The Sinking Brothel
The sex workers of Banishanta, an island on Bangladesh’s southwestern coast, stand to be washed away by rising sea levels.
Photo: Sebastian Castañeda Vita
*Motherboard has changed the names of some of the women in this story to protect their identities.
Rina is accustomed to suffering. She has been sold, trafficked, and has escaped from a foreign country. She has survived diseases and tropical cyclones. She was forced to abandon her son when she was just 20 years old. And now her home stands to be washed away by a rising river.
Rina lives and works in a brothel in southwestern Bangladesh, north of the steaming mangrove forests of the Sundarbans National Park and just west of Mongla, the country’s second-largest port. The brothel is a ramshackle village of sagging huts built on the banks of a sinking island called Banishanta. It is 100 meters long, flat as a beaten coin, and as wide as a two-lane highway. Every day its muddy shoreline crumbles like stale bread into the fast-running current of the Pasur River, which, at high tide, threatens to spill over the embankment like a glass of water filled to the brim. Every day, danger encroaches a little more.
Banishanta was once one of the biggest government-registered brothels in Bangladesh. According to its older inhabitants, some 1,200 women lived and worked at Banishanta during the early 1950s when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. In those days, sailors and merchants from Britain to Indonesia docked at Mongla port, which at the time connected with many other international harbours. These sailors spent much of their free time and money on the island.
But since then the brothel has been battered by cyclones and inundated by floods. Sex workers who didn’t die in these storms moved to safer inland brothels while large parts of the island continued to disappear into the Pasur due to river erosion. Mongla port fell into decline from the early 90s onwards, as a combination of labour unrest, river siltation, and the consistently bad weather saw the port’s activity halve in the following two decades. Despite an economic resurgence in Mongla in recent years, there has been no knock on effect for the brothel. At the end of 2017, Rina was one of 105 sex workers on the island.
Soon, there may not be any at all.
Early one morning last November, while scientists and civil servants in Bangladesh sweated over climate change reports in stuffy state-owned office blocks in the capital city of Dhaka, Rina rolled herself a joint at her house on Banishanta.
Underneath a low-hanging roof, perched on a wide bed with gingham print sheets, Rina mixed the fibrous strands of tobacco with the sweet, ammonia-smelling cannabis. She wore a blood-red sari, with a gold nose ring and gold bracelets on her ankles and wrists. Thick black hair framed her almond-shaped face, and her small shoulders hunched over a slender frame.
The single room, despite the solar-powered lights, was dim. Tens of vividly coloured saris hung on the back wall; wooden shelves, packed with oxidised pots, pans, and rumpled clothes occupied the other three. The room smelled of mud and astringent perfume, mixed in with the weed. From the doorway, I could see the Pasur River to the left and a flooded paddy field to the right.
Rina is now 30, or at least that’s what she thinks. Like most of the women working on Banishanta, she has no birth certificate. She comes from a poor family and can neither write nor read well. The years and months seem to blend into each other, she said, and days at Banishanta were so often the same: she waits for clients and then has sex with them. There were few special events that she could look forward to, or that in any way demarcated one moment from the next. Rina understood time as a non-linear hodgepodge of vivid and less-vivid memories. She travelled through life with her back to the future, so to speak, staring at this jumble of recollections as if they were differently sized paintings on a gallery wall.
Rina can remember, for example, that when she first arrived on the island, it stretched farther into the river. She told me how, as a child, she used to play where her room now stood. She said she has no idea why Banishanta is disappearing into the river. She just prays to Allah that the island will be saved.
Bangladesh, home to over 160 million people, was the sixth most affected country by global warming between 1997 and 2016, and scientists calculate that more trouble is to come. A three-foot rise in global sea level, which the United Nations projects will happen by the end of the century, would submerge almost 20 percent of Bangladesh and displace more than 30 million of its citizens nationwide. To add to this, the country also has to contend with river erosion, which annually displaces between 50,000 and 200,000 Bangladeshis. In Banishanta’s case, Jyoti Halder, a representative of Bangladesh Society for Action and Development, a local NGO, told me that Banishanta’s embankment has eroded some 100 meters in the last few years, and that it continues to disappear quickly.
