Talking about sex is considered taboo in Bangladesh. In an article on Bangladeshi village life, Kamran Nahar wrote: “ Though men married 2-3 women at a time in the past, they thought it an offence to be involved in illegal sexual relation with girls other than their wives. Married women had religious restriction on appearing before men, with whom they had no blood relation. People tried to abide by Islamic rules and regulations...Though women have still social restrictions on making love before marriage, men are being involved in illegal sexual thrills under or before the eyes of the society; yet none censures them orally, but whispering goes on behind. [Source: “Bangladesh Culture: A Study of the South Para of Village ‘Silimpur’” by Kamrun Nahar, September 2, 2006]

Polygamy and civil polygamous marriages are legal in Bangladesh but restricted according to a law of 1961. The practice has reportedly declined in recent decades but still an estimated 10 percent of Bangladeshi men are in polygamous marriage, though this rate is lower than that found in other nations where polygamy is permitted. Some cities have placed relatively high taxes on extra wives that become increasing higher with each new wife the man takes. A Bangladeshi Muslim man can marry up to four wives, as long as he has the permission of existing wives, in accordance with Bangladesh and Muslim law. There is no known limit to how many wives a Hindu man can take in Bangladesh even though Hindu family law regards polygamy as a sin. [Source: Wikipedia]

Pre-marital sex is frowned upon and is one reason why there are so many child marriages in Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch: “Those interviewed described strong social pressure to get girls married to prevent them from having a romantic or sexual relationship before marriage, and there is also great stigma attached to “love marriages.” Even just the possibility that a girl would be perceived as being involved in a romantic relationship was sometimes enough to prompt a rushed marriage, which can happen within a matter of days, according to interviewees. Child marriage is used by both communities and families to curb girls’ agency and deny them the chance to make their own decisions about dating and marriage. Girls who are too young to marry may still be mature enough to make their own decisions about dating and relationships and should be permitted to do so without facing forced marriage as a consequence. Urgent as it is to end child marriage, efforts to do so should be carefully crafted to respect girls’ autonomy in decisions about relationships.

According to Girls Not Brides: There are prevailing gender norms that underline and intertwine child marriage and family honour, including the shaming of unmarried girls, the fixation over the sexual purity of younger girls and the parental responsibility of marrying girls. Nearly seven out of 10 people in Bangladesh believe that women earn their identity and social status through marriage. Because high value is placed on the virginity of girls, child marriage is often used as a way to control pre-marital sex, protect girls from (real or perceived) sexual violence and avoid stigma in case of pregnancy out of wedlock. A 2013 national study shows that fathers are most often responsible for deciding when and whom to marry their daughters to. [Source: Girls Not Brides]

Mullahs sometimes give out amulets, talismans, and charms that are said to be remedies for of everything from snakebite to sexual impotence. Bauls are a group that reject caste and Muslim-Hindu religious distinctions. Sometimes their way of life embraces Tantric ideas about sexuality. These Bauls believe that god dwells in sexual fluids. There are sexual rituals that unite the male and female essence. Many of their songs contain metaphors for unions of these fluid such a catching fish at high tide and piercing the moon. Baul beliefs are influenced by Tantric Buddhism, Sufism, Kundalini yoga and the Shaktism (the worship of Kali).

Birth Control in Bangladesh

According to Human Rights Watch: “Bangladesh has been seen as a model for other countries for its success in reducing its birth rate, an achievement often attributed to its adoption of a model of using health outreach workers. The married girls interviewed for this report, however, seemed largely unreached by government efforts to promote family planning. Some NGOs working in the areas where interviews were conducted teach women and girls about family planning and contraception and may also provide contraceptive supplies, but these programs reach only a small proportion of women and girls, representatives from the NGOs told Human Rights Watch. Government hospitals and health clinics have programs that provide condoms, hormonal pills, and other forms of contraception, including hormonal injections and patches, but NGO workers said that fees charged for these supplies and services are a barrier for very poor people. [Source: “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh”,Human Rights Watch, June 9, 2015]

Contraceptive prevalence rate: 62.3 percent (2014). This figure is the percent of women of reproductive age (15-49) who are married or in union and are using, or whose sexual partner is using, a method of contraception. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Between 1970 and 1995 birth rates declined by 40 percent in Bangladesh while contraceptives use by married women increased from 3 percent to 40 percent. In rural areas in the 1990s around 60 percent of all women use contraception such as condoms and inter-uterine devices (IUDs). IUDs were the most popular method in the 1980s.

