Global money for local solutions

Freedom Fund CEO, Nick Grono, on why grassroots organisations hold the key to tackling sexual exploitation in children

The drive from Dhaka to Daulatdia took around three hours, which was plenty of time for my colleague to brief me about what to expect when we arrived. Located in Bangladesh’s Rajbari District, Daulatdia is not far from the border with India, and it is infamous for being the country’s – and one of the world’s – largest brothels.

As many as 1,800 sex workers and some 500 children live in the densely-packed village close to the banks of the Padma River. Intersected by a railway line, the community is a labyrinth of concrete blocks, brick buildings, and tin huts. Around the cramped and dark working rooms, there are shops of varying sizes, where clients gather on benches, among hawkers and rickshaw drivers. Living conditions are squalid and drug use is common.

In Bangladesh, sex work is legal only in licensed brothels. Workers must be over the age of 18 and are supposed to hold a certificate stating they consent to the work, but a high proportion have been illegally trafficked into the industry.

As CEO of the Freedom Fund, which works to end modern slavery by identifying and investing in the most effective frontline interventions, I was in Daulatdia to learn more about the commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC, and find out what my organisation can do to help those affected.

Bangladesh, once one of the world’s poorest countries, has made great economic strides and in 2015 achieved lower-middle income status. Yet, according to the World Bank, more than 20 million Bangladeshis remain below the poverty line (living on a daily income of less than US$2.15).

Many children are forced to drop out of school to earn a living, and only a quarter of Bangladeshi girls complete secondary school. This leaves them highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and thousands find themselves exploited, trafficked, and trapped in the commercial sex industry.

The women we met on our visit to Daulatdia were in a desperate situation. The brothel was locked down for months in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the workers’ income dried up overnight. Few women had any savings, and many were left destitute, reliant on meagre government handouts to eat until business resumed.

Even after the restrictions were lifted and the women were vaccinated, business has remained slow, because a new, faster highway means fewer truck drivers are stopping in Daulatdia.

According to local NGOs, as many as half of those working in the community’s brothels are believed to be under 18. Like adult sex workers, they are regularly subjected to violent abuse and coercive behaviour, with many being exposed at an early age to sexual activities, gambling, violence and drugs, as well as molestation and sexual abuse by clients. In some instances, children are also brought into the brothel from other communities and managed by pimps to work as bonded sex workers.

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Runa, 20, is as a sex worker in a Bangladeshi brothel. The scar on her face was made by her pimp. Photo: Sven Torfinn (Panos)

There is little accountability for the sexual and physical violence suffered by sex workers in Bangladesh. Moreover, the stigma associated with the industry makes it difficult for mothers to register the birth of their children, and this can prevent them from accessing government services like health and education. 

In 2022, the Freedom Fund began supporting local civil society groups to collectively address the underlying causes of exploitation and reduce the number of children being exploited.

Our partners are working to create safety nets for at-risk children. They help them to enrol and stay in school, and they form and facilitate mothers’ groups to raise awareness about child rights and the risks of exploitation.

They also work to set up child protection committees that will monitor and report exploitation of minors in brothels (and where required, provide them support to leave). Some also help sex workers to access social security and other benefits and provide skills training for women who want to find jobs outside of the brothel.

"With the right coordination and resources, we can ensure safer, freer futures for thousands of children"

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A homeless boy walks along the tracks at Kamalapur Railway Station in Dhaka. Photo: G.M.B. Akash (Panos Pictures)

During my time in Bangladesh, I also got a better sense of Dhaka’s informal sex industry, where sex is typically bought and sold on the streets. Amid challenging circumstances and very limited resources, local charities care for people who have largely been forgotten, including the country’s street children.

There are estimated to be as many as 1.5 million children living on the streets of Bangladesh. Not all of them are orphans, but many have either been abandoned because their parents could not afford to care for them or have run away to escape abuse at home.

Some 300 of these children live in Kamalapur Railway Station, the largest in Bangladesh. By day, they eke out a living carrying baggage for passengers, selling flowers or collecting and selling empty plastic bottles for money, and at night they huddle together to sleep under benches or beside the trains. In desperation, many of the girls turn to sex work and the boys to drugs.

On a visit to a drop-in centre run by a small NGO close to the station, we met about 40 children aged between seven and fifteen. They all expressed a strong desire to feel safer at night. The NGO running the drop-in centre hopes to establish a shelter for them, if it can raise the funds.

Since it was established in 2014, The Freedom Fund has helped some 1.5 million people vulnerable to trafficking by partnering with grassroot organisations, facilitating greater collaboration and providing both stable, multi-year funding and technical assistance to strengthen their interventions.

In Thailand, our partners work to end forced labour in the seafood industry, by organising migrant workers and engaging with businesses. Our partners in Ethiopia focus on reducing the trafficking of women who migrate to the Middle East for domestic work.

We see a real opportunity to bring this same approach to Bangladesh. That includes partnering with the Sex Workers Network (SWN), a group of 29 community-based organisations working to protect the rights of the country’s sex workers.  

Through our partnership, the SWN will link at-risk minors and mothers as well as other sex workers to support services including education, counselling, shelter, and training opportunities. As the rights holders closest to the issue, their involvement is crucial, as they understand the needs of the community and can design solutions to make things safer for sex workers.

The government also has a critical role to play, one that we hope to leverage along with support for our NGO partners. We hope to see a greater focus on birth registration and national identity cards for mothers of at-risk children, a national plan of action on commercial sexual exploitation of children and more support to keep street children safe at night.

While my visit gave me substantial insight into the complex realities of CSEC in Bangladesh, it also affirmed my belief in where the most promising solutions lie - in the work of community groups and local leaders. With the right coordination and resources, their efforts can ensure safer, freer futures for thousands of children.

Philanthropy clearly has an important role to play, and hand-in-hand with local leadership, donors can be critical partners in addressing complex systemic issues like CSEC. - PA