Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)


In July 2019, more than 100 child sex trafficking victims were rescued across the United States. In 2018, Columbian authorities saved more than 80 Venezuelan women and girls from sex trafficking, and later that year, 40 trafficked Ugandan women were saved in Thailand. These individuals were among the 5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide.

Sex trafficking, the most lucrative form of modern-day slavery, is a harsh reality for many individuals around the world. In fact, economist Siddharth Kara, estimates that although sex trafficking victims account for only 5 percent of modern slaves, they generate 50 percent of all illegal profits made from modern slavery.

Sex trafficking is a global occurrence, yet over 60 percent of victims are from the Asia-Pacific region. An infamous example of sex trafficking in Asia can be found in Bangladesh, in the village of Daulatdia, home to one of the world’s largest brothels. Nearly 2,000 women and girls work there as prostitutes—sometimes voluntarily, most of the time not. Located in the Rajbari District of central Bangladesh, Daulatdia is so large it is often referred to as a “brothel village.” Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where both the purchase and sale of sex work is legal, as long as the brothels are properly licensed. Daulatdia itself serves more than 3,000 men daily. The vast majority of its clientele are truck drivers due to its location along the water. The intersection of this brothel village and various legal, environmental, and health factors make it a particularly interesting case to look at.

Legality of Sex Work in Bangladesh

People become sex workers in Bangladesh through a legal process. The government, police, and religious institutions oversee the process. In line with the cultural and religious undertones prevalent in Islamic Bangladesh, sex outside of marriage is not permissible, implying that sex work is not either. Regardless of this, a woman can obtain permission to sell sex by paying a fee, swearing she is over the age of 18, and stating she is entering this field of work freely and voluntarily. Once registered, she can start working, and many women end up in brothel complexes like Daulatdia. This registration process is overseen by the local police, an entity that is notorious for being corrupt.

It is illegal for minors to prostitute themselves (or be prostituted) in Bangladesh. Despite this law, thousands of girls under the age of 18 are prostitutes. Some are as young as 10. In Daulatdia specifically, the average age of new sex workers is 14. Many of these women and girls are forced into these brothels by sex traffickers. If the women or girls are abducted or under the age of 18, their pimps will pay off the local law enforcement to carry out the registration process. The younger the girl, the higher the bribe demanded by the police.

Additionally, Bangladesh is accepting the majority of the Rohingya refugees from the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Nearly 700,000 individuals are now seeking asylum. More than half are women and children. Sex traffickers in Bangladesh prey on these vulnerable women and children. Regardless of the steps that the Bangladeshi government has taken to penalize these traffickers, this influx of vulnerable people has inevitably exacerbated the country’s sex trafficking problem.

The Economics of Sex Work and Climate Change

Interestingly, climate change has a significant impact on sex work itself. Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change. The low elevation and high population density that is characteristic of this South Asian country places the nation in harm’s way. Rising sea levels in particular pose a threat to the 28 percent of Bangladesh’s inhabitants who live along the coast.

As people are relocated due to severe, climate change-related events including storms, floods, and natural disasters, many families are separated. This poses a serious risk to women and children, as families and friends serve as a protective system against sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence. When these protections are taken away from women and children after natural disasters, they are more susceptible to being trafficked.

Food insecurity is strongly linked with climate change. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels destroy crops and critical infrastructure, which increases the prices of major crops in some regions. When women, especially mothers, are not able to afford food they often turn to sex work to raise money. If they are already engaged in sex work, many women will choose to use condoms much less frequently, as engaging in unprotected sex brings in more money.

Climate change impacts the supply of sex work, but it can also affect the demand. Daulatdia is where Jamuna River meets the Ganges River, making it a very busy coastal town. It has one of the busiest ferry ports in Bangladesh. These ferries are used by both businessmen and truck drivers who carry cargo or other goods. Due to the rise in sea levels, fewer ferries can cross the river simultaneously, meaning there is a longer wait for drivers. Many of these men visit Daulatdia while they wait for the ferries (sometimes for days) and give the brothel business.

Maternal Mortality among Sex Workers

Sex workers and victims of sex trafficking, particularly female sex workers and victims, have many unmet sexual and reproductive health needs. In particular, family planning, sexual health, maternal health, and abortion services are often neglected, which puts sex workers at high risk for HIV-related and maternal mortality. To address the former risk, there has been a global push to ensure sex workers have protection against HIV.

Because unprotected sex pays more, this practice continues to be a breeding ground for sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. These unintended pregnancies lead to high rates of abortion among sex workers. In fact, abortion-related complications are the leading cause of maternal death for female sex workers, largely because many do not have access to adequate, safe abortion care.

When women who engage in sex work do get pregnant and choose to have the child, they face various barriers to having healthy pregnancies. Many of these women, specifically those who are victims of sex trafficking, do not realize they are pregnant and therefore do not receive adequate prenatal care. If they are aware of their pregnancy, their pimps will often deny them access to adequate prenatal care. In Daulatdia in particular, because many of the sex workers are underage, their pregnancies are inherently high risk. This failure to obtain substantial prenatal care makes these younger women even more susceptible to maternal morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, these women are forced to continue to work because “pregnancy sells.” Many clients prefer having sex with pregnant women and are willing to pay more for it.

In Bangladesh, although sex work is legal, it is hard for sex workers and victims to exercise their rights and access crucial health resources because of the culturally- and religiously-driven shame surrounding this field of work. Healthcare workers often disrespect and abuse sex workers, and in the case of Daulatdia, even the victims. Many pregnant sex workers do not attend prenatal checkups, as doctors frequently do not treat them well. Additionally, many sex workers may be unwilling to go to health clinics as they fear mistreatment. This lack of prenatal care contributes greatly to sex workers’ high maternal mortality rate.

Failure to provide sex workers and victims with adequate sexual, reproductive, and maternal health care directly undermines Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG 3), which aims to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio. Until sex workers and victims get the attention, care, and resources they need, we are not only failing to meet SDG3. We are failing to meet the needs of these vulnerable women and children around the world.

Sources: ABC News, CHANGE, Environmental Justice Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chang School of Public Health, Human Rights First, Institute of Development Studies, NPR, The East Africa Monitor, The Guardian, The Lancet, Thomson Reuters Foundation News, US. Department of State, VICE, WHO.

Photo Credit: Rally to end violence against women and children in Dhaka, Bangladesh in November, 2017. There were speeches from representatives from sex workers, third gender (hijra), indigenous women, Dalits, physically challenged women and other activist groups. Photo by Saikat Majumdar, courtesy of UN Women.

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