Contraceptive use (any method, women ages 15-49): 62 percent (2018, compared to 12 percent in Sudan and 84 percent in the United Kingdom) [Source: World Bank ]

Top method of contraception: the pill [Source: Birth Control Around the World ]

Types of birth control used (2015); female sterilization: 3.8 percent; male sterilization: 0.6 percent; pill: 32.5 percent; injectible: 14.1 percent; Implant: 0.9 percent; IUD: 0.6 percent; male condom: 3.0 percent; early withdrawal: 0.9 percent; rhythm method: 5.2 percent; traditional 1.4 percent total: 64.2 percent [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations ]

Types of birth control used (1994): female sterilization: 8.5 percent; male sterilization: 1.1 percent; pill: 18.2 percent; injectible: 4.8 percent; IUD: 2.3 percent; male condom: 3.1 percent; early withdrawal: 2.4 percent; rhythm method: 4.9 percent; total: 46.5 percent [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations ]

94 Percent of Bangladesh Women Say They’ve Been Sexually Harassed in Public Transport

Ninety-four percent of women commuting in public transport in Bangladesh say they have experienced sexual harassment in verbal, physical and other forms, a study has said. Rehan Kabir wrote in the Dhaka Tribune: The study, enttitled "Roads free from sexual harassment and crash for women" conducted by development organization Brac, identified males belonging to relatively older age group of 41 to 60 years as the major perpetrators who are responsible for 66 percent of such incidents. [Source: Rehan Kabir, Dhaka Tribune, March 7, 2018]

“The research was conducted during a three-month period between April and June, 2017 where a total of 415 women participated in Gazipur, Dhaka and Birulia of Savar upazila in Dhaka district. According to the research, 35 percent respondents using public transport said they faced sexual harassment from males belonging to the age group of 19 to 35 years while 59 percent faced such harassment from the males who are 26 to 40 years old.

“The forms of sexual harassment experienced by the respondents include deliberate touching of victim's body parts like chest, pinching, standing too close to the victim and pushing, touching victim's hair, putting hand on their shoulder, and touching private parts of the victim. When asked about their response to such harassments, 81 percent women said they kept silent while 79 percent said they moved away from the place of harassment.

“The study also mentioned factors, including lax implementation of law, excessive crowd in buses and weak or no monitoring (such as absence of closed-circuit cameras) as the major causes behind the sexual harassment on roads and public transport, especially in buses. Prof Syed Saad Andaleeb, Prof Simeen Mahmud, Fahmida Saadia Rahman and Kabita Chowdhury conducted the research.

“According to the study, the present education system in which male and female children attend institutions separately restricts the scope for learning gender equality lessons as well as building the attitude and habit of treating both the sexes equally and with respect. To help children develop such an attitude, adequate training and counselling of teachers and counsellors are essential, the study noted.

Prostitution in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim nations where prostitution is legal. It is allowed for women aged over 18. At least 11 brothels are operational. The largest — a vast warren of shacks home to around 1,900 prostitutes — is in the town of Daulatdia in the western part of the country. [Source: AFP, February 25, 2021]

A High Court in Bangladesh ruled that prostitution is "not illegal." The ruling was based on the "fundamental right" of sex workers "to earn a living." Many prostitutes in Bangladesh are forced into the profession after being sold or kidnapped. Once initiated they stay with the profession because shame and social taboos prevent them from returning home.

