Afsana lives in Daulatdia, Bangladesh’s largest brothel, a dangerous place where more than 1,500 women and 1,000 children live largely out of the sight of mainstream society. She’s tired because her mother Tuli*, a sex worker, entertains clients in the next room while she and her six-year-old brother try to sleep. Drunken men and women roam the dirty alleyways all night looking for drugs and alcohol, which are readily available in the brothel’s lanes.
But just a few hundred metres down the train tracks is another world – the KKS Government Primary School where Afsana gets to be a child again. Save the Children and a local partner organisation founded the school for children from the brothel in 1997. At that time, local schools wouldn’t accept the children of sex workers, meaning girls like Afsana were left uneducated and vulnerable to following their mothers into sex work.
Dressed in a smart blue-and-white uniform, Afsana dashes around the school playground before crowding into a classroom filled with long wooden desks, with cool verandas shading the students from the boiling sun. She’s the second-best student in grade three and hopes to be a doctor when she grows up.
“I want to be a doctor so that I can help my family if anything happens to them,” she says.
Afsana works hard, but there’s plenty of time for play as well during breaks from lessons – energetic games with intriguing names like Seven Jumps, Shoe Stealing, Gollachut and Carrom Board are popular with everyone. After school there are singing lessons where Afsana is learning traditional Bangladesh music.
“Bangla is my favourite subject at school,” she says. “I like mathematics too. It’s very easy.”
The brothel kids often arrive at school early and stay late as afternoons and evenings are the busiest times at Daulatdia, and many families share just one room. Babies are put in cots under the bed while their mother entertains clients. Older children are given five or 10 Taka (USD 6 or 12 cents) and sent out to roam the brothel streets, where some of the men who frequent Daulatdia wouldn’t hesitate to abuse a child.
Studying is almost impossible in this environment, so to make sure they don’t fall behind, KKS offers extra coaching after school and a safe space for the brothel kids to finish their homework.
“I live inside the brothel with my mother and brother. I don’t like staying in the brothel,” says Afsana. “I don’t feel good being there. I don’t like that place.
“I like to come to school, because I can play with my friends and attend classes.”
In the past, the children of sex workers were shunned by the wider community, but today KKS students from inside and outside the brothel like Afsana and Poly study and play together.
“Poly’s mother doesn’t say anything to me about living in the brothel,” says Afsana. “She knows where my mother lives. But Poly’s mother doesn’t allow her to come to the brothel.”
Afsana knows her future will be brighter if she can get an education and find a way out of the brothel life.
“Girls are good,” she says. “They just want to go to school and lead a good life.”
*Name changed to protect their identity.