Within these walls: inside the legal brothels of Bangladesh

It’s the oldest profession in the world and Kandapara brothel in Tangail is the oldest in the country. Kenneth Dickerman on the daily lives of a sex workers in Bangladesh (Photographs by Sandra Hoyn)

Kajol with a customer (All photographs by Sandra Hoyn)
Kajol with a customer (All photographs by Sandra Hoyn)

Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries in the world where prostitution is legal. The Kandapara brothel in the district of Tangail is the oldest and second-largest in the country – it has existed for some 200 years. It was demolished in 2014, but has been established again with the help of local NGOs. Many of the women were born there, grew up there and didn’t know where else to go when it disappeared.

Women waiting for customers in the Kandapara brothel 

Supporters of the brothel believe that sex work is also work – and that these women don’t want to do something else. The women themselves demonstrated for their rights as workers, and so at the end of 2014, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association convinced the High Court that the eviction of the sex workers was an illegal act. The sex workers quickly returned to their homes.

Mim showers in the Kandapara brothel

Today, the area’s “brothel district” is surrounded by a wall. In the narrow streets, there are food stalls, tea shops and street vendors. The brothel is a place with its own rules and hierarchies of power which are completely different from mainstream society. For example, inside the brothels, the women are weak but also powerful. The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel – she is called a bonded girl. Bonded girls are usually 12 to 14 years old.

Dipa crying 
Papia with two customers on a bed 
People congregate inside the brothel
Priya teases a friend 
Twin babies of one of the workers in the Kandapara brothel 
A man tries to kiss Priya 
Asma with a customer. She was born here
Kajol
Kajol with her 6-month-old baby Mehedi and a customer on her bed
Pakhi and Mim
The Kandapara brothel in Tangail is the oldest and second-largest one in Bangladesh. It has existed for 200 years 

These girls come from poor families and are often victims of trafficking. They have no freedom or rights. They belong to a madam, have debts and are not allowed to go outside or keep their money. When they have paid all their debts, which takes somewhere between one to five years, they become independent sex workers. Then, they can refuse customers and keep their own money. From the moment that a woman has paid her debts, she is free to leave the brothel. But these women are socially stigmatized outside their “homes” and thus often choose to stay and continue supporting their families with their earnings.

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