Corinne Redfern wrote in The Guardian: ““Prostitution was legalised in Bangladesh in 2000, after the year-long detention of 100 sex workers by police sparked protests calling for the women’s freedom and equal rights. The women’s release heralded a new legal framework, but few protections. Instead, the business of sexual exploitation has thrived in a country where women are oppressed in many ways. Across the country, one in five girls is married before her 15th birthday and only a quarter finish secondary education. Choice is a luxury few women here can afford. [Source: Corinne Redfern, The Guardian, July 6, 2019]

“While many girls sell sex from their homes or the street, more than 5,000 women and girls are split between 11 huge brothels countrywide. Some dating back hundreds of years, each brothel is registered with the government and monitored by the local police. Here, a triumvirate of powerful institutions — government, police and religion — watch over and approve the rape, enslavement and abuse of hundreds of thousands of prepubescent girls. “The Bangladeshi police know everything that takes place in the brothels,” says Azharul Islam, programme manager of Rights Jessore, a local non-governmental organization working to rehabilitate trafficked children working in the sex trade and return them to their families. “The brothel owners are involved in gangs, and our political leaders and law enforcement are involved in those gangs, too.” Corrupt government officials profit by accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for turning a blind eye to the abuse.

“While prostitution is legal, trafficking and forced labour are not. But poor enforcement of legislation in a country where women are easy prey means traffickers act with impunity. The Bangladesh government estimates that 100,000 women and girls are working in the country’s sex industry and one study reports that less than 10 percent of those had entered prostitution voluntarily. This investigation found hundreds of girls who spoke of being sold by strangers, family members or husbands without their consent. In April the Dhaka Tribune reported that the conviction rate for people arrested in connection with trafficking is less than half a percent. While more than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with human trafficking since 2013, only 25 were convicted. Last year only eight traffickers were convicted in Bangladesh.

Closing of Red Light Districts and Opening of Mini Brothels in Bangladesh

Red light districts were closed in many places in Bangladesh beginning in the late 1970s. The closing of the huge red light district in Narayangani, a port near Dhaka, led to the eviction of thousands of prostitutes. Authorities were acting on part on the Bangladeshi constitution which says: "The state shall adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution and gambling."

The closing down of the red light districts created large numbers of hotel-based sex workers. According to one survey in the 2000s, the average age of the hotel-based prostitutes was 17. About 85 percent were ignorant about AIDS.

In the absence of red light districts a number of mini-brothels sprung up, many in family homes. A member of a Bangladeshi woman's group told AFP, "These mini-brothers operate in residential areas, where a couple with several girls rents a house in the guise of a family. Authorities worry that girls are more likely to be abused and AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases are more likely to be spread at the mini-brothels because they are more difficult to find and monitor.

Child Prostitutes in Bangladesh

Tens of thousands of underage girls in Bangladesh work as prostitutes in Bangladesh. Many have been bought and sold by traffickers and trapped in this form of slavery for years. Corinne Redfern wrote in The Guardian: 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. [Source: Corinne Redfern, The Guardian, July 6, 2019]

“Now 19, Labonni says she’s resigned to life — and death — in Mymensingh, a brothel village in the center 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.

“One of her regular customers, Mohammed Muktal Ali, is 30 years old. A married bus driver from the nearby town, he has been visiting Labonni every day for four and a half years, since she was 14. “All the girls here are helpless,” he says. “You can’t sell a boy to a brothel, but you can sell a girl because she has monetary value.” He doesn’t feel guilty for paying for sex with a trafficked teenager. “I am in love with Labonni. I’m 70 percent sure that one day I will rescue her.” Labonni doesn’t look up. “I don’t believe anything the men say to me any more,” she says later. “They all lie.”

How Children Become Prostitutes in Bangladesh

Corinne Redfern wrote in The Guardian: 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.” [Source: Corinne Redfern, The Guardian, July 6, 2019]

“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. 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.

“As part of this investigation, more than 20 underage girls in four of the brothels showed us their notarised certificates stating they were over 18. One girl admitted she was still 13. “It’s law enforcement, it’s the local mafia,” says Mahmudul Kabir, Bangladesh country director for the Netherlands-based NGO Terre des Hommes. “And it goes through the entire chain of power.”

Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in National Geographic: “Not surprisingly, the biggest cause of this tragedy is the poverty that’s widespread in the region. Most of the girls who are trafficked fall for promises of employment or marriage because they’re desperate to flee the grinding maw of their everyday life. In a society that values women less than men and in which families often view girls as a burden, there are also some who are sold into slavery by their own parents or relatives. “It’s a socioeconomic problem resulting from poverty and illiteracy,” says Tathagata Basu, a police superintendent who has led anti-trafficking investigations in South 24 Parganas, one of the most affected districts in West Bengal. [Source: Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, September 29, 2020]

“In this fertile ground for trafficking, criminal networks behind the trade often operate with impunity. Some police officials are apathetic or corrupt, and officers assigned to anti-trafficking units are burdened with investigating all types of crimes in addition to trafficking. In recent years, though, these teams in West Bengal and throughout the country have intensified efforts to find and rescue girls sold to brothels, often under pressure from anti-trafficking activists. Whenever children go missing, we have to make sure that the police immediately start an investigation,” says Rishi Kant, a co-founder of Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based nonprofit that has helped free hundreds of victims.

