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What I Learned About Life in a Brothel

When I travelled to Bangladesh in January 2020, most of my time was in Dhaka — the capital city and home office location for our production partner, Basha

For two days of the trip, however, I planned to travel to another production centre in another, smaller city. During this time, a Friends of Basha manager and I would visit the local Salvation Army office and go with the leader to “tour” the brothel across the street. 

I would also be staying overnight in Friends of Basha’s hostel — a transitional apartment, with a house “mom”, for young women training with Basha who had been recently repatriated from foreign trafficking.

Now, I don’t know how you would feel about that plan, but… this part of the trip was a source of apprehension for me! 

In my own personal history, I had noticed a pattern of my compassion & care twisting into despair when faced with sad situations. I was, frankly, worried that I would be overwhelmed with sadness & despair… Not only did I fear my own desolation, but also the embarrassment of my rich, white woman’s tears flowing during my brief visit. This overnight trip was my biggest apprehension and biggest ask for prayer from my friends & community at home.

This, and all photos, by Allison Joyce

What I Learned About the Brothel

The brothel is a hierarchical system, with a main boss (madam), then “family”-type units who would cook meals together, look after each other’s kids, etc.

The particular brothel we visited (during the day) was a large edifice, with one entry/exit point. There were various hallways & structures, but mainly a 3-story building with an open courtyard in the middle. “Families” would be proximate, with shared outdoor cooking areas (individual living areas were rooms with a bit of space more than a bed — this is common for many living arrangements in Bangladesh).

The Salvation Army officers (their office located across the street) had long-standing relationships with the brothel and the women in it. They visited daily to check on women — their physical & mental wellbeing —, to provide supplies, and to offer friendship & support. They were also in the process of working on a day program for the children who grow up within the walls of the brothel. The goal was to provide some hours (as many as possible) for the kids to spend outside of their environment. It is difficult to imagine a different life when you’ve never even witnessed what that could be.

Photo by Allison Joyce

The man who led us around was like a tour-guide, cheerful and chipper, pointing out various things of note. At one point, I asked about the age of women/girls who were there. His upbeat reply: “Well, the law is that you need to be 18. But, clearly there are underage girls here — look at her! She’s not 18. That girl over there is certainly not 18.” etc.

To be honest, his la-di-da demeanour was off-putting, given the circumstance. But, I knew that this was the kind of casual attitude brought about not by lack of care or compassion, but out of everyday familiarity.

Award-winning photojournalist (and friend of Basha), Allison Joyce, records one girl's story:

"Habiba", 14, has been at the brothel for three years. “Sometimes I tell people that I came here willingly, but it doesn’t really feel like that. I had an arranged marriage when I was 11 years old, but after one month my husband started assaulting me – hitting me with his hands, and later beating me with a stick. He was drunk all the time and high on drugs, and I didn’t know what was happening. After six months, I couldn’t take it any more, so I ran away. But my mother had died, and my father said he couldn’t support me. A friend told me that there was a community of women who worked independently, and didn’t need men. When I didn’t make a fuss, she sold me here. 

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Now I’m in debt to my madam and nobody outside the brothel will ever employ me when they know about my past.  

One time, when I was new, the police came by and asked me how old I was – they said they’d had a report that I was too young to be working, and that they could help me leave. But I don’t have anywhere to go. So I said I was 18. Now when times are bad, I think to myself, ‘this is all your own fault’.”


Photo by Allison Joyce


The Complex Reality of Support for Brothel Workers

The whole experience was a slap of reality for an idealist. 

Imagine: you’re there, and you see the traumatic, tragic situation right before you. What I wanted, in my heart of hearts, was for the SA to swoop in and pull out every woman (& girl), every child. Or, for the whole brothel to be closed down.

These are the dreams of naiveté and simple privilege. 

If every woman was removed from the brothel, more would replace them. If the brothel closed down (as it did during the early COVID-19 pandemic), women would have nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and would starve. [In 2020, Friends of Basha raised funds to supply food for brothel workers for months, delivering weekly.] 

No, as difficult as it was for me to imagine, these Salvation Army servants, with all their pep and cheer — not oh-poor-you-sympathy, nor rescuer complex — were completely in the right. They met the women where they were. They loved them, offering healthcare, friendship, and emotional support. They worked on a long-game vision for the future (to break generational cycles by offering kids a new hope). They (sneakily) helped women escape and be relocated, if they wanted. 

A few of these women have "disappeared" from the brothel over the years, and are now in different parts of the country, crafting kantha quilts with Basha. This is the opportunity that we participate in (even by reading this, even by following us on Instagram, even by purchasing one mini kantha). It is a beautiful story of redemption, but it is a long story; it is the short end of a very large funnel.

Photo by Allison Joyce 

Life Persists... But, There is Sadness

One of the young women in the Friends of Basha hostel, Cherish, told me her story. She had been tricked by a relative, and found herself in a brothel in India, underaged, and indebted to her madam. A police officer came one day, posing as a client. He asked her if she needed help to escape, and she confided that yes, she really did. 

This girl did, ultimately, get free from the brothel; however, in the interim, the madam found out. She was so furious to lose her asset, she called some men to come and attack the girl — dumping gasoline on her, and then lighting a match.

Cherish told me this story — through halting translation; she spoke no English — while braiding my hair. She showed me burn scars all over her face and body.

Earlier in the evening, while we had walked to dinner, she was the consummate host: guiding me, pulling me from traffic, pointing out sights. She showed me photos of her sister on her phone, she giggled.

After relaying her tale (and completing my new 'do), we sat in the common room of the apartment with the other women, crafting and chatting. Cherish laid her head on the house mom’s shoulder, and tears leaked down her cheeks. She was one of several in the room; each had a unique, but similar, story.

What is remarkable, what struck me to the core, was the depth of resiliency of these young women. Damage, yes. Brokenness, yes. Sadness, sometimes yes. But also: life. Life persists. 

Her cheerful hosting, her bright face the next day while sewing: these were not acts of denial or phoniness. They were the reality of a life that is (unimaginably, to me) resilient. Strong. Restored of hope. Sometimes, you need a little cry in a safe, beloved space. But that was not the place she stayed. 

Even now, I am in awe. 

This was one story of many. Of many stories of the women at Basha. And, beyond Basha, there are many stories of women who are in earlier stages of the journey.


What do we do with all of this? The grief, the sadness, the overwhelm at the magnitude of it all? 

Just like the Salvation Army workers, we can do the simple things... and these things matter. Every purchase at dignify matters. Reading this story matters.

Sharing with others. Seeing the humanity. Reviving your own hope.

You are welcome here, and I am glad you are here! This was only my own story & observations. Share any comments below or contact us directly. With gratitude, SJ :) 


Thank you for sharing this story.

Loren Snyder

A window into raw reality.

Resilient. Beautiful. Strong. Courageous.
The women and girls are inspirational.

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