Turning to sex work is most often a matter of desperation. In Bangladesh, an MCC training program provides women with other options to support themselves and their families.
A fresh start
Tears fell from Sharmin’s eyes as she remembered her parents bringing a future husband and his family to meet her when she was 12 years old.
In Bangladesh, marriage is prohibited under 18, she said, but she had no choice but to marry the man her father chose, even though her future husband was twice her age and in love with another woman.
The happy childhood she said she had before became an increasingly distant memory after she gave birth to a small, sickly son, about a year after she was married. Her son needed doctor visits, medicine and formula that cost them her husband’s savings, his earnings and family gifts.
Sharmin’s son didn’t start walking until he was 3 years old. By that time, she had a daughter as well.
And the young family’s challenges multiplied. Her husband had stomach pains so severe he had to go to the hospital. When he was released, he was no longer well enough to work. His family quit helping the couple. Sharmin moved her family closer to her father for support, but he was soon in a car accident that prevented him from working.
Sharmin, her husband and children went hungry night after night. Rent was due — 250 takas , or about $3.50 — and Sharmin, who was 15 at the time, could not pay. Her landlord, however, forced her to pay with her body, an event that still causes Sharmin to sob.
It was the beginning of years of sex work that paid for her family’s food and housing.
In the past year, though, Sharmin, now 22, has found a new start through Pobitra, an MCC job training program for former sex workers in Mymensingh. (Because of the degradation sex workers face in Bangladesh and the aim of Pobitra to help women put their pasts behind them, Sharmin and other Pobitra participants are identified in this article by pseudonyms.)
To be part of Pobitra, a word that can be interpreted as “holiness, sanctity, the fresh cleanliness of a newborn,” women must commit to leave sex work. In exchange, MCC provides a basic salary and a yearlong training program that gives women the personal skills and job skills they need to support their families. Graduates make soap for Sacred Mark, an MCC job creation program, or help develop other products for MCC to sell.
Since 2008, when Pobitra began, 66 women have taken part. Only two have returned to sex work.
The women come with hearts full of hurt. Sex work pays well, typically 300 takas ($4.22) a night, but it also brings great degradation and pain.
“People would beat me up sometimes,” said Farzana, who started sex work when she was 9 years old and is now almost 40. She recalled nights of meeting with 10 or 11 men. “If I stay in that life, I will be tortured and oppressed. It’s not bearable,” she said.
Now a graduate of Pobitra, Farzana was instrumental in convincing Suchona, 20, a friend she knew from sex work, to apply to the program.
“‘Come,’” Suchona remembers Farzana insisting. “‘There is only 100 taka (about $1.40) per day, but there is love here.’”
Although Suchona resisted, not believing she could pay bills and help her mother on that amount, she eventually applied to the Pobitra program. Pobitra staff approach other women, inviting them to apply to the program.
When women first enroll, they reflect the chaos of the lives they are trying to leave behind. Often they are sleepy or have stomach pains and headaches that reflect their stress. They don’t cook for themselves and don’t arrive on time. They have problems with lying and quarreling, with cleanliness, said Sultana Jahan, coordinator of Pobitra, who gently guides them to a better life through teaching and mentoring.
For the first several months of Pobitra training, Jahan and training supervisor Nipa Dutta focus on teaching the women how to communicate respectfully, dress appropriately and keep themselves clean. All receive medical checkups, including tests for HIV and AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. They take classes in English and Bangla literacy and are encouraged to improve their reading and writing.
They learn to budget the 100 takas a day so that they can feed their families, pay rent and buy a few extras. This amount, which is typical for this skill level, is possible to live on, Jahan said.
“The 100 taka is like 1,000 taka to me,” said Sharmin. She is experiencing love and respect at Pobitra that she never experienced anywhere before in her life. And this money she is making is pure, she said, not impure like the money she made before.
Children are able to come with their mothers to Pobitra and are cared for on site. Their mothers also receive training in child care and parenting.
As the year progresses, community instructors teach women tailoring, embroidery and basic and elaborate blanket-making skills — laying the foundation for skills that the women can use for future employment or to supplement their income.
Most graduates are employed by Sacred Mark, an MCC job creation program in Mymensingh where women make soap that is sold around the world, including in Ten Thousand Villages stores in Canada and the U.S. MCC hires others to develop new products to sell.
In addition, young people who live at Taizé, an ecumenical Christian community in Mymensingh, conduct weekly trainings on peacemaking, conflict resolution, respect and compassion. Jahan and Dutta build on that training when a conflict arises, doing role plays of actual situations and brainstorming solutions with the women.
The women themselves are able to offer a unique support to each other.
Suchona, who was contracted out to a man who imprisoned her for two weeks in a graveyard hole by day and forced her to do sex work at night, said the Pobitra women help her face her past. “I can tell other girls easily because I know their background. It helps a lot to reduce the pain. They are from the same places. I have nothing to lose,” she said. (Read more about Suchona’s journey online at acommonplace.mcc.org.)
After almost a year in training, Suchona is showing strength as a leader, said Jahan. She is a quick learner and eager to master new skills.
Jahan sees visible changes in all the women throughout their year at Pobitra. They begin to talk, act and look differently — showing more respect to others, speaking more politely. They are healthier and better able to take care of themselves.
Dutta and two social support workers, Lutfa Akter and Rokeya, who only uses one name, are available to meet with the women and their families. About a third of the women in Pobitra are married, and Pobitra offers trainings to husbands to help enhance communication and improve relations within the family.
Bangladeshi society does not accept sex workers. However, the women now are able to shop when other women shop and to enroll their children in school because people see that they have a “legitimate” job. Before the women stopped sex work, community members would have forced them and their children away.
Megna, who graduated from Pobitra in April 2010 and now is the chief soap maker at Sacred Mark, moved to a new community where people don’t know about her former life. Now they see a woman who goes to work every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., comes home, cooks and takes care of her children.
The new neighbors respect her, she said, promising to protect her if her husband beats her. The women also are beginning to respect themselves.
“We never had dreams that we could come into such an environment to work,” said Ayesha of Sacred Mark, “or that we could make soap that would go around the world and that foreigners would come and sit and listen to us.”
Give a gift — Bangladesh livelihood
Your gift helps give women in Bangladesh the capacity to start over, learn vocational skills and find new sources of income.
$25 provides one woman with a literacy curriculum and materials for one year.
$288 sponsors one woman to go through a life-changing program.