Marjana (not her real name), was making her lunch at her two-room house in Banishanta Brothel in Mongla upazila, Bagerhat when this correspondent first met her.
“Today is a slow day for business. I haven't had many customers today,” the sex worker said.
“But when I have a busy day, I hardly have time to spare. One day last year, my 10-year-old son came to tell me about his school results in the afternoon, but he had to wait outside my house for half an hour because I was entertaining a customer,” she said with a wan smile.
“My heart broke that day; I could not let my child into my house because I was serving a client,” she added, her eyes welling up with tears.
This story is not unique to Marjana; many other sex workers living in Banishanta have similar stories to tell when someone cares to listen.
The brothel is located near Mongla seaport, around 50 kilometres away from Khulna city. It currently houses 155 sex workers. The majority of their customers are the crew members of ships that anchor at the seaport.
Visiting the brothel, this correspondent saw women, most of them young, waiting for customers in front of their huts, their faces heavily made up.
Some of the bigger houses are shared by two or three sex workers – by sharing the rent, they can save up some money, explained one of the sex workers.
Marjana shares her house with another sex worker. “I pay Tk1,500 for rent,” she said.
The usual charge for each visit with a sex worker is Tk300-500 in Banishanta, said Marjana.
Telling this correspondent about her life, she said she had been a sex worker for seven years.
“I am not originally from Khulna; my home is in Sirajganj,” she said. “My boyfriend held me captive inside a hotel room in Rajshahi, where I was gang-raped by him and his friends. I don't know how long I was locked up there.”
When she was finally able to get out, Marjana did not know where to go. “I could not go back home, I knew I would never be accepted,” she said, her eyes downcast.
Fearing rejection from her family, Marjana found it inevitable that her life would lead to sex trade. Travelling many districts, she ended up in Mongla and found refuge in Banishanta.
The only ray of light in her bleak life is her son, Hasib (not his real name). He lives with a family who live near the brothel. They have taken him in for a monthly allowance of Tk2,000 to cover his education and other costs.
“My son used to live with me, but as he grew up, it became difficult to keep him with me,” Marjana said.
While Marjana was conversing with this correspondent, her roommate Rehana (not her real name) came out of the other room with her client.
She joined the conversation after initial introduction.
“My client paid me a Tk200 tip because he was satisfied with my service,” she said happily.
The 22-year-old, originally from Natore, was forced into sex trade by her own uncle when she was 16. “I did not even understand sex clearly. People used to come and rape me every day. I would cry in the beginning, but with time I became used to it.”
Rehana eventually escaped her uncle's clutches, but could not escape her reputation. “I travelled to several places before I ended up here. Now I work here, trying to save up some money.”
As the major portion of the Banishanta clientele are ship crews, business there has its up and down streaks, depending on the number of ships that arrive at the port.
“During 'peak' season, especially in the Bangla month of Boishakh, 150-200 customers visit the brothel every day. But in the other times of the year, we hardly get 50-60 customers,” Marjana said.
“When we have the peak season, I have to serve customers one after another throughout the day. Some days I have to entertain 20-25 customers.”
To attract customers, the sex workers do not depend on make-up only.
“I need to look young and keep my body attractive, so I take medicine,” Marjana said.
Rehana said she takes sex stimulating drugs to help her satisfy her customers. “Otherwise, I would not be able to earn the extra tip,” she said.
This correspondent talked to Karima Khatun (not her real name), the sardarni of Banishanta – chief of the brothel who runs the trade. “We take in floating sex workers so they can have shelter. We do not take in any underage girls to avoid legal problems,” she said.