Economics and Profits of Child Prostitution in Bangladesh

Corinne Redfern wrote in The Guardian: “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. [Source: Corinne Redfern, The Guardian, July 6, 2019]

Until 2018, “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.” In 2018, “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.

“Four floors down from Labonni’s bedroom, Farada, 33, says the number of trafficked girls has increased since she arrived at the brothel in 1999. She knows, she says, because she buys them. After 12 years entrapped in sexual slavery herself, she was given a girl as a gift by a customer eight years ago, moving from exploited to exploiter overnight. When the girl escaped, she bought a second, called Moni, for £137. “I paid £27 on cigarettes for the police, and they sorted all the paperwork,” she says, referring to the government-mandated certificates that state every sex worker is at least 18 and consents to engaging in prostitution. “Now the police charge more. It’s at least £450, which is very expensive, so the girls have to pay me back.” The younger the girl, the higher the bribe required by law enforcement, she adds. These days, she makes about £187 every week from two girls, but says a third of that goes to local gang members who control the brothel.

Abuse and Despair of Child Prostitutes in Bangladesh

Redfern wrote in The Guardian: The steady stream of women and children being trafficked into Bangladesh’s sex industry means that the girls are disposable to those making money out of them. The numbers killing themselves has reached a point where at least two brothels in central Bangladesh — Kandapara, on the on the outskirts of Tangail, and Daulatdia, on the banks of the Padma river — have had to built private graveyards to cope with the dead. “There’s about one death a month,” says Shilpi, 57, who was sold to Daulatdia brothel in 1977. “It never used to be this many.” These days she conducts the funerals: washing each body before leading a team of 12 brothel guards through the thicket of weeds that shrouds the burial grounds; finally reciting a short prayer over the grave. She doesn’t know how many girls are buried there. She lost count after 100. “For a while, we tied a stone around their necks and threw the bodies in the pond,” Shilpi adds. “But sometimes they floated to the surface, so we had to find land.” [Source: Corinne Redfern, The Guardian, July 6, 2019]

“In Mymensingh, there’s no such graveyard — but not from lack of need. Instead, bodies are carried out to the countryside at nightfall; buried in unmarked graves by torchlight. Public graveyards aren’t an option: the stigma that surrounds sex workers in Bangladesh forbids their burial in municipal ground. “Here we are shameful, bad women,” says Shilpi. “If a girl kills herself, people say it’s good riddance — it’s just a quicker way for them to get to hell.” Labonni has also tried to kill herself several times. “I’ll probably try again one day,” she says, sitting on the floor of the concrete cell that passes as a bedroom: her customers’ phone numbers are scratched into the wall. Meanwhile, she cuts herself daily.

“Such deep-rooted mental health problems are endemic among Bangladesh’s bonded brothel workers, and make it harder for them to move on even when their “debts” are paid. Though there is little mental health support for the women, there is evidence that when it’s provided, it helps. One organization working to rescue and rehabilitate underage trafficking victims is the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association. “When they first arrive at the home, they’re scared,” says BNWLA psychologist Sadia Sharmin Urmi. It takes consistent counselling to help them move forward, but within three months, she sees progress. “They know they are safe. That means a lot.”

“For Labonni, the idea of ever getting help feels unlikely. “All my life, people tell me to have sex so that they can make money from it. How much do I have to earn to be free of this life?” Escape now takes the form of daily video calls with her daughter, who lives with her elder sister in Dhaka. “I can’t raise her here and that hurts me, but I know she’s happy,” Labonni says. “One day, when she’s old enough, I would like her to know I’m her real mum.”

