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The Slow, Complex Work of Saving Children

Reflections from my experience visiting a Brothel in Bangladesh

(Photo courtesy of Friends of Basha)

As impossible as it is for me to believe now, earlier in 2020 I flew around the world. The primary objective was to visit Bangladesh and see, in person, the life-changing work in which dignify has had the privilege to participate over these past 8 years.

During my visit, I travelled with a Friends of Basha staff member from Dhaka to one of Basha's production centre in Jessore. Seeing another kantha production centre in action (outside of the dense urban environment of Dhaka) was fun, and also emotional.

I felt gutted by my own self-interest, the ease of my life, and my wealth. I brimmed with tears over the beauty of sitting in on lessons in writing, English, & math for women trainees who were previously illiterate. When I showed one of the production leaders the dignify website on my phone, she immediately recognized classic throws that had come from their centre & pointed out who had made them!

It was a mixed bag of emotions, but the dominant ones were hope (in the good, redeeming work that is happening) and gratitude (to Basha for making it happen).


While we were in Jessore, we also visited the local Salvation Army office, situated directly across from the city's legal brothel (the focus of the SA office's work). My colleagues at Basha & I visited with the program workers over coffee, learning about their history & work. Then, together we walked across the street to visit the brothel.

Something we learned was that at this brothel site, there were about 90 children living in the brothel. These were all kids whose mothers live/"work" there, with many (or most?) of the children born within the lanes of the brothel. When a mother works, the child(ren) goes to a common area or visits with other women in the community. The women are organized in "family"-type structures — it is not entirely unlike a multi-level business structure, with the brothel madam at the top — so, you see common cooking & a care that extends to other women's children.

(Photos by Allison Joyce)

The darkest plague in this reality is that women's spirits are ground down to the point where they cannot dream of a different life. Their imagination does not span beyond the walls of the brothel. And the children are growing up in this one, limited vision of reality.

The Salvation Army works (in concert with Basha, who can train & employ women who leave) to re-ignite a vision for a different kind of future

But, the everyday work is slow. It is wrought with compromise. It is a constant push for the better-than-the-worst-case-scenario.

I would love to snap my fingers and wipe it all away. To remove every woman and every child from the brothel and plunk them into a new home, new job, new life. But, to believe that this is a realistic solution, I realized, is beyond naive


This SA office believed in small steps, incremental gains, and the long game. Their vision was to start a day program for children, in their office across the street. The hope was that any amount of hours spent outside of the brothel would help these children have another perspective. A glimpse at dreams, an imagination for life beyond the brothel walls. 

If — after a period of time running this day program — it was manageable, then they would look at expanding into options for boarding, making a round-the-clock option for these children of the brothel.

Understand, please, that this is a working plan that would unfold over years of time. It is dependent on factors such as: 

  • funding
  • landlord whims
  • sustained positive relationship with the brothel madam
  • staffing
  • unprecedented disruptions (like weather crises or health epidemics)

This is the long, slow, hard work of truly "saving children".
There is no magic bullet. There is no leadership choice or cultural shift that can quickly turn the tides on the human-inflicted atrocities of this world.


Embracing nuance, compromise, and a making-the-best-of-it approach to progress... these have been the toughest, richest, & most life-filled shifts of my life. Is this maturity? Or is it giving up?

For me at least, my observations have revealed that broken, one-step-at-a-time, non-flashy, forward motion is the true, lasting, best way to see goodness overcome grief. It can't be captured in a hashtag. It can't be fully realized in my lifetime.

But, I can participate with dignity, in my own, small ways. And, you can, too.



Wondering how I can get involved

Lee-Ann dos Santos

Shelley, thank you for bravely sharing this angle on aid work that flies in the face of the instant gratification and the quick-fix-it-ness we all wish could be true for these women and children.

The faithfulness of those doing this work is inspiring…and challenges my ideas about “good work” needing to be effective and noticeably fruitful. I’m reminded that the faithfulness of doing the work IS success, regardless of the outcome.

So very glad you made the journey when you did!

Robin Seyfert

Does seem bizarre how different the world is only 8 months later. Thanks for your insight and encouragement that the slow work is worth doing because the option is to let darkness win. At Basha we are grateful for your partnership and support in so many ways.

Robin Padanyi

“…Broken, one-step-at-a-time, non-flashy, forward motion is the true, lasting, best way to see goodness overcome grief” This is a great observation!
Changing communities and deeply rooted suffering takes years if not decades. God help us trust you with a long obedience in the same direction.

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