Every year, Bangladesh's major rivers carry silt from the world’s tallest mountain range and deposit it downstream and throughout a network of tributaries. These deposits raise the level of the riverbed, often creating sandbars, known as chars, which clog the river. When there are higher flows of water upstream from greater Himalayan snowmelt, or in the event of more frequent monsoon rains—both of which are linked to climate change—the rivers have less space to carry the increased volumes of water. The result is flooding and riverbank erosion.
In the case of the Pasur, not only does it carry chunks of sediment from the Himalayas, but it also experiences build-ups of silt and clay pushed in from the sea by its tide. This makes Mongla port less accessible to large containers ships with deep draughts, costing the government millions of dollars each year to dredge the river, and hurting Mongla’s economy. And it also means that the surrounding areas are vulnerable to forces of nature. If there is a storm or heavy rain, the Pasur will burst its banks.
All of this costs Rina customers. Especially in slow winter months, she can go days without receiving a single client. She does not enjoy having sex with strangers, who she says often hit her. But then, she also “hates” doing nothing. It can feel maddening.
These days, she said, there is too much time for her to dwell on the indignity of her situation, to worry about money, to both imagine the sex she will have and to relive the sex she’s already had with clients. Thinking about these things, she said, only brings her closer to the reality of a situation she had spent most of her life avoiding.
Rina ambled out to the riverbank where she squatted down to finish smoking the joint. To the north were upturned boats, rusted from neglect and half-swallowed by the sun-baked mud. To the south, young children scurried around noxious rubbish piles, full of fetid, month-old chicken carcasses, used condoms, and piles of fossilised dog shit.
Stretching in front of her was a wooden jetty built from tree branches. Its kinked and gnarled limbs jutted out from the island like a giant praying mantis. Floating around it, bashed-up motorboats, with bows as sharp as hooks, spluttered and backfired in the coffee-coloured water. One of the boats was filling up with dishevelled-looking men, who waved goodbye to a gaggle of women gathered on the embankment. The women, some very young, others ancient, blew kisses.
“Rina, give me some of that ganja,” said Uma, another Banishanta sex worker and a companion of Rina’s. “I’ll pay you back!”
Uma carried her two-year-old son in one arm and gestured with the other at a stash box Rina kept at her side. Rina relit her joint and nodded slowly. “Go ahead,” she replied.
“They tell me there was a time when we didn’t have to fight over clients like that,” Uma continued, pointing at the group of women still gathered by the pier.
It wasn’t the only time I heard one of the sex workers reminisce about the past. The older women would often talk about the foreign sailors, about how the river was much deeper then, how the water was much more transparent than its current hue. They recalled smoking Marlboro cigarettes with clients—not the horrible home-brands available these days—and drinking real Scotch whisky. They said they often saw as many as 10 customers a day. Razia Begum, the chief madam at Banishanta, claimed she once had 31 men in one shift.
According to Begum, women here used to make good pay, enough money, she claimed, to plan for a life outside of the brothel. But that money was always threatened, more often than not by the volatility of the weather. From as early as the women can remember, the brothel had been walloped by storms and floods. There was the Bhola cyclone of 1970, which killed some 500,000 people worldwide; the storm and flood of 1988, which, as many of the women told me, killed many people and temporarily closed the port of Mongla; and more recently, in 2007, Cyclone Sidr, which reached speeds of 260 km/hour and, according to Razia, knocked the brothel flat.
"It costs 60,000 BDT ($720) dollars to rebuild a house," she told me. "Who can afford that?" With the girls making just $2-3 per client, the answer is no one. The older women seemed to think that there was no hope left for the younger girls.
Of course, climate change isn’t just the scourge of the brothel, Razia said. It’s also devastating the surrounding areas. As sea levels have risen, the tidal river has brought salty water further inland. The increased salinity has made growing rice, traditionally the area's most common crop, more difficult. Locals have experimented with a variety of rice known as "scuba" that can handle higher levels of salinity and be submerged in water for extended periods of time. But even "scuba" is struggling to grow.
Other farmers have converted swathes of their property into fish farms, attempting to take advantage of flooding and increased salinity to harvest shrimp for export. The transition is proving tricky though, and profit margins are low. Many area farmers have just given up and left in search of more reliable forms of employment in Dhaka or Chittagong.
Before long, Razia believes, everyone will abandon Mongla.
Uma finished rolling a fresh joint and turned to Rina. “Smoke it with me?” she asked. “Come on!”
