Sharifa runs through congested, smelly lanes, skipping over gutters overflowing with used condoms, empty bottles of alcohol and energy drinks, avoiding a drunk man who stares after her lasciviously. She skips along with a big grin on her face, down the dark stuffy lane, dodging a yelping dog violently kicked out of an invisible door, calling out salaams to all that she is able to acknowledge in her hurry.
Sharifa runs faster, through the corrugated lanes, around the last corner, and turns into an open space. She stops and blinks at the sun. Straight in front of her she sees her school, her refuge, her escape, and her shouts disappear in the din of other children arriving at Mukti Mohila Samity School.
Sharifa is six years old and lives in a desperate situation. Sharifa does not know it yet, she is too young to understand, but this school is her only chance of happiness, because Sharifa lives in Daulatdia brothel in Bangladesh and here there is very little hope.
Daulatdia brothel is one of the largest brothels in the world. It is, in fact, so large that it has developed its own economy, with tailors, beauty shops, cigarette shops, phone shops and food stores.
Behind the lines of fruit and vegetable stalls where the rickshaw drivers wait, inside a mass of alleyways, live 1,600 women and girls who depend on prostitution for their survival.
The rest of the population mainly consists of mausis (madams), pimps, drug-dealers, bootleggers, food vendors, shopkeepers, labourers and of course the 951 children who live within the walls of the brothel.
A bad traffic jam day is when business thrives in Daulatdia. Drivers, cleaners, loaders, small town businessmen and even policemen come to the brothel to pass time with any of the 12 to 35-year-old women who offer their services for less than US$3 per hour in one-room hovels where they eat, sleep and raise their children.
The children who live here are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Their mothers are barely able to defend themselves from drunks and deviants that pass through their rooms.
The kids are regularly employed by customers to run errands, fetching alcohol and drugs, placing gambling bets, giving massages and, finally, cleaning up after the clients have left them alone. Most children are shoved under the bed or in a corner to sleep in the same room where their mothers entertain their clients. All the children seem to hate that part the most.
Given this, it is not at all surprising that almost one third of the sex workers are believed to be under age, that the average age of sex workers when they start selling their bodies is only 14 years old. But it is terrifying to see these children and imagine what their future might be in a few short years without help.
It is difficult to listen to Sharifa’s mother, Rekha, talk about her situation and the life she has lived inside the walls of Daulatdia brothel. Like so many women who live here Rekha is a bonded sex worker. She was born here and if Sharifa doesn’t make it, both of them will probably die here.
She knows this is how it is for most sex workers driven into deprivation, ridden with diseases. She knows the school Sharifa attends offers her the only real chance of another life. One worth living.
Which is why, unlike other women of the brothel, many still sleeping after entertaining clients late in the night, Rekha wakes up early every day. It doesn’t matter how late she worked, beaten up or not, drunk or not. She wakes up every morning without fail to watch Sharifa go to school. Sharifa’s wonderland is her wonderland too. Sharifa holds in her small hands her own dreams that one day, together, they will find a way to escape.
Morjina Begum, the Executive Director of the school, watches the children arriving through the doors. She beams with pride. She more than anyone understands what this school means. She was once a sex worker and knows what it means to suffer.
“Twenty years ago, us prostitutes and our children, we had no hope, no scope, not even a graveyard for our burial but now thanks to Save the Children, we have girls who are pursuing engineering and medical degrees, many have become teachers and so many more have married and settled out of Daulatdia living a regular life.”
It is here inside the school, founded with the help of Save the Children, that the children of sex workers, and the poorest of the poor of Daulatdia brothel, come to learn. It is here that they laugh and play and dance. Most of all the school offers the children the possibility of hope and the ability to dream.
When Sharifa returns from school her mother, Rekha, is waiting for her. Twenty years ago, before Save the Children started working in Daulatdia, these mothers and their children had no hope, but now there are girls who are now free.
Rekha hopes her daughter too will live a normal life and will never have to suffer as she has. That is why she hopes and prays that her school will never close, because without it there will be no hope of escape.