Back to school in Bangladesh’s largest brothel
‘Home’. For me, it means lazy Sunday mornings cooking breakfast in my pyjamas. A hot bath. My mum’s cauliflower cheese.
For 13-year-old Aahna*, home means something entirely different. The small bedroom she shares with five other girls is more than just a place to live. It is her chance for a brighter future.
Aahna grew up in Daulatdia – the largest brothel in Bangladesh, and one of the biggest in the world. She now lives with 18 other girls at Safe Home, a boarding house founded by Save the Children which provides a safe place for them to live away from the red light district
Born in a brothel
I met Aahna and her friends on a recent visit to Safe Home with the BBC, where they told us about the difficulties of growing up in the brothel.
“I love dancing,” she told me. “Before I came here, my mother used to take me to dance in bars. Now I can dance for fun with my friends.”
Children in the brothel are at high risk of violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect. Like Aahna, many girls are forced to dance in bars or follow their mothers into sex work to earn a living. As well as being given a safe place to live outside of the brothel and regular counselling, the girls attend a nearby school set up by Save the Children for children from the brothel.
Fighting for a brighter future
As the girls showed me their school books, I was struck by their remarkable determination to get an education, despite their circumstances.
“When I was living in the brothel, it was difficult to do my homework because it was so noisy at night, and I couldn’t stay at home when my mother was working,” another girl, Shuma*, told me. “At Safe Home it’s quiet and I have time to read. I work hard so I can get a good job and take my mother away from the brothel.”
These girls know that going back to school gives them the power to build a better future. Aahna told me animatedly about her plans to become a fashion designer. Her friend Ruma* wants to play cricket for Bangladesh. Another girl, Shithi*, wants to be a police officer.
Back to School
Not long ago, these would have been impossible dreams for girls from Daulatdia. The children of sex workers are among the most marginalised in Bangladesh, and before Save the Children opened the school in 1997, they were completely excluded from education. When the school opened it faced protests from the local community, and finding teachers who would work with children from the brothel was difficult.
Today, things are very different.
“Before, girls from outside the brothel didn’t want to play with us,” one girl told me. “Now we all play cricket together after school.”
The school was recently named the best non-government school in Bangladesh, and applications from children outside the brothel now exceed the number of places available. Children from the brothel learn and play alongside each other. Former students from the brothel have now returned to the school to work as teachers.
These remarkable stories of success, against the odds, remind us why we continue to fight for children growing up in some of the world’s toughest situations.
Around the world, millions of children – many of them girls – still don’t have the chance to go to school. The UK is leading the way in changing this: At the UN General Assembly in New York this week, the UK Prime Minister announced £515 million to help get over 12 million children – half of them girls – into school. But more must be done to boost the funding available for education and give every child the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
Invest in education and the pay-off — for children, their families and their communities — is clear.
For the children of Daulatdia, ‘home’ may once have meant the winding, chaotic streets of the country’s most infamous brothel, but it won’t be their final destination.
As Rinku, who recently left Safe Home to work as a screen printer in a garments factory, put it:
“I want to be known by my name, by my work and nothing else. The past is useless. It is time to prove my worth.”