Bangladeshi Child Prostitutes in India

Children from Bangladesh are sent to India to work at brothels. Prostitution rings in India also provide children for clients abroad, particularly in the Middle East. Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in National Geographic: The Indian state of West Bengal and its neighbor Bangladesh” were once “a single province known as Bengal. Divided by a 1,400-mile international border but bound by a common cultural and linguistic heritage, the two areas share the misfortune of seeing thousands of girls sold into sexual slavery every year. [Source: Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, September 29, 2020]

“The actual toll is unknown, but numbers reported or estimated, however imperfect, point to a high volume of trafficking. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, West Bengal accounted for almost a quarter of the 34,908 cases of human trafficking reported in the country from 2010 to 2016, a staggeringly large share for a state that makes up about 7 percent of the country’s population. In 2017 alone, 8,178 children were reported missing from West Bengal, nearly an eighth of India’s total that year. A significant number of girls among them were almost certainly sold to brothels. The picture might be worse for Bangladesh: One government estimate suggested 50,000 girls are trafficked out of the country to India, or through India, every year—a figure that doesn’t include girls sold into prostitution within Bangladesh.

“West Bengal is as much a destination as a source for girls who are trafficked into prostitution. The long border with Bangladesh and the 60 miles adjacent to Nepal include many unguarded stretches, allowing traffickers to smuggle girls into the state. Some end up in the red-light districts of Kolkata, a metropolis of more than 14 million people. Others are sold to brothels elsewhere in India—Delhi, Mumbai, Pune. (In India, commercial sex work is legal, but many activities associated with the trade, such as pimping or running a brothel, are illegal, as is engaging children in prostitution.) Girls trafficked into the country are sometimes then trafficked to the Middle East and elsewhere. For most of the girls ensnared by this sinister enterprise, there is no escape. Many resign themselves to a life of prostitution.

Becoming a Bangladeshi Sex Worker in India

In a story about a child sex worker, using the pseudonym Sayeda, Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in National Geographic: “Raised in a tiny two-room house in a squalid neighborhood, Sayeda spent much of her childhood on her own. Her mother would rise early and leave for the day to clean shops in New Market, one of Khulna’s commercial districts. Sayeda’s father was a cycle-rickshaw driver, ferrying passengers for a pittance. A struggling student, Sayeda dropped out of school before her teens, despite her mother’s admonishments that trouble would befall her. [Source: Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, September 29, 2020]

“Outgoing and free-spirited, Sayeda was quick to smile and made friends easily. What she loved most was to dance. When her parents were out, she would watch dance sequences from Hindi and Bengali movies on television, copying the moves. Sometimes, when her mother caught her, she would scold Sayeda. “Our neighbors didn’t like that she was always singing and dancing,” her mother told me.

“Sayeda was beautiful, with a delicately chiseled face and almond-shaped eyes, and liked wearing makeup. She began to help out at beauty salons, learning about hairstyles, skin treatments, and cosmetics. Worried about the attention she was attracting from boys, her parents married her off when she was 13. Child marriage is common though illegal in much of South Asia. The husband Sayeda’s parents chose was abusive, and she went back to her family.

“When Sayeda returned home, she implored her mother to let her enroll in a dance academy. “I’ll be able to perform in shows and make some money,” she said. Her mother relented, and Sayeda began dancing at weddings and other events. That’s when Sayeda became romantically involved with a boy who used to visit the academy. He told her he would take her to India, where she could earn a lot more as a dancer. Sayeda, imagining a future filled with promise, decided to run away with him.

“The day Sayeda left home, the boy she eloped with took her by bus from Khulna to a town near the Indian border. Arriving at night, they walked through a forest until they got to a riverbank. Sayeda noticed others on the same path, including young girls, but didn’t think much of it. At the river’s edge, the boyfriend bribed a policeman, and the two climbed into a boat that dropped them on the other side. They were in India.

“The boy took her to a house close to the river, where they stayed for a few nights. There, Sayeda met another girl who also had been brought over from Bangladesh, and she became suspicious. Sayeda confronted her boyfriend, and he told her she was going to work in a brothel. When she refused, he said, “I’ll kill you and dump you in the river.” Even if she could have escaped, Sayeda didn’t know whom she could have turned to for help. She had entered India illegally, and she didn’t see how she could go to the police. “I got so scared that I said OK,” she said. “I said I’ll work as a dancer, fine. But I won’t do anything else.”

