s lived in the brothel since she was 14. She got married at 12 and ran away shortly after. A man picked her off the street and sold her into a brothel.
“Some girls hide their face and didn’t want to tell their stories, others have been very open and wanted to tell about their life.”
The price of the service depends on the age and beauty of each girl, as well as how nice their rooms are. Kandapara’s sex workers earn between 1000-2000 Taka ($11 – 22) daily, which is around 300 Taka ($3) per customer.
Sumaiya, 17, with her boyfriend and regular customer Titu, 23, in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail. He is from Dhaka and visits her every month for one week.
Sumaiya gets beaten in the face by Titu. They are often fighting because Titu wants to marry her, but she refuses. She is afraid that after marriage he will take away all her money. He is jealous because she has sex with many of his friends. Sumaiya is jealous because he has sex with other sexworkers in the brothel.
“Most of them have sad stories — but they are really strong, at least outwardly. I admire that they manage their lives under these circumstances and do not give up. They are not just survivors or victims, they are fighting and enjoying their life in their own way.”
Bonna, 27, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel, is laughing with a condom in her hand. When she was 7 years old, she was raped by her stepfather. She ran away from home at 10 and a man picked her off the street and sold her into a brothel. She has two regular customers. On average, she earns 1500 Taka (19 $) per day.
“When the women have free time, they danced and laughed together. They are joking with each other, kidding the customers. The girls are very lively and cheerful. Often they forget their sadness. They still have dreams.”
Papia, 18, with two customers on the bed in the Kandapara brothel. Her parents died when she was a child and she was married young. She and her husband began doing heroin until she was put in jail. She says that the jail was the best place she has ever been because nobody beats her there. In the jail she got to know a woman who later brought her to the brothel.
“Most women have the dream to earn enough money in the brothel to buy their own house outside when they are old, and they want to not be dependent on men. They want to earn enough money to give their children a good school education at least. They want them to have a better future than they did.
Priya, 19, is teasing a friend by trying to beat him, but not seriously.
“Many women have their ‘boyfriends,’ or regular customers who pay them. I know one woman who has 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.
Used condoms outside the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.
“I met a woman in the brothel, she worked in a garment factory before. There she met a woman who told her about a more lucrative job. On her own wish, she started working in the brothel and doesn´t want to leave because it´s a good place to earn money, she says.”
Dipa, 26 years, is crying. She is in the second month pregnant from a customer in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.