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Slavery, the modern kind

I’ve always wondered how the working class in Dhaka, Bangladesh remained to stay afloat economically. In an ever-growing city of over 12 million people, dwindling resources and limited opportunities, I wondered how society with all is castes functioned. Having been born and raised in a family that should be considered to be in the upper echelon of the social hierarchy, I found it impossible to relate to the millions who found themselves in much less privileged circumstances. More importantly, I was encouraged to ignore this disparity and to turn a blind eye to the issues of poverty and social inequality. These were mere statistics, headlines and scenes of heartbreak on the news, flashes outside the window as my car speeds past the streets of Dhaka. This all changed when curiosity got the best of me and I decided to investigate. I didn’t have to look too far; I found a story of social injustice right next door from me.

Sex workers in a brothel in Dhaka

Sex workers in a brothel in Dhaka

Hotel Nirmahal always seemed shady to me – the kind of place that can’t provide a good night’s sleep, or where you end up losing your valuables from the locker. And from the many young women loitering in front of it, doused in makeup and provocatively dressed, I assumed it was a hub for prostitution. My suspicion was confirmed when I did some investigation of my own and for the first time the poverty-led injustices in my home city were brought to my attention. I found out that some of the girls working in the disguised brothel were as young as twelve. I found it hard to believe that this was a conscious decision on their part – to have left toys and chosen a path of prostitution. I knew of the masses of people living below the poverty line, of the cycle of poverty that forced people to think about where their next meal is going to come from. What I did not know was the victimization of so many in the form of forced prostitution and human trafficking.  Suddenly, human suffering was not just intertwined with poverty, but a subset of a whole range of social injustices that I was unaware of previously.

More than 15,000 women and children are smuggled out of Bangladesh every year1, and many thousands more smuggled from rural villages to big cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong. I was unable to find an estimate of how many girls are smuggled within the borders of the country since trafficking is traditionally defined as taking someone (by force or deception) across an international border2 and those who are trafficked within their own national borders are more often than not, unrepresented and undocumented.  Most of these girls, some as young as ten, are forced into prostitution or to serve rich families as maids (which often times includes regular beatings and other forms of physical and emotional torture).  The majority of the women are trafficked to India, Pakistan and the Middle East, with the promise of a job, money for their family, a better life. They are brought to Dhaka with the promise of employment in the booming garments industry, commonly by a distant relative who receives a cut from brothel owners. The girls are soon aware of their fate, but without money, an education or any means of contacting the authorities they have but no choice than to give in to the systematic physical and psychological torture that goes on within the walls of countless brothels around the world.  Thus begins their life as modern slaves, stripped of identity and humanity, joining thousands others who have met a similar fate. As the journal Foreign Affairs observed: “Whatever the exact number is, it seems almost certain that the modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was.3


Bobi says she has been given Oradexon (a drug usually used to fatten cattle) by her madam as soon as she arrived at the brothel.

An article in the Bangladeshi constitution reads, “State shall endeavor to prevent gambling and prostitution“, although the government legalized prostitution in 2000 as a means of regulating brothels and the sex trade. In a country where almost 90% of the population is conservative Muslim, prostitution is a taboo issue, bringing into question the number of girls who are forced into prostitution as opposed to those who have gone into the field by choice. Government corruption greatly facilitates the process of trafficking, and in a country that is only behind India and China in the extent of poverty, victimization of poor, uneducated girls is a common practice. It is an issue that is mentioned a lot in the news, talked about by the denizen, but hardly ever appears on the table of legislators. More effort goes into figuring out how many girls are victimized, than that goes into understanding the root causes of the problem and in combating the issue. What is required is a coordinated effort on behalf of the government, NGOs and the general population in educating girls both in the rural and urban settings, making people aware of the burgeoning human trafficking industry, while at the same time creating opportunities for women that will effectively allow them to escape the cycle of poverty.

This is the part of the paper where I stop informing you of all-too-well-known facts and tell you what you can do to combat the issue. If you have made it to this point of the paper, I urge you to read this last paragraph and take the recommend steps that demand just a couple of minutes or hours of your time, but will make a significant difference in a girl’s life somewhere. The change is inevitable and the transformation of women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings2 is evident. The question is, will you be part of this historical movement, or a bystander.

  1. Learn about, donate to or volunteer at one of the following organizations that specialize in supporting women:
    1. Equality Now – Equality Now works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.
    2. Grameen Bank – Grameen Bank pioneered microfinance in Bangladesh and has now branched into an array of development programs.
    3. Shared Hope International – Shared Hope International fights sex trafficking around the world.
    4. Vital Voices – Vital Voices Global Partnership supports women’s rights in many countries and has been particularly active in fighting trafficking.
  2. Sign the petition urging the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and President Obama to support U.S. ratification of the Treaty for the Rights of Women, officially known as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The petition can be signed here: http://tinyurl.com/cedawnow
  3. Go to http://www.globalgiving.org or http://www.kiva.org and open an account. These are people-to-people (P2P) microlending sites that will link you directly to a grassroots project to which you can donate money for education, health, disaster relief, etc.  A lot of the microloans are made out to women, thus promoting economic sustenance and prevents them from being forced into prostitution.


  1. Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation – Bangladesh. Uri.edu. Retrieved 2010-06-19.
  2. Kristof, Nicholas D.; WuDunn, Sheryl (2009-08-22). Half the Sky
  3. Foreign Affairs – November/December 2006 – The New Global Slave Trade – Ethan B. Kapstein

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