Working as a Prostitute in India

Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in National Geographic: “The boy sold Sayeda to a brothel in Mahishadal, a suburb of Haldia, a major river port and industrial city in West Bengal about 40 miles southwest of Kolkata. A dozen girls held captive at this brothel, including Sayeda and Anjali, talked to me about what their lives were like there...Sayeda, then 14, still believed she would be able to get away with only dancing for customers. She told me Bhakta disabused her of that notion right away by raping her. Sayeda learned from the other girls that this was his way of assessing what he could charge his customers for having sex with them. He had a color-coded system to advertise the different prices for the 20 or so sex workers he controlled, most of whom were minors. He had them sit on plastic chairs in the dance bar, where clients surveyed the girls and picked out the one they wanted. [Source: Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, September 29, 2020]

“New arrivals like Sayeda—deemed closest to virginhood—were the most expensive: 500 rupees, or about seven dollars. They were seated in white chairs. Others were assigned to blue chairs (400 rupees) and green chairs (300 rupees). Girls whom Bhakta judged as overweight or less attractive were made to sit in red chairs, with a price tag of 250 rupees. The clients paid Bhakta, who told the girls he would pay them once he made back what they’d cost him. They said they never saw any money.

“The girls said Bhakta forced them to drink alcohol, to make them more pliable. Although Sayeda was resistant, she discovered that being intoxicated helped blunt the trauma of being a sex slave. She began drinking heavily, asking every client who picked her to buy liquor for her. “That’s how I would pass the time—by drinking a lot through the day,” she said.

“I explained that I was writing about sex trafficking and wanted to understand what victims go through. I made clear that they were under no obligation to answer my questions. Sayeda, seated to my right, was the keenest to talk. She had mischievous eyes, a bright smile, and an easy confidence that set her apart from the others. When I asked how she’d ended up at the brothel, she told me matter-of-factly that she’d been tricked by the boy she loved. She described how the brothel staff kept a strict watch on the girls and how the owner, Bhakta, routinely beat her and the others. He wouldn’t stop until he drew blood,” Anjali, sitting next to Sayeda, interjected. He used to tell us—if you don’t sleep with at least 10 customers a day, I’ll beat you,” Sayeda said.

Life in the Brothel in India

Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in National Geographic: “For the girls, the brothel was a prison. The gate in the fence around the building and the front door were always locked or guarded. The girls were allowed to leave only at midnight to eat at the restaurant in front, escorted by an elderly guard. He would make up nicknames for the girls and joke with them, bringing a touch of kindness to the grim reality of their lives. [Source: Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, September 29, 2020]

“Customers came in day and night, and the girls were raped up to 20 times a day. Even at 4 a.m., when the girls were desperate to get some rest, drunk men would stumble into the rooms where they were sleeping to choose one. The girls took painkillers to endure the physical torment, but the emotional suffering was inescapable. After weeks and months of such abuse, they would become numb to it, almost. “We would feel such shame,” Anjali said, “when we had customers who were older men, older than our fathers.”

“Bound by the trauma of having been trafficked and the daily horror of their brutal existence, the girls turned to each other for support. Anjali, quiet and shy, couldn’t have been more different from Sayeda, who was so feisty when drunk that she sometimes kicked clients. Despite the contrast in personalities, or perhaps because of it, the two became friends. The pain of having been betrayed by boyfriends they’d eloped with wasn’t all they had in common. Besides being raised by mothers who worked as maids, Anjali shared Sayeda’s passion for music, even though she wasn’t drawn to performing. And like Sayeda, Anjali loved wearing makeup.

“Some of the girls who’d been at the brothel for a few years had cell phones, which had been given to them by clients. They sometimes spoke to their families, lying to them that they were employed as factory workers or maids and would come home soon. Once, Sayeda called her mother in Khulna and told her she was in India, working as a dancer, but couldn’t come home. She was too ashamed to reveal the truth, which she felt would devastate her parents. She was too afraid to call the police, but she also didn’t believe it would do any good. The girls knew several police officers visited the brothel as customers and were friends with Bhakta.

