The Island of forgotten women

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.  In Bangladesh, prostitution is allowed in a “state of exception”: it is officially forbidden, but can be recognized through the affidavit system (notarial deed, sworn statement) which “legalizes” the activity based on the impossibility for the concerned person to find another job, and additionally identifies the official brothels as the only place to earn a living. Bani Shanta, in a strip of land stretching out towards the port of Mongla, is one of those venues. It is a small island of about 1 km 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 is expensive and thus it is seldom done; therefore, officially these girls and women do not exist. Bank Shanta is only reachable by boat. That is why every day a ferry service – 30’ of journey – packed with men of all ages depart from the small dock of Monga towards Bani Shanta.  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 five brothel huts, as many as the piers to land on the island are all alike and are laid out in rows; its open fronts are used both as a showcase for the prostitutes and as a lobby where to negotiate with customers. On the back there are the prostitutes’ rooms. There is no electricity inside the brothel. The average price of a 15-minute sexual intercourse 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).  The prostitutes spend all day drinking, eating and chatting among themselves in these “showcase” huts, waiting for 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 with the customers. In some photographs we see prostitutes who drag potential customers using force into their hut to negotiate, thus avoiding that customers can move to other “shop windows” huts managed by a different group 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 a prostitute. (text by Luca Catalano Gonzaga).