“Nah, I’m going to bathe in the river,” Rina said.
She grabbed Itoma, a short girl with a pinky-red salwar kameez and frizzy black hair, from the nearby tea shop, and the pair walked down the pier. Rina sat on the lowest rung of the ladder and dipped her feet into the water. She stared blankly at the rusty container ships moored mid-river. While Rina daydreamed, Itoma jumped into the water and swam to a section that, only five years ago, had been land. Her salwar kameez floated in the current as she dunked her head.
When Itoma resurfaced, her clothes were caught in her hair, revealing her back and covering her left eye. Rina cackled at her friend’s confusion, and fishermen on a nearby boat whistled at her. Itoma untangled herself frantically, gazing downward and concealing a twitchy smile to avoid the taunts of the fisherman, while Rina dove in. Paddling toward her friend, amid mouthfuls of muddy water, she giggled uncontrollably.
Rina came to the island when she was young—maybe, she said, when she was 10 or 12. She claims to have been tricked. As the story goes, a friend of her mother’s had told her parents that she could get the young girl work as a housemaid for a wealthy family in Chittagong, a large city in Eastern Bangladesh, some 350 kilometers by road from the brothel. Desperate for the extra money, Rina's mother agreed. But, instead of sending her to a family, the friend sold Rina to a madam at Banishanta.
Those first few days at the brothel are seared into Rina's mind. Strong perfumes, red lips, vibrant saris, alcohol, cigarettes, strange moans at night, and leering men who touched girls where they shouldn't—she said it took several days until she figured out where she was.
Rina first started having sex with clients after her first period, around the age of 14. Although child prostitution is illegal, back then, the law was not strictly enforced. Madams at Banishanta paid little heed to the rules, and it seemed the authorities didn’t either. Rina remembers that Banishanta was full of underage sex workers.
She looks back on this time with horror: how she’d stare into the mirror, clumsily applying her eyeliner, smudging her lipstick, and making a mess of her hair. She recalls how nervous she felt, how her hands used to shake when a client entered her room, and how her instinct told her that what she was doing was wrong. But her madam was relentless in marketing young girls. And clients liked Rina.
Most days she would see anywhere between eight and 10 men, charging $5 a turn. She felt a deep shame when men called her a whore or forced her to do something she didn't want to do. She remembers how much it hurt, physically and mentally, and took paracetamol, a common painkiller, night after night. She remembers how much she cried alone in her room.
Her madam, meanwhile, only saw more possibilities for making a profit. After roughly seven years at Banishanta—Rina can’t be sure of the exact dates—she was sold to a broker in India. The trafficker planned to sell to her to a brothel in Mumbai. But with the help of a Bangladeshi man, who she met coincidentally while working in the state of Haryana, she says she was able to pay her debt to the broker and smuggle herself back across the border to Bangladesh. She returned to Banishanta several months after she had left, and then spent another seven years repaying the money that the man had put up for her release.
Rina believes she had been spared the worst of it. Some of the young girls who worked in the brothel were subjected to all kinds of punishments. When they claimed they weren’t able to have sex out of nerves or stress, Rina told me that their madams would insert glass bottles into their vaginas to stretch them. If sex workers became pregnant, she said, they would often have abortions in dodgy clinics performed by suspect medicine men, or give their babies away to wealthy, infertile couples elsewhere in the country.
Prostitution is legal in Bangladesh, in spite of its predominantly Muslim population and deeply conservative attitudes. Qazi Asad-uz-Zaman, a sociologist who worked with sex workers in Banishanta, told me there are 14 registered brothels in the country, but also many hundreds more unlicensed ones. The charity ActionAid estimates that some 200,000 women are working in Bangladesh’s sex trade.
Many of these women are trafficked, sold to a broker who then sells them to a madam in a brothel. According to reports coming from inside these brothels, and the information that Banishanta’s workers told me, madams can pay anywhere from $200 or more for one girl. Once a girl is bought she is bonded, and the madam provides her with food and shelter until she pays off the debt.
As in Rina’s case, some of these women's stories begin with a relative or friend offering seemingly honest work in another city; others start when a handsome man comes to a rural village and dotes on an attractive girl, promising to marry her, but eventually selling her into the trade. Still, other women become sex workers of their own volition, which is to say they are not trafficked at all. But volition becomes a relative concept for young women and girls from poorer communities who have been sexually abused by men or whose husbands have walked out on them. In these cases many women are left with limited means of making a living outside of sex work.
