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As coronavirus bites in Bangladesh, a former sex worker helps women still on the streets

by Naimul Karim | @naimonthefield | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:41 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A sex worker waits for a customer inside her small room at Kandapara brothel in Tangail, a northeastern city of Bangladesh, March 5, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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Rina Akter has built a support network of doctors, pharmacists, NGO officials and donors, becoming a go-to person for hundreds of sex workers in Dhaka

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By Naimul Karim

DHAKA, July 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rina Akter was 10 when brokers from her village in Bangladesh - assuring her family she would be employed as a maid in the capital - took her away and sold her to a brothel.

Two decades later, Akter has become a go-to figure among sex workers in Dhaka, serving hundreds of meals to the women she calls her sisters as the coronavirus pandemic leaves many struggling to buy enough to eat as customers stay home.

Akter and her team of helpers have been preparing about 400 hot meals including rice, vegetables, egg and meat every week since the pandemic began.

Long lines of sex workers queue up in different parts of the city, waiting for her to arrive.

"The coronavirus has hit my sisters hard. Their earnings have reduced a lot... they can barely eat one meal a day," said Akter, 33, who works for the Durjoy Nari Shongho, a group that supports street sex workers in Bangladesh.

"The situation of older sex workers who are less in demand is worse and they are the happiest to receive our food... their eyes twinkle and they keep saying that God will bless me," she added.

Bangladesh is home to about 100,000 sex workers and charities say many of them are struggling to survive since sex work hasn't recovered about two months after the country lifted restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The government has distributed food to a number of brothels and floating sex workers during the pandemic, but charities say much more needs to be done.

Bangladesh's constitution stipulates the need to adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution, but sex work is allowed in brothels.

Most sex workers, however, work on the streets or in private residences and are often detained by the police.

Akter decided to start campaigning for sex workers' rights after she was detained at the age of 16 and sent to a rehabilitation centre.

"My cousin used to work for a rights group and managed to get me out. That's when I told myself that I too needed to work with such groups because they have the power to support workers," she said.


Over the last decade, Akter has built up a network of pharmacists, doctors, NGO officials and donors willing to provide support to sex workers in need, making her a go-to figure for hundreds of women.

This week, Akter took a woman to hospital who needed 90 stitches after a client beat her when she asked for money. Last week, she went to court to get three sex workers out of jail.

"Society doesn't really care about us. If I don't stand up for them, no one will," she said, adding that she has personal experience of such discrimination.

Akter married one of her customers when she was 19 and stayed with him for six years before he asked her to leave.

"He failed to see me as anything more than a sex worker," she said.

Now divorced, she lives with her two sons.

Soon after separating from her husband, she tried to return to her village with her sons and live with her brothers. But the village leaders refused to let her stay at her father's home because she was a sex worker.

"My sons haven't met their uncles for years and I don't remember the last time I celebrated Eid with my family," she said.

Despite such woes, Akter says she does not feel dejected and continues to come up with new plans to support workers.

At the moment, she's working with a charity where she looks after drop-in centres where street-based sex workers stay or rest after work.

She is also designing a programme to teach older sex workers how to sew, so they can work at small factories, and earn a living without having to resort to begging.

Akter does not regularly do sex work anymore but does meet clients "when the money is tight."

She keeps it secret from her sons and plans to send them to a hostel once they are older so they aren't "insulted" because of her former job.

"My dream is to see them grow up as good men," she said.   

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