What monsoons won’t wash away

by Luca Catalano Gonzaga

In the year 2000, following a decision by the Bengali Supreme Court of Law, prostitution has been legalized in Bangladesh – one of the few Muslim countries that have done so. Prostitution is possibile as long as it only takes place in 14 official brothels. Bani Shanta is one of those venues. In fact, it is located in a tiny village on the riverbanks of the Pashur, constantly under the treat of the rising waters in the Monsoon season. About one hundred sex workers live here, many of whom in their early teen years. None of them knows their own birthdate, as the registration of newborns, being expensive, seldom happens; therefore, officially these girls and women do not exist. This strip of land – barely one square kilometre – is only reachable through the river. That is why every day boats packed with men leave the small dock of Monga towards Bani Shanta. The brothel huts, all alike, are laid out in rows, and its open fronts are used both to display the prostitutes and as a lobby where the clients make the deal. The average price of a 15 minute encounter ranges from 100 to 300 taka (1- 3 Euros), depending on the age and looks of the sex worker, and an all-night stand may cost up to 1500 taka (15 Euros). In Bangladesh, prostitution exists in a “state of exception”: it is officially forbidden, only to be recognized through the affidavit system (notarial deed, sworn statement) which “legalises” the activity as it establishes the impossibility to do another job and then identify in the brothel the only chance to earn a living. Bangladesh is one of the very few Muslim states to legalize prostitution. In a tongue of land stretching out towards the port of Mongla, stands Bani Santha, one of the fourteen official brothels in the country. Its characteristic is that of being a small island of about 1km, where the boat is the only means of transport. From the port of Mongla a ferry service crowded with men of all ages departs towards the island (30 ‘journey) .Mongla today is a small disused port on the bank of Pushur (one of the arms of the Ganges river delta), in the district of Bagerhart, Khulna region, about 70 km from the Bay of Bengal. It currently has a population of around 140,000. Due to the cessation of some commercial activities in the port of Mongla, in recent years there has been a decrease in the number of customers in the brothel and consequently a decrease in the number of prostitutes. In fact, the latter rose from 300 in 2006 to 90 in 2010. The rate of a sexual performance, lasting about 15 ‘, varies from 100 to 300 taka (from 1 to 3 Euros), based on the age and beauty of the prostitute. There is the possibility of sleeping together with the prostitute for the whole night at a cost of about 1,500 taka (15 Euros). There is no electricity inside the brothel. The huts in the brothel are all the same and arranged in succession. On the front there are 5 huts (as many as the piers to land on the island), which are meant to be a showcase for girls and a place to negotiate with customers. On the back there are the prostitutes’ rooms. The prostitutes spend all day drinking, eating and chatting among themselves in these “showcase” huts, waiting to receive the boats with the customers. On the island there are 5 wooden piers, a few meters away from each other, where boats can moor. Each pier is run by a “Shordarni” or an ex-prostitute who runs a group of prostitute girls. So based on which dock the boats land, the groups of prostitutes, belonging to the individual Shordani, have an exclusivity of first negotiation on the customers. In some photographs we see prostitutes who forcefully drag potential customers into their hut for economic negotiations, thus avoiding that customers can move to other “shop windows” huts managed by different groups of prostitutes. For this reason, there are often very animated discussions between prostitutes and customers, as the latter would like to have the opportunity to visit the entire brothel, in order to have a wider selection in the choice of prostitute. (text by Luca Catalano Gonzaga).