Global Focus: A responsibility to act
Global Focus: A responsibility to act
My tuk-tuk pulled up outside The Salvation Army’s project office in Jessore, a city in Bangladesh, with a population of approximately 2.3 million.
The street was busy but not congested by Bangladeshi standards; pedestrians, bicycles and a few vehicles weaved their way past me as I stepped out of the tuk-tuk.
I have travelled extensively around Asia and this place looked similar to many other inner-city side roads. Shops under brightly coloured signs were interspaced by small food outlets selling hot meals to hungry customers.
I had come to learn about the work The Salvation Army is doing to rehabilitate survivors who have been trafficked into brothels and understand more of the context in which the Army is working in this area.
As I watched people going about their lives, there was nothing in their manner that indicated this place was any different to the numerous other commercial roads in the city, but I was actually standing in the middle of the city’s red-light district. What stood out from the otherwise ordinary street was a line of about 10 women in brightly coloured traditional clothing with their faces and eyes heavily plastered in make-up.
When they saw me, the women smiled and called out loudly. Two things seemed oddly surreal about this – firstly, it was mid-afternoon and I had always assumed (wrongly I now realise) that the prostitution trade only happened behind closed doors and/or after dark. The second surprise was that all the locals around seemed to completely ignore what was going on.
This was obviously a very active and illicit business in a country that is known to be very conservative in its political and moral views, yet no one seemed very bothered.
I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to react. I didn’t understand what the women were saying – although I could guess. A few awkward moments passed while I waited for my two local Salvation Army colleagues to direct me to their office space in a small rented building that overlooked the street I was in.
The Salvation Army is well known in Bangladesh for its work with trafficked and sexually exploited women, having established various community projects targeting this issue for more than 20 years. The current project office is well situated, directly opposite two of the oldest brothels in the country. The program attempts to provide alternative livelihood options and training to trafficked women and helps to establish a sustainable income so they can become independent, free from debt and with the opportunity to live with dignity and self-respect.
Being introduced to some of the women on the program and listening to the project staff was fascinating and inspiring, but what followed was one of the most provocative project trip encounters I’ve ever had.
I was invited to accompany my colleagues into the brothel to speak with some of the women inside. For an organisation to get free access to work with and talk to women within brothels is unique and demonstrates the level of trust and commitment that The Salvation Army in Bangladesh has built up over the years.
I stepped back outside from the project office and walked across the road with my local colleagues towards the brothel entrance. If I had felt awkward waiting across the road, “awkward” does not come close to how I was feeling now. I was acutely aware that not only was I the only foreign male in the area – which in itself attracted some curious looks – I was also entering a well-known brothel in the middle of the afternoon. Needless to say I avoided eye contact with virtually everyone!
The entrance was a simple, open wooden doorway. Stepping inside led to a long, dimly lit corridor. The first thing that hit me was strobe lighting and dance music. It felt random and out of place, in stark contrast to the traditional values that so much of the surrounding culture embraced. It was as if this place was trying to imitate a stereotypical “Western” idea of partying.
A man whom I assumed was some kind of a bouncer sat at the end of the corridor and was obviously in control of the volume of the music. He seemed to be enjoying it. He immediately recognised my colleagues and greeted us as we walked past. I later discovered that he was the owner of the property.
Passing the thumping music emerging from the speakers, the corridor led into an open courtyard with rooms all around it – I counted at least 15 separate rooms. Each one had a small veranda in front of it, containing personal items such as cooking utensils, clothes, toothbrushes and soap. Young women sat nonchalantly outside the doors and looked at me and my colleagues in curious amusement. “They’re asking if you are police”, I was told.
The brothels have a delicate relationship with the police. Running a brothel is not technically illegal in the country but human trafficking and soliciting anyone under the age of 18 are both against the law. I didn’t see any open evidence of corruption but it was pretty obvious to me that a certain amount of back-handed cash must be being passed around in order for this place to function the way it did.
Corruption is just another layer to the challenge of combating trafficking in the country.
The first woman I spoke to was sitting cross-legged outside her room, eating her lunch – rice with what looked like a very watery curry. She was a little embarrassed when we asked to speak with her but she agreed and spoke matter-of-factly, answering our questions in a few words.
“How long have you worked here?” we asked.
“About eight years”, she answered.
“Really?” we replied. “You look young. How old were you when you started working here?”
“Twelve years old”, she said flatly, taking a sip from a cup of water. I tried to hide my shock when her answer was translated back to me. Twelve years old? An image of her as a young girl flashed in my mind, and the brutal reality of what her life must have been like for so many years. Her manner, as she continued with her lunch, was one of defiance; this was her life and in some distorted way she had been forced to deal with it.
I had a similar conversation with another woman who looked roughly the same age as the first one. “How did you end up working here?” was my question, after she had explained that she had two children who lived back in her home village. “Both my parents died when I was young,” she explained. “My uncle took me.”
She didn’t elaborate further, but her story fits the pattern of so many who are trafficked; young children who are extremely vulnerable, sold into the trade by a known relative or family “friend”.
She gave away little emotion in her face, but I remember thinking that her eyes seemed to be staring through me rather than looking at me. I asked her about her children and her reply was immediate: “I can support my children’s school fees – they can have a good life.” This sounded like a tiny glimmer of hope, I thought, albeit only for her children.
As we spoke, it was hard not to get distracted by the numerous young men who had started to enter the brothel. There was a nervousness about them because they were unsure who we were but it didn’t stop “business” carrying on as usual. While we were talking, they were paying for sex and each would disappear into one of the many rooms, appearing again 15 minutes later as another man went in.
Above one door the word “Love” was painted in bold red paint. In reality the place was completely stripped of beauty and love. This, I realised, is what slavery looks like today.
The casual attitude of the men I saw that day has challenged my thinking on my own responsibility (as a male) in combating the issue of gender-based violence and exploitation. If I, as a man, am not actively speaking against and challenging the culture of violence, abuse and exploitation of women, am I actually passively promoting it?
Along with The Salvation Army, there are many non-governmental organisations, missions and government agencies that are working to rehabilitate and empower survivors of trafficking.
The programs in place are (mostly) excellent and are vital in the fight against sex trafficking worldwide. One problem I identified is that very few programs challenge the men who think it is normal to sexually exploit women. Most programs designed to combat human trafficking mainly target survivors. While these are, of course, absolutely necessary, it begs the question: who is challenging the men? We cannot begin to solve this until we engage men and change the mindset that paying for sex is normal or acceptable.
Walking back out to the street I was left with a mix of emotions: relief, frustration, sadness ...
It was certainly an encounter I will not forget and one which has left me deeply challenged about my own responsibility as a fellow human being. I am responsible for the actions I take; I am also responsible for my inaction.
This article first appeared in The Salvation Army’s publication, All the World.
Ben Gilbert is Community Development Coordinator (Asia) at International Headquarters