It comes down to poverty and culture, in other words. Poverty means the chance of work, wherever it might be, is too good to turn down, engendering desperation on the part of a girl or her family, and opportunity on the side of a trafficker or madam. Culture means that many women are treated as second-class citizens in Bangladesh. Itoma, whose own husband left her, said sex work is one of the few things a poor woman without a man can do for herself.
“None of our problems here even matter if the weather takes a turn for the worse. We are trapped between the river and the neighbour’s land. We have nowhere to go.”
At noon, Rina sat in her tea shop, one of the many stores that line the brothel’s front, snacking on a fish curry with Uma. Adjoined to her living quarters, the store sold teas, cigarettes, soft drinks, snacks, betel nut (a local stimulant that many locals chew with tobacco), and often alcohol, which is difficult to acquire elsewhere in Mongla. It was dark inside, the low ceiling blocking out much of the daylight. Benches made from thick planks of wood lined the shop's walls and the mud-packed floor was cool underfoot.
After paying off her debt to the man who aided her in India, Rina became a madam herself. She invested her savings in the teashop and a few rooms she rented out to girls. Rina tried to be a patient madam. She didn't want to treat her girls as she had been treated when she was younger. Of course she had to be strict with them sometimes—it was the nature of the job, she said.
Another facet of being a madam is that she must climate-proof her property. All Banishanta madams who have property on the island´s shore pay for the reinforcement of the embankment out of their own pocket. “NGO workers and journalists say they will help but they never really do,” Rina said. Indeed, the women put a significant part of their yearly earnings toward maintaining the barrier. It is an expensive, albeit necessary effort to try to shield them from the weather, they told me.
Outside of the tea shop, the rest of the brothel was quiet. I watched the women go about their business, descaling fish with rusty knives, plucking emaciated chickens, gossiping in their rooms, or chasing their children up and down the length of the river bank, when Nivas Halder, a local man who had helped me gain access to the brothel, tapped me on the shoulder. Hadler was small, with chipped brown teeth, and he wore a blue striped shirt, denim jeans, and a faded baseball cap. He told me he had been listening to my conversation with Rina, adding that he had lost his home to river erosion not that long ago.
“It all just collapsed into the river, my whole life,” Halder said. “Spending money on the embankment like that, it won’t help a bit when another big storm comes.”
At around 2pm Itoma entered the tea shop, Hindi music blaring from the speakers of her phone. She was returning from a twice-monthly medical examination. In addition to spreading awareness among residents about the threat of climate change, the various NGOs that visit Banishanta also supply the sex workers with condoms and educate them about sexually transmitted infections. This particular service was provided by the Christian Service Society in a small wooden hut on the periphery of the village, where Dr. Golap Ali, a representative of the NGO, takes the girls' blood pressure, examines them for any suspicious lumps, and counsels them on the risks of unprotected sex.
“I try to tell them that drinking or taking drugs is not only bad for their health but that it makes them more likely to have sex without a condom, which in turn creates more problems,” Ali told me.
Aside from cannabis, Rina said she doesn’t enjoy taking other drugs. “Yaba,” a local methamphetamine that has gained popularity among Bangladeshis in recent years, has the worst effects. She told me she tried it once and that it left her feeling miserable and unable to eat for days. Many of the girls take yaba to stimulate sexual desire, she added, but it seemed to her that it just made them “crazy.” Rina prefers to stay in control, she said.
“Ah,” Uma interjected, “men never want to have sex with a condom.” If they refuse to put one on, she said, “I just threaten to bash them with the big stick that I hide underneath the bed.”
Rina raised her eyebrows. “I just lie and say that there is a possibility I have a sexual disease,” she said. “Most of them have wives and don’t want to run the risk of passing on an infection.”
The women laughed.
“By the way, Rina,” Uma asked, changing the conversation. “Do you have any of that light coloured foundation?”
Uma was keen to get ready for the night ahead. Unlike Rina, who had changed into a purple salwar kameez with white trousers, Uma was still wearing a T-shirt with the words, “People disappoint, food doesn’t” emblazoned across the chest.
“Come on, we’ll see what I have,” Rina replied, standing up to leave.