Trapped at a Brothel in India

Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in National Geographic: The girls from Bangladesh, such as Sayeda, felt more helplessness. Since they were in India illegally, Bhakta had impressed on them that the safest place for them was inside the brothel. “He used to say, ‘You want to run away? Sure, you could try. Then the police will lock you up. You’ll grow old by the time they let you go,’ ” Sayeda told me. [Source: Byyudhijit Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, September 29, 2020]

“The longer I talked with the girls, the more I realized the impossibility of comprehending the desperation they’d felt. One of them told me she’d asked her father back home in Bangladesh to care for her three-month-old daughter before coming to India with an acquaintance who’d promised to get her a job. Several months after she was sold to the brothel, she got her phone back and was able to speak with her father every few days. She lied to him, saying she was employed at a factory but couldn’t return home until she’d repaid her debts to the owner. As time went on, her father grew frustrated. She told me he would call to say, “It’s been two years. You said you’d come back in six months. I want you to come back because who will take care of your daughter after I die?”

“He would ask to speak to her employer, and she would hand the phone to Bhakta. Her father would plead with Bhakta to let her come home. But Bhakta never relented, always replying that she needed to work a few more months. Then, one day, her father called to say that her child had died. “I wept for two days,” she told me. Only when she spoke to her sister did she learn that her daughter wasn’t dead. Her father had lied in desperation, hoping it would sway Bhakta to let her return home.

LGBTQ in Bangladesh

According to the U.S. Department of State: Consensual same-sex sexual activity is criminalized in Bangladesh and penalties include up to life imprisonment. Although homosexuality is illegal, arrests for offenses are rare and are usually only made after a third party files a complaint. Open displays of homosexuality are generally met with public disapproval. Even with opposite sex couples, public displays of affection, other than holding hands, are frowned upon. In 2016, AQIS specifically targeted and killed a prominent member of the Bangladesh LGBTI community in his apartment because of his human rights activism and sexual orientation. [Source: Crime and Safety Report — OSAC, United States Department of State, 2020]

Section 377 of the Penal Code reads: “ Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section. The ambit of Section 377 extends to any sexual union involving penile insertion. Thus, even consensual heterosexual acts such as fellatio and anal penetration may be punishable under this law.In 2009 and 2013, the Bangladeshi Parliament refused to overturn Section 377. [Source: Wikipedia]

Bangladeshi law doesn't recognize same-sex relationship, civil unions, as well as any kind of domestic partnership for couples of opposite genders. Bangladeshi society doesn't support these either. Consensual romantic relationship and marriage between two opposite genders is supported, though social conservatism is an impediment in this context (society is less supportive) as culturally society is based on 'marriage arranged by guardian' system. In July 2013, a lesbian couple was arrested for marrying in secret. The police had them take sex identification tests, and the doctors stated they were both females. The case was filed under Section 209, which is about unsocial activities.

Murder of LGBTQ Activists in Bangladesh

In April 2016, Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent 35-year-old member of Bangladesh’s LGBTQ community, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a 25-year-old theater artist and LGBTQ activist, were both brutally murdered at Mannan’s house in Dhaka by Islamic extremists carrying machetes and guns. According to the New York Times: “Six jihadists, wearing tailor-made courier-service outfits, pretended to deliver a parcel and hacked down the two men in front of Mr. Mannan’s mother. A severe Alzheimer’s patient, she still asks about her son’s whereabouts. [Source: Raad Rahman, New York Times, June 30, 2017 ==]

Mannan was an editor of Roopbaan a magazine for Bangladesh's gay and lesbian community. AFP reported: Mannam and Toboy “had received threats from Islamists over their championing of gay rights. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has claimed responsibility for killing the pair, saying the two men had worked to "promote homosexuality" in Bangladesh. But Bangladesh police chiefs have said their murders have the hallmarks of local Islamists, while the secular government has blamed the opposition. [Source: AFP, May 15, 2016]

Raad Rahman wrote in the New York Times: Mannan was murdered because he had fostered a powerful vision of visibility around Bangladesh’s marginalized L.G.B.T. communities and published Bangladesh’s only L.G.B.T. magazine, Roopbaan. I met Mr. Mannan in early 2013, when I moved back to Bangladesh after 15 years of living abroad. He helped me navigate a Dhaka whose constant curfews and widespread violence were alien to me. His openness and generosity were a great gift, an oasis for a liberal Muslim woman in an increasingly conservative country. ==

