Chompaboti stood on the side of the road in Mugda with a vending tray hanging from her shoulders.
"Before this vending tray, I did not know what life was. I was a 14-year-old girl who had moved to Dhaka for the first time from Khulna's Saraskathi with only Tk350 and an address my mother gave me before she fled home."
The 14-year-old girl, at the time, was told by her mother to catch the first bus to Dhaka as soon as daylight broke. Her mother left earlier that day to escape her abusive and alcoholic husband (also the girl's father).
Eight years later, Chompaboti - a former sex worker who has recently turned her life around through 'Bodol' - narrated her story.
Bodol is a nonprofit social organisation that keeps sex workers like Chompaboti financially afloat and rehabilitates them for a better life through small entrepreneurship programmes.
Chompa followed her mother's instructions and ended up at a relative's address the latter had provided. Unfortunately, at her relative's house, Chompa was subjected to abuse - the kind we hear and read about on the news.
After three months of unbearable abuse, Chompa ran away. With nowhere else to go, she settled on the streets of Kamlapur Rail Station with a little bit of money she managed to pilfer from her relatives. Eventually, after two months of inhabiting the railway station, she was picked up by a group of men that traded her off to a floating prostitution ring in the capital.
That was the beginning of Chompa's life as a sex worker.
The life of sex workers
There are not many individuals or organisations in Bangladesh that directly work on the welfare of sex workers, arguably because of the social stigma associated with the profession.
Keenly aware of this gaping hole in society, Tanisha Samreen stepped forward with a nonprofit social service cause she named 'Bodol.'
"I had no grand objective behind starting Bodol, but I never really saw any organisation or agency extensively work for sex workers. Apart from some short-term projects, there has not been anything serious or long-term," said Tanisha.
She initially started Bodol as a platform for sexual abuse survivors titled 'Project Shohay' with five others. Shortly afterwards, her founding partner left when the initiative was still in its infancy, and the remaining three members became sceptical.
But Bodol kept growing and the workload kept increasing. So, they hired more people and currently, it is a team of 40 members.
Tanisha came across some organisations, NGOs and nonprofits that worked for sexworkers and found herself intrigued. She got in touch with them and looked into their work. She also personally met sex workers to know their stories.
"Researching on the internet from the comfort of your home is no substitute to speaking to someone in person and seeing their lives with your own eyes. I saw how badly impacted their lives were when I met them in person, and the pandemic only added to their misery."
"Most of these women do not even have a permanent shelter, let alone something they can call home," Tanisha explained.
It was the living conditions and the quality of life of the sex workers which compelled Tanisha further to start working for their betterment.
Bodol's initiatives and the vending trays
Till date, Bodol has worked towards ensuring reusable sanitary pads, food, medical needs and shelter for sex workers. They have also arranged entrepreneurship programmes for some of the sex workers by setting up vending trays to help them leave sex work behind and start life anew.
Tanisha's efforts did not go in vain. With the revenue generated from these trays, many of the sex workers managed to get out of sex work, move out of the brothels and afford to rent their own homes.
So far, Bodol has helped completely rehabilitate 12 sex workers with the vending trays and cosmetic shops. These women now have their own homes, can afford to pay rent and live a healthier, safer life.
And Chompaboti is one of these women. It was only eight months ago that Chompa saw a tinge of hope of turning her life around when she came in contact with Bodol.
With a stable source of income, they no longer have to rely on sex work. The crowd-funded Bodol establishes contact with the sex worker community through a source, who was formerly a sex worker in the same community.
"My idea behind helping them set up shops was so they can lead a better life. I wanted to help them get out of sex work and become self-sufficient," Tanisha said.
It took Tanisha a great deal of time and effort to earn the women's trust and to convince them about Bodol's motives. Her source was not convinced at first either.
"It was difficult for us to onboard most sex workers as they have been exposed to extreme neglect and deceit all their lives. Even if someone or some agency came forward with a noble deed, it never lasted long.
But we managed to reassure them of our plans through advocacy and awareness," Tanisha explained.
Tools for a better life
One of the projects Tanisha wanted to undertake immediately was to provide sex workers with reusable, plastic-free sanitary pads that last as long as six months and reduced menstrual waste.
This project started with only 30 sex workers three months ago. They are continually working to provide them with this basic feminine hygiene product.
This project aims to overcome period poverty and promote menstrual health and hygiene and make menstrual products more accessible to this marginalised community.
Often working in dangerous environments with a threat of violence looming, Bodol also provides them with first aid supplies and medical funds.
Aside from taking care of sex workers, Bodol also takes responsibility for sending their children to school - a feat that is unnecessarily complicated for these women simply because they are involved in selling sexual services.
Naturally, their children are deliberately kept separated from other children in schools (for those who can make it that far), "As if they carry contagious diseases," said Tanisha.
Providing education to the sex workers' children also encouraged them to come out of the trade. Continuing to be involved in the trade not only puts the mothers at risk but also pushes their children's lives towards uncertainty. While the daughters are forced into the trade directly, sons become indirectly involved.
Tanisha said, "We plan to emphasise more on advocacy but since we cannot visit fields as much now due to the pandemic, we are trying to advocate and counsel sex workers' children to view themselves as regular school-going children. We want these children to be strong enough to handle bullying and communicate effectively with their peers to bring such matters to light."
Speaking about Bodol's plans, Tanisha said, "Our justice system is extremely underdeveloped regarding these matters. Many sex workers cannot even get their NIDs as their fathers' identities cannot always be traced. Since we are working with this community at a root level, we have plans to work at a policy level and establish their rights as citizens of Bangladesh."
Bodol, the eight-month-old organisation, already managed to create a ripple effect in and through the sex workers' community within a very short time. And their effort is slowly gaining momentum and more sex workers are coming forward to get involved with Bodol.
The dynamic team of 40, with four core departments, has plans to expand further and help to improve the quality of life for more women.
Currently, Bodol has writers, illustrators, editors and translators and is led by female leadership comprising four department heads - Shah Jaarin (Research and Development), Tasnia Musrat (Content Creation), Labiba Raida (Marketing and Outreach) and Tasnim Ahsan (Social Media Management).
And Tanisha's primary job is to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Bodol means change, and change is something we desperately need to address the dehumanisation, stigma and mistreatment that engulf the lives of thousands of Chompabotis in the sex work industry of Bangladesh - a profession that is formally recognised by the state, pays taxes and requires the use of bodies.
At present, Bodol is working with 360 former sex workers to, ultimately, and fully rehabilitate their lives.