The two left for Rina’s room, and, as I got up to follow, Itoma took me aside. “You know none of our problems here even matter if the weather takes a turn for the worse,” she said. “We are trapped between the river and the neighbour’s land. We have nowhere to go.”
The island’s future seemed to weigh on every sentence, a caveat to everything positive and genesis to all things bad, as Itoma continued to tell me about her life in the brothel. Like most of the women I spoke to, she was sure Banishanta would disappear. She just didn’t know when.
Meanwhile, Rina sat cross-legged on the bed in her room. In front of her was a small, chipped mirror resting at a 45-degree angle on a cushion by the window. At her side was a basket filled with makeup and creams. Looking fixedly at her reflection, she applied dark blue eyeliner and puffed on a cigarette. Although she found it tedious to spend hours looking at herself, most of her customers preferred her to wear heavy makeup, she said.
Rina and Uma told me that madams go to great lengths to make their girls more attractive to customers. Most notoriously, sex workers, most of whom work in bigger brothels, like Kandapara and Daulatdia, are forced to take a steroid called Oradexon to help them gain weight. Bangladeshi men favour a voluptuous physique, Uma told me. Although sometimes prescribed in low doses to treat asthma, when repeatedly consumed by humans, Oradexon is not only addictive, it can also cause high blood pressure, skin rashes, liver damage, and sometimes death. Local farmers use the drug to fatten cattle before taking them to market.
“How do I look?” asked Uma, showing her friend a large red bindi she had pressed to her forehead.
Rina smiled approvingly as she finished applying eyeshadow. She had styled a high quiff that now wavered improbably over her forehead.
"I like how you've done your hair today," Uma said.
Rina shrugged. She had told me she was not as beholden to the whims of her clients as she had once been, though she still likes to make an effort. She seems less insecure about aging compared to a lot of the sex workers of Banishanta.
"Let's roll up some ganja before the customers start to get here," Rina said, packing her makeup away.
Darkness began to fall around 5:30 PM. The Pasur was now only inches from breaching the island's embankment. Taxi-boats chugged up and down the waterway, and bigger commercial boats rose mid-river like large nautical tombs. A cool breeze cut through the thick, balmy air of the waning daytime. The small tea shops lining the brothel's front filled with heavily made-up women dressed in bright saris who danced to Bollywood hits blasting from their phones.
On the phone in her shop, Rina’s face lit up with enthusiasm. She spoke quickly to a high pitched voice on the other end of the line. But when another voice came on, this one deeper and carrying a more sombre tone, Rina's smile turned into a frown. She spoke deliberately in return, before hanging up.
"Was that your family?" Uma asked.
Rina looked away.
Her family didn't know about her job; they thought she was living with her in-laws in Mongla, and that she was married to a respectable man. She hadn't been home in years and hadn't seen her son for as long she could remember. She missed him desperately, and most of the money she made went to pay for his education.
Now 10 years old, he lives with her parents back in Chittagong. Other sex workers on the island had told me that a lot of the women chose to pay for their children to stay with local families close to the brothel. Rina, for her part, did not want her son anywhere near Banishanta. She doesn’t want him to see her like this, she said, and besides, the threat of being washed away by a rising river means it’s just too dangerous. There was no way, in her mind, that he would land the same fate as she had. She wanted him to grow up to be a good man and have a respectable life. It hurt her to think about.
"Customers!" Itoma said, coaxing Rina from her thoughts.
A medium-size boat approached one of the brothel's jetties. It was kitted out with large speakers that pounded Hindi techno music. On the deck were five young men who drank from dark brown bottles and wobbled as the boat pitched in the wake of the container ships crawling north toward the port Mongla.
As the party disembarked from the vessel and laboured up the swaying jetty, a group of women gathered to greet them. The men's eyes were bloodshot, their pupils wide as saucers. The women, flaunting their curves and swishing their hair, grabbed their customers' shirts and pulled the buttons on their jeans. The men lapped up the attention and entered the nearest shop as the girls followed behind.
The music continued to blare. The excited shouts of the drunk customers reverberated among the slouching mud huts. Stray dogs howled. The wind brought with it the faint stink of rotting waste. And the river, indifferent to everyone and everything, crept toward the sea.
Rina turned to Uma, her expression unreadable. "We'd better touch up our makeup," she said.
The two of them disappeared around the back of the brothel.