Bangladesh's Largest Brothel
ALISON STEWART, host:
There is a brothel in Bangladesh that services 3,000 men a day. Sixteen hundred women live and work there, so you can do the math. A reporter who stood outside the brothel wearing a BBC cap and holding a large microphone, she had customers who came up, and they told her very plainly about themselves.
That reporter joins us now for another edition of Ripped Off…
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STEWART: …from the Headlines, where we look into stories that we wish we thought of first. Claudia Hammond is the reporter who visited that busy brothel. She reports for the BBC and London's Guardian newspaper.
Claudia, thanks for being with us.
Ms. CLAUDIA HAMMOND (Reporter, BBC; Guardian): Oh, it's a pleasure.
STEWART: So, I understand you were actually in Bangladesh working on another story - one about climate change. How did that morph into the story about the brothel?
Ms. HAMMOND: Well, what we were doing was we have this boat that was going through, sort of packed with BBC journalists from around the world that went through the rivers of Bangladesh for a month. And we all went to sort of different parts of it. And we were looking at the effects of climate change and the - what happened with the rising water levels there with the rivers going up.
And one of the places we stopped at on our boat was this very, very busy ferry port, and it's the busiest ferry port they have in Bangladesh. And loads of ferries go in and out. And then we found - there was this strange connection there between the effects of climate change and the rising water levels and this brothel, which is the trucks queue a day at a time. We saw these massive long queues of trucks. And some of these men wait for days at a time.
And while they're waiting to cross and get on the ferries to drive their goods across the country, they often go and visit the brothel. And because of the water levels rising, it means that not as many ferries can go as could before, and so they queue for even longer, and so the brothel's getting busier and busier. And now it is the biggest in the whole country.
STEWART: So this entire village in this Muslim country is devoted to, basically, to prostitution. Is the village unique, or are there pockets of this all over?
Ms. HAMMOND: There are 14 brothels a bit like this in Bangladesh. I mean, there's just the 14, but this one is the biggest of all. And this one is interesting in the fact that it is this, you know, it's almost like a whole town that is a brothel. As you walk around, you know, it's this sort of dusty town, and there's goats and there's lots of men and boys hanging about.
And there were also - the thing that makes it different is there are also women standing around in the streets. In lots of the other places I went to in Bangladesh, women aren't outside that much, and so you don't see them so much, whereas you do see them here. Again, you still wouldn't know it was a brothel until you were told. You know, it's got shops. It's got, you know, TV repairers. It's got tailors. It's got fruit stalls. It's like a town.
STEWART: So in terms of the brothel, I understand that there are actual - of the 1,600 women, there's different levels of prostitutes. You have independent prostitutes and bonded prostitutes. Could you explain the difference, the hierarchy?
Ms. HAMMOND: Yes. I mean, the independent prostitutes, they can, you know, they keep the money that they make. I mean, they all still charged, you know, a lot of money by people. They're overcharged for their electricity, for example. The shops there, they're stuck inside the brothel, and the shops there charge them a lot. But any money that is left over they can keep for themselves, and they tend to be a bit older. They're often in their 20s.
Then there are the bonded sex workers. And these - they come in at an average age of 14. And they've been, you know, trafficked effectively, and so they might have been kidnapped. Some of them have been kidnapped from their villages, others had been sold into sex slavery, in effect, by, say, their stepmothers or some have been tricked by boyfriends who've told them yeah, you know, let's run away together and we'll get you a really good job. And, in fact, what they do was sell them to the brothel. And they are then, you know, stuck there. They're owned, and they have to give their money to the madams who run it. And they are there for a certain number of years. It might be five years. It might be two years.
And after that time, if they can earn enough, they can buy themselves out. They can buy their freedom. But after that, they then tend to become independent sex workers, because the problem is that because of what they've been doing - even though, you know, though they've been kidnapped - they've been shamed. So their families don't want them back in their villages. And so then they tend to become independent sex workers and stay there as well.
STEWART: Who are the customers? You mentioned that it might be some of these truck drivers, but are they local men as well, these customers? Or are all the customers coming from the outside?
Ms. HAMMOND: Some of them are the truck drivers. Some are - a couple that I met were businessmen who were passing through. So, again, they were waiting for the ferry, but just to go across by car to do business. Others are the men working in the brothel, who - the ones who run the shops and own the businesses that are in this village, and they're known as babus. And they often have a regular woman that they go and see. They're married as well, and they have families as well, and then they have one particular person that they go and see. And they refer to them - the girls - women refer to them as their lovers. So they're their sort of permanent partners, if you like.
STEWART: Is there an emotional attachment to these babus, these personal - these partners, these long-term Johns?
Ms. HAMMOND: Yes, I think there is. I mean, they - the women spoke to me, you know, fondly about their babus. You know, they know they're married and have families, but they, you know, they like them best. And they feel that they can trust them more. I mean, one of the problems of that is because they feel they trust them, they then don't necessarily have safe sex with them. They don't necessarily use condoms, which they would with the other clients whenever they can, whenever they can persuade clients to. And so that can be a problem.
STEWART: Are there health issues involved, since you mentioned that they are not practicing safe sex many - much of the time?
Ms. HAMMOND: Yes. I mean, they are. I mean, the women I spoke to, they were very assertive. And they were saying, you know, we tell the men that, you know, they must use condoms. We throw them out if they won't. It's easier for the independent sex workers to do that, much easier than it is for those who've been trafficked. They - those - the ones who are bonded, the madams will often agree to them to have sex for less - for more money if they don't use a condom. And then, the girls, the young girls themselves, have no choice about that so that can be a problem.
But I was there. I met the Bangladeshi Women's Health Coalition, who - which is an NGO which is running safe sex workshops there in the afternoons and they're quite clever. They get the girls in there by having quizzes.
Ms. HAMMOND: And in particularly the youngest ones that they want to get and they have safe sex quizzes where the prize might be, you know, a cup or some soap, or something like that. Very very, you know small prizes. But they earn so little, people will come because they want to win the prizes.
STEWART: And they must seem meaningful.
Claudia Hammond is the reporter who wrote this article. We'll link through the article on our blog.
Claudia, thanks for sharing your reporting.
Ms. HAMMOND: You're welcome.
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