When Sonia was 15 years old, a man from her village — whom she addressed as Mama — tricked her into working at a brothel. Sonia had believed him when he said that he could give her a job in a garment’s factory. Instead, breaching her trust, he had taken her to a woman’s house, which turned out to be a brothel. The woman, herself engaged in sex work, ran the brothel and earned more than the younger girls, like Sonia, who worked there. Being just 15 at the time, Sonia escaped and began working on the streets. She is now 29 years old.
At 18, Sonia married a man who had helped her with her sex work, but they later separated. Her son, who is now 11 years old, lives with her extended family back in her village, where he also attends school. As often as she can, Sonia sends the money she earns back home to her son via bKash.
But lately, money has been scarce. While pre-pandemic days saw earnings Tk800-900 per night (excluding tips), Sonia’s average income under the current pandemic situation has plummeted to a mere Tk200-300 per night, with next to no tips. Due to the competitive market and less money her declining number of customers could spend, Sonia has even had to settle for Tk50 per customer.
Added to that, there are internal regulations governing which sex worker can work in a particular area on what days. For example, a sex worker can work in the same area a mere two days each week, and 20-25 other sex workers work in the same area throughout the rest of the week.
The work itself comes with massive risks, such as STI and STD transmission. Although free condoms are often provided by healthcare workers who locate sex workers in an area and distribute the condoms among them, male customers rarely want to use them. According to Sonia, since doctors have previously warned her about STIs and STDs, she tries her best to convince her customers to use condoms, although to little avail. This reluctance from most, if not all the men availing her services, leaves sex workers such as Sonia vulnerable to a wide array of diseases.
Fortunately, there is a specific healthcare centre for her and other sex workers which they visit for checkups if they face physical complications. Rashes are a common physical condition in this line of work, and doctors prescribe and provide medication to them free of charge.
This risk to her health is hardly the only uncertainty in her life. Accommodation is another. With no particular place to stay at night, Sonia sleeps on street-side pavements or any empty space convenient enough to set up her bed; bed, of course, sheets of paper laid out below. Even this isn’t a safe setup, as policemen usually try to chase them away. Adverse weather conditions like extreme cold or rain make for an even more difficult situation. The daytime brings a bit more certainty, as sex workers like Sonia go to a healthcare office dedicated to them, where they are usually allowed to shower and sleep for the day.
Interviewed by Joyee Saha
This piece was made in collaboration with Bodol and TransEnd.