“Class and its accouterments seemed to protect the liberal elite from the rage of Bangladesh’s streets. Yet Mr. Mannan, who had a lucrative day job at U.S.A.I.D. in Dhaka and had served as a distinguished protocol specialist to three United States ambassadors, did not hide behind darkened S.U.V. windows. He took public transport and lived a full, open life. The last time I met Mr. Mannan was soon after the first issue of Roopbaan was published, in 2014. He lamented how security concerns and online death threats made him reticent to increase media requests. When death threats escalated, I pleaded with Mr. Mannan to leave Bangladesh. He responded, “I don’t want to be a martyr, but I don’t want to be an escapist either” — and “keep us in your prayers.”“ ==

Lack of Justice for the Murder of LGBTQ Activists in Bangladesh

A month or so after the murder, Bangladesh police arrested a suspected Islamist militant for the murder of Mannan and Toboy: Shariful Islam Shihab, a 37-year-old man who the police claimed was a member of the banned militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team. Shihab denied the charges. AFP reported: Police arrested 37-year-old Shariful Islam Shihab, described as a member of a local Islamist militant outfit that has been blamed for a string of similar gruesome murders of secular and atheist bloggers. “We've arrested one man in connection with the murder of Xulhaz Mannan," Dhaka police spokesman Maruf Hossain Sorder told AFP. “He is a member of the Ansarullah Bangla Team," he said, adding that the two activists were murdered on the orders of the ABT leadership. [Source: AFP, May 15, 2016]

“Police said Shihab — who has denied carrying out the killings — owned one of two guns used in the murders and has also supplied arms and bombs for previous ABT operations. Police seized Shihab in the western town of Kushtia, where he allegedly heads an ABT unit, after raids on several properties, in what Dhaka counter-terrorism chief Monirul Islam said was a "breakthrough" in the case. “They killed the gay rights activists because they were creating confusion about Islam," Islam said, adding the investigation was ongoing.

A year or so after the murder, Raad Rahman wrote in the New York Times: “Only one arrest has been made regarding the murders. Bangladesh’s investigative officers have failed to file conclusions in court 13 times. “The police made contact on the day of his murder. They made no further contact in this entire year,” Mr. Mannan’s brother, Minhaz Mannan, told the local media. “I want my brother to remain alive among us,” he wrote to me recently. No trials have begun. [Source: Raad Rahman, New York Times, June 30, 2017]

Impact of the LGBTQ Activist Murders in Bangladesh

Raad Rahman wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Mannan and Mr. Tonoy’s murders were a turning point in Bangladesh’s persecution of L.G.B.T. communities. Several L.G.B.T. activists spent the past year erasing their social media traces. Some were arrested, or received death threats. Others were forced to reside in safe houses for months, provided by foreign embassies in Dhaka, before they fled into Sweden, Germany and the United States. Those who spoke up about Mr. Mannan’s murder, including the English-language daily Dhaka Tribune newspaper, have received warnings about supporting anti-Islamic speech from Al Qaeda in South Asia. “Bangladesh’s government tried to use anti-American sentiments to further the notion that Xulhaz was not Bangladeshi, and that being gay is part of an ideology that is a Western import,” a co-founder of Roopbaan said. [Source: Raad Rahman, New York Times, June 30, 2017]

“Ten days after the murders, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Bangladesh’s federal home minister, said: “Our society does not allow any movement that promotes unnatural sex. Writing in favor of it is tantamount to criminal offense, as per our law.” In late May 2017, 28 L.G.B.T. men were arrested when they gathered for a party. A paramilitary force publicly identified them as homosexual.

“Meanwhile, the ruling Awami League has started to align itself with homophobic, fundamentalist Hefazat-e-Islam. Hefazat is a network of madrasah leaders and students who hope to introduce Shariah in Bangladesh and initially gained popularity as a pressure group during the Shahbag protests of 2013. It has since grown into prominence as a significant political group.

“The alliance with Hefazat, which has a significant following, promises an expansion of the once secular Awami League’s voter base in the coming election. The Awami League government has accepted several controversial Hefazat demands, including recognizing madrasah degrees as equivalent to master’s degrees awarded by universities; the replacement of Bengali words and Sufi poetry in primary schools; and the removal of a statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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