Coronavirus: Hunger grips sex workers in Bangladesh

About 150,000 sex workers in Bangladesh are one of the worst hit communities 

March 21 was the last time when a 28-year-old sex worker based in Daulatdia, largest brothel in Bangladesh, met a customer.

No males were allowed to enter or exit from the brothel, located in Rajbari district, after the local administration imposed a lockdown in the area on March 21, five days before the official general holidays began in Bangladesh.

“In the last 10 years, I have not met with such a horrible crisis. For us, no income means no food. I had only Tk800 on March 21 in hand for managing expenses for me and my two children,” said Alif Laila, a name that she uses for customers.

Beset with various troubles, sex workers, who mostly depend on daily income for livelihood, have little scope for saving money for their present and future existence.

“The only dream for me to raise my children is now shattering,” said Laila who does not have any connection with her family.

About 150,000 sex workers in Bangladesh are one of the worst hit communities following the government enforced shutdown in order to maintain social distancing to contain spread of Covid-19, that so far killed 131 people infecting a total of 4,689 across the country as of Friday.

“I do not know what corona [coronavirus] is, but I know what hunger is. All the relief I received — a sack of rice from the local administration, and 1kg potato, onion and salt from the local lawmaker — has already finished. My children have been eating rice with salt and green chilli for the last seven days,” said Laila.

“I had two regular customers or lovers [locally known as Babu]. One of them snatched the Tk800 from me. And, now they are denying me of any help,” she said.

On a usual day, Laila used to have intercourse with five to eight customers and her regular earning ranged between Tk1,500 and Tk3,000. Half of the money was pocketed by the Sardarni (brothel owner, usually previously a prostitute herself), who bought her earlier for the business.

Now, her only way of livelihood is to have phone sex with some regular customers.

“I usually got  them one or two days a week. In return, they sent me Tk200-300 via bKash,” she added.

For the first three weeks, customers were interested to do so, but now Laila calls them to provide services via phone because of hunger.

“We are in danger. Even if we escape from the hands of corona, will we die from hunger,” she apprehended.

Hunger grips brothels

Sardarni Aklima Parvin (not her real name) of Daulatdia said the girls here pay their boyfriends almost all of their income, which is another reason for failing to save any money for themselves.

“We give them food and clothes in exchange for half of their income. Now I do not have any income as we (Sardarni) are also the victims of the crisis,” said Parvin.

She feared that she might not be able to keep her workers inside the brothel for long as many are thinking of moving out because of hunger.

“They are desperate now,” she said.

Another Sardarni of Kandapara brothel in Tangail, Munnujan Monu (not a real name) told the Dhaka Tribune that they also received relief (mainly rice) but rice is not the only foodstuff that can meet hunger.

“Some girls came from Babubazar brothel in Jessore a few days ago. They were suffering from hunger, but we had to drive them out due to concerns for our own safety. Our girls cannot go out of the area because they can be a carrier of the infection if they go out,” she said.

According to Sex Workers Network Bangladesh (SWN), a platform of 29 organizations, over 1,000 enlisted sex workers and around 400 children live with their mothers at Daulatdia. Kandapara brothel hosts around 500 sex workers.

SWN former vice president Evan Ahmed Kotha said some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are helping the workers with food and money, but those are scarcely enough to meet the demand.

“Some are trying to help from personal funds. Despite that, there will be a severe food shortage soon,” she said.

She feared that they may not be able to save the workers who are suffering immensely due to the coronavirus crisis.

Govt support

The government is providing relief for people who became unemployed because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Tangail Deputy Commissioner (DC) Md Shahidul Islam and Rajbari DC Dilsad Begum said they have distributed relief to the jobless people including the sex workers.

“A relief package of 30kg rice to each 1,300 people of Daulatdia brothel was distributed,” Dilsad Begum said.

“I also came to know that a local lawmaker and superintendent of police distributed a litre of oil, 1kg of onion, potatoes and salt in the brothel,” she said.

The DC, however, said relief can never be enough for someone to meet the food demands of a family.

Floating workers in extreme distress

According to SWN, sex workers are engaged in the trade through brothels, hotels, homes, other residences or what they call “mini brothels,” and street-based sex work. Among them, about 5,000 women work in 11 registered brothels, while 70% work as floating.

26-year-old Popy Akhter (not a real name) and her four children live in a terminal just beside the Shitalakshya River in Narayanganj.

“I used to make customers happy every night by keeping my one-month-old daughter lying next to me, just because of the pain of hunger,” Popy said over the phone. Her elder son is aware of the business.

She had a so-called husband who is the father of her other three children. He came and snatched all the money from her.

“Whatever he is, I need him in my empty life. I have not seen him since the lockdown was imposed,” she said.

Popy has not received any relief yet, which is why she has been begging for the last 20 days, as no customers came to her since the end of March.

“I have been drinking water and Muri for three days. My baby is not getting breast milk. Poor people like us cannot tolerate the pain of hunger,” she added.

SWN President Kajol Akhter said it has become impossible to manage food for workers.

“There are 300 floating sex workers only in Narayanganj. Everyday they call me begging for food. I do not know how strong the disease is, but our main enemy is hunger,” she said.

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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