The Dhaka Tribune’s Shuprova Tasneem explores childhoods mired in drug addiction and sexual abuse in the concluding part of a two-part series
When I first met Tanzila, a 15-year-old who was sleeping rough in front of Mirpur Shah Ali Majar, she was addicted to dandy and had been begging for a living - as well as engaging in casual sex work during desperate times.
Tanzila and her friends spoke to me about the daily violence and sexual abuse that they were exposed to - especially while under the influence of drugs.
They [sexual predators] abuse us at night and do bad things to us,” she said. “Sometimes they even use blades to strike at our cheeks, and no one can do anything.”
Two-and-a-half years later, I revisited the Majar and found how little things have changed.
While the older girls have moved on, younger girls have replaced them and lead almost identical lives - struggling to survive, living with the fear of sexual abuse, and often becoming hooked on drugs like dandy and phensedyl.
But it is not only girls at the Majar who are at risk.
When you know nothing other than abuse
It is difficult to document exactly how many children are sleeping rough on the streets of Bangladesh.
A UNICEF estimate from as far back as 2005 put the number at around 250,000 in Dhaka alone, while according to Plan Bangladesh in 2014, there were possibly 1.1 million homeless children nationwide.
In 2017, Ain o Salish Kendra found 983 recorded incidents of violence against children, including 431 rape cases and 66 attempted rapes.
However, for the tens of thousands of children living rough on the streets of Dhaka, there is no one to keep records of, or even listen to, their stories of abuse.
This is probably why Moyna was so eager to tell her story. Motherless at a young age, she spent most of her childhood being ignored by her heroin-addicted father, until, at the age of seven, he started to touch her.
She fended him off for as long as she could, but when he tried to marry her off to a man who was double her age, she ran away.
“I came to Dhaka and found a relative who put me to work at this house,” says Moyna, now 14 years old.
“I had always worked - begging, picking up bottles, working in neighbourhood houses - so I knew what to do. But they always accused me of stealing and used to beat me with a jharu. Sometimes they would even burn me with a khunti, so I ran away again.”
Like most of the children who end up alone on the streets, Moyna went to Kamalapur rail station and became a part of the homeless community living there. And like most of the girls living there, she ended up being a victim of rape - at the age of eight.
“I didn’t understand or know that I had to defend myself back then,” she recalls. “The first time, this boy came and took me off the bridge I used to beg on, and he forced me to stay with him all night.
“I still remember that I bled a lot, and I think he might have felt sorry, because he bought me a new frock off the footpath the next day, and he also gave me Tk30. I was really hungry so I took it.”
Moyna eventually drifted on to Sadarghat, where she heard she might be safer, and met a group of women who “did bad things for money”.
“They took pity on me and taught me a lot of things, like how to hide money in parts of your body that people can’t find,” she says. “But they also took me to a local boy one day. He and his friend were looking for a ‘kochi meye’ - a young girl - to have some fun with. They took me on a boat and did bad things to me all night.”
She was 10 years old at the time.
“That was the thing that hurt me the most,” she adds, quietly. “Not all the bad things that happened to me, but the fact that they just gave me away like that. I used to call one of those women Ma.”
Same stories, different trajectories
Moyna and Tanzila’s stories – while in different locations – have haunting similarities.
By the time both were in their mid-teens, they had been sexually abused multiple times. In 2016, while Tanzila was drifting into the world of drugs, aided by her casual sex work and ingenuity in stealing, Moyna spent her days begging, on most days eating only rice with a bit of salt.
Two years later, what has changed in their lives?
“One day I was eating some rotten bread I had found in a bin, and this lady approached me and offered me shelter, food, and clothing,” says Moyna.
The lady in question works for the NGO Aporajeyo Bangla, which runs a few night shelters for street children and aims to give them a better life.
Through this organisation, Moyna has learned how to work at a parlour and is trying to get back into education as well.
“My life has changed so much, I can’t tell you,” she says with a big smile. “You should have seen me a few years ago, no one used to come near me, I was so dark and smelled bad. All I needed was to get off the streets, and everything changed.”
Tanzila too, has managed to get off the drugs, but hers is unfortunately a bleaker story.
She now dangles a one-year-old child on her hip, and while she lovingly looks into his little face, hers is creased with sadness, and the fight seems to have gone out of her.
“Do you remember what a ‘mastaan’ [thug] I was?” she says to me with a smile. “We all struggled so hard but at least we were free. Now all the older girls are married, and not always by choice. I made a huge mistake and married a heroin addict.”
She struggles to choke back tears.
“I don’t live on the streets anymore, but what good is that? It’s not just that he beats me and humiliates me in public. He always forces me to be with him physically.
“There is no one I can turn to because people always say, ‘he is your husband, you have to listen to him’. So what? I spent my whole life all alone, just to become someone else’s property?”