As I step through the rag curtain to enter the brothel in Faridpur, Bangladesh, the first thing I notice is the smell. It’s a putrid mixture of human and animal waste, yesterday’s cooking odours and rotting garbage.
Then the sights hit me. There are women with painted faces everywhere, but their sad faces disappear from view as soon as we enter the brothel. They are frightened of strangers at first but after they have seen us walking around for a while, they come out. All are a little shy at first but soon they start smiling and greeting us.
And then there is all the sex openly paraded in front of us. Sweaty clients emerging from the rooms in a post-coital haze. Piles of used condoms everywhere. Girls getting hastily dressed to get ready for the next punter.
Underneath the thick layer of make up the girls don’t look much older than teenagers. Some of them look very plump. We are told they are fed a poisonous tablet called Oradexon to make them look fatter and more attractive to clients. This drug is meant to make cows fatter so one can only imagine what it does to a young girl’s health.
Many of them are hooked on the drug. You can see it in them – in their lost eyes or vacant expressions. Or maybe it’s because they know they are stuck in this “prison” for life.
Madams rule the place with an iron hand but the entire block is owned by powerful local businessmen. Everyone tells us how little money they make from their human trade. But the brothel is busy, even at lunchtime. My instinct tells me someone must make money somewhere but we are not able to track the money trail.
After a day in the brothel the women get used to my camera and some are even willing to be filmed. We are lucky because everyone in this community knows our photographer Akash, who is from Bangladesh. A kind man who has dedicated his life to photographing human rights stories. Or humans wrongs in this case.
Where to start putting the long list of wrongs right in this place? Girls get sold to sexual slavery as young as 12. They work for free in their rooms which resemble prison cells year round, serving dozens of clients daily. They sleep three in a room, but if one girl gets a punter, the others have to make themselves scarce. They used to have to hide their babies under the beds when they got a client. They no longer have to do this, thanks to ActionAid, which has arranged childcare for the children in this and other brothels.
One morning Akash and I head out for some early morning shooting because the light is beautiful at that time and the whole place is still asleep. We work solidly for a couple of hours, take a short break and decide to come back in the afternoon when the harsh daylight has turned softer and is more manageable for our temperamental cameras.
Later that day I leave my camera running up on the steps, just to see what happens in front of it. Women clean themselves under a basic water pump, they prepare their food on the floor with a tiny gas heater, they feed their babies there in the middle of the grimy corridors. Life goes on as normal in this place.
Our local office is working hard here, against all odds. It’s a world where money and greed rule and the vulnerable end up used and abused and we can’t perform miracles. But we are slowly making progress by telling the girls this drug is dangerous and that they shouldn’t take it. We are trying to advise the quacks not to sell it to them. ActionAid Bangladesh is also working with the local drug administration and doctors who have the power to stop the abuse of this drug. It’s a long and slow road, but small steps have already been made. The drug’s use in the brothels we work in is no longer escalating.
As I turn my camera off, getting ready to leave, a couple of girls rush up to me to touch my hands and face to say goodbye. It’s their human warmth that is so tangible despite the surrounding bleakness. This tells me there is hope.