Hope a generation away

Pre-school is a bright, learning-rich environment. Photos: Diana Noonan
Pre-school is a bright, learning-rich environment. Photos: Diana Noonan
Education provides hope for a better future in one of the saddest places imaginable, Diana Noonan writes. 

Bangladesh's mighty Padma River is a seething ocean of brown on the morning we arrive at its muddy banks. Intense humidity has turned to pelting monsoon rain, and through the steamy windows of our vehicle I catch a glimpse of huge battered ferry boats advancing towards the shore. Outside, the deluge has sent every man and his dog scurrying for cover. They huddle under ragged umbrellas or pieces of plastic or the undercarriages of trucks while water gushes across the unsealed road and snakes its way towards the river.

When the rain eventually eases, giving way to puffs of mist and steam, the throngs return to their frenetic touting; fish sellers, balancing baskets of trout on their shoulders, tap on our windows; vendors traipse through knee-deep puddles to proffer plastic bags of watery curries; cycle rickshaws, laden with long wands of bamboo, and too heavy to pedal, are pushed by stick-thin men in blue-checked dhoti. No-one is still; not even for a moment. In a land where the per capita income is less than $7 a day, there is no time for idleness if a family is to eat.

A weak sun emerges for a moment from an otherwise monotone sky. Up river, beyond the spot where a lone fisherman perches on the piles of a gigantic billboard that rises above swathes of mangroves, it is possible to see long queues of over-laden trucks parked on a thin stretch of sand-bagged road above the Padma. There are hundreds of them, stretching back for kilometres, as their drivers wait for up to a week for their turn to manoeuvre their vehicle on to a ferry. Today they are tightening down the tarpaulins that cover their loads of dented oil drums and bales of jute, or smoking as they look out over floating islands of water hyacinth. For many of them, passing time would be more pleasurable if they were queuing on the other side where Daulatdia, Bangladesh's largest brothel - some say "the largest in the world" - could offer some distraction.

Daulatdia brothel perches on slim piles above fetid water.
Daulatdia brothel perches on slim piles above fetid water.
It's the brothel town I've come to see; it and the adjacent model education hub that caters for its sex workers' 700 children. I'm travelling with local and New Zealand Save the Children staff, to see for myself an aid project I've supported for the 20 years Kiwis have been partnering with it. Now, with only the Padma between me and it, I'm suffering from anticipatory anxiety. Will the education hub live up to my expectations, or have I been fooling myself that it's possible to make a difference to lives lived out in such extreme circumstances?

So happy to be at school!
So happy to be at school!
No roads lead to the brothel, so having completed the river crossing (with Bangladeshi ferry-capsize statistics having caused my heart to race), we park on a wet field grazed by a solitary, tethered cow. We slither from our seats and hoist up the legs of our shalwar kameez to trip through puddles and teeter along the slippery tracks of a littered railway line that looks more like a pedestrian highway than anything a train might use. And there it is, Daulatdia. A tightly packed jumble of rusting roofing iron buildings half perched on piles above fetid water. It you were none the wiser, it might well pass for a quaint shanty fishing village; but no community could be grimmer or more sinister.

Home to 2000 trafficked and enslaved young women, their owners and guards, and the drug, liquor and gambling dealers who come with the trade, it is a town shut off from the surrounding community that despises yet continues to use it.

Entering the brothel itself will have to wait because from a two-storied concrete building, sporting the same green blush of algae that envelops even the best kept Bangladeshi structures, staff in bright saris, the teachers of Daulatdia's pre-school, are waiting to welcome us.

The pre-school is just one of several learning centres based in the education hub, each being only a stroll from the brothel itself. It bubbles over with life and colour, books and games, children engaged in singing, and dancing, water and sand play, and energetic listening. Tiffins (the Bangladeshi equivalent of lunch boxes), filled with nutritious food, are stacked against a wall ready for each infant to take home at lunch time.

Next door, in another classroom, a mother and baby education class is in full swing. Poorly educated or illiterate sex-worker mums, having handed over their babies for an hour to a trained staff member at the hub, are sitting on the floor, arranging skewers in geometric shapes, keen to learn how to be their little ones' first educators.

Daulatdia's Save the Children's NZ-supported primary school.
Daulatdia's Save the Children's NZ-supported primary school.
Just a stroll from the pre-school, a child safe-space playground and night shelter stands empty. After school, it will burst into life as 40 children who would otherwise roam the brothel streets or be forced to share a room with their mothers at night while they entertain clients, arrive for recreation, a meal, to have their uniforms laundered, and to sleep.

Across from the night shelter is a youth group meeting room where Daulatdia's adolescents are taught the art of self-protection, and strategies for identifying and reporting child abuse within the brothel. Feisty and political, these young people are well aware of their rights, and in a society where even speaking up can be dangerous, they are well trained to support each other until those rights are realised. Their collective strength has already seen them thwart several attempts to carry out child marriages within the brothel.

A fish seller plies his trade on the Padma RIver Ferry.
A fish seller plies his trade on the Padma RIver Ferry.
Over the next three days, we move from early learning centres to a primary school supported by Save the Children New Zealand. It's run with tightly-structured precision that in no way detracts from its innovative and creative teaching style, or the enthusiasm for learning of its 520 children. Books and uniforms are provided for each child, and when school finishes for the day, the buildings are transformed into an after-school club where children enjoy board games, reading and outdoor play.

Considering the Save the Children education hub operates six days a week, it's clear the children of Daulatdia brothel are destined for a better chance at life than their mothers ever had. But just how much better I wasn't to realise until I met some of the tertiary-educated students who have passed through the system; young people who are now professionals and with a future outside the brothel. Paramedics, teachers, tutors and nurses are shining examples, but in a society where family connection is everything, and unemployment is high, simply to marry into a community outside Daulatdia, or to find a job in a factory or as a driver, is a sign of significant success.

It is on our last day at Daulatdia that we venture into the brothel itself to observe a health clinic, and a Save the Children NZ child-care class in action. The unnaturally narrow lanes of the purpose-built township are claustrophobic, and although I am prepared for the distressing sight of imprisoned women forced to pose provocatively in doorways, it is the eerie stillness of the brothel that is most disconcerting. The only sounds to be heard are the faint whispers of men huddled furtively in tiny liquor bars, the trickle of fetid water beneath broken drain covers, and the whirr of a sewing machine as a tailor busies himself sewing bright clothes - the tools of the sex-workers' trade.

An all-women family of dolls at the education hub's preschool.
An all-women family of dolls at the education hub's preschool.
I have visited some of the world's poorest communities before, but Daulatdia is as far removed from them as it is possible to imagine. This is not a place to catch the giggles of children playing marbles in the dust, or overhear the animated chatter of women queuing at a shared tap. In Daulatdia you will see no babies balanced proudly on their father's hips; no grandmothers laughing as they bathe little ones in a bucket. In Daulatdia you will find no joy nor any semblance of family life. Trafficked, coerced, imprisoned; guarded, beaten and enslaved, the women of Bangladesh's largest brothel exist in a world of violence, disease and despair. And one thing is certain: they will never, ever escape it. Subjugated, obligated, addicted, rejected and shamed, they will languish forever in their nightmare world. Their only hope is that their children will not have to face the same fate.

It is a hope we all share, and one that, on leaving Bangladesh, I am convinced is entirely possible thanks to Save the Children's education hub at Daulatdia. Each morning, when 700 fragile young lives spill from the unimaginable horror of the brothel, they skip, laugh, and run their way, not only to some of the best schools in Bangladesh, but to a future their mothers can only dream of.

Diana Noonan is a Catlins-based writer and editor.

 

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