Hiding behind the veneer of society, Shapla Akter (her pseudo name) – a sex worker by profession – lives in the shadows.
She floats around the cities with assumed names and identities, making it very hard even to recognise her. You will never see her on the streets of Dhaka or Narayanganj in the broad daylight. And yet, she is not alone.
Like Shapla, there are many women out there, and they too live in the shadows. We gossip about them. Some of us sympathise with them and others shame them for their "transgressions".
While the world is still grappling with the concept of "social distancing", these sex workers, having lived their lives in stigma, already live at a distance from society. Therefore, when hunger became rampant among many vulnerable communities during the Covid-19 shutdown, relief or help for the stigmatised sex workers' communities living in the shadows became scarce.
In this situation, Mahia Rahman and Juneyna Frances Kabir– two Bangladeshi journalists – decided to make a difference. When an expatriate donor contacted one of their acquaintances after reading a local newspaper report that hundreds of children of sex workers around Dhaka are underfed and in abject poverty, they followed a complicated route to first find and then feed these hard-to-reach people.
Mahia and Juneyna run a Facebook-based grassroots organisation called Resource Coordination Network Bangladesh, and its main job is to connect micro-donors to micro-organisations carrying out relief operations.
Mahia and Juneyna's campaign to help the needy in the time of coronavirus, however, did not begin with helping the sex workers. After a few weeks into the pandemic and the economic crisis, when many were looking for a way to feed the helpless people, these two journalist buddies found a gap which they believed was preventing the aid from reaching the afflicted population.
"Some people have money but they do not know how to help. On the contrary, some others have the manpower to help, but they do not have money," said Juneyna.
To address this gap, they developed their Facebook group, which popularised the hashtag #Bacharlorai (Fight for Life) among Bangladeshi expatriates. Currently, several Bangladeshi expatriates and small organisations are working under this hashtag and helping out thousands of people in Bangladesh with a special focus on marginalised and underprivileged populations.
A few weeks into their work, when they came to learn about the plight of floating sex workers of Dhaka and Narayanganj, one of their key affiliates Shafquat Rabbee – a Texas-based academic – posted on social media that they plan to feed the "children of sex workers."
When it comes to supporting sex workers, as Rabbee pointed out, there are some considerations to be sensitive about. He explained that many of the donors who have been supporting their efforts with generous donations could have donated the money from their share of Zakat. So, they had to proceed with a clear message in consideration of the religious sensitivities.
"We decided to run a specific campaign, clearly laying out that we want to feed sex workers' children," said Rabbee.
To their amazement, within half a day, the campaign received around $2,300 to feed sex workers' children which was more than what they had expected. Emboldened by such a response, they decided to feed not just the children, but also the mothers.
"Finding and feeding sex workers is tricky"
Under the #Bacharlorai hashtag, the Resource Coordination Network Bangladesh had already fed hundreds of families from diverse backgrounds.
Mahia said, "Based on various media reports, we have helped marginalised communities like Santals, Biharis, snake charmers, female madrasah students, and endorsed organisations that are working with the Hijra community."
But in comparison to other communities, finding and feeding the sex workers turned out to be a complicated task.
"It is hard to gain their trust. You must find a handler who will bring them to you first," said Mahia.
Juneyna explained that Dhaka and Narayanganj sex workers are scattered people who hide behind pseudonyms and do not have any real identity. Many of them stay with men who are not their spouse.
"Unlike giving relief to a community of Rohingyas or in the Geneva camp, providing aid to the sex workers is a tricky business. Since they live in the shadows, you cannot call them out in a loud voice. You have to reach them through their established network because their suspicion of the wider society is high," Mahia said.
Mahia and Juneyna gathered the necessary information from journalists who reported on the plight of sex workers. Through their trusted channels, they found 130 floating sex workers in Dhaka and 50 more in Narayanganj.
"We called them and delivered our little support to their doorstep through their trusted channels," Mahia said.
Juneyna reminded that many of them are trafficked and are living with assumed identities. "If you ask them for proper papers and identities as a condition for support, I am afraid they will end up being left behind."
Women looking out for women
When asked why they had targeted to feed only the children of the sex workers, Juneyna said, "We did not know how much money we could raise and whether that would be enough to feed both the mothers and the kids."
"But when we received so much money in such a little time, we decided to feed the mums too," Mahia added.
How did people respond so quickly to such a sensitive cause?
Mahia replied, "I think they responded so quickly because people do not find such an initiative which helps our women living in the shadow too often."
Moreover, of all the money the Facebook campaign received, Rabbee clarified, most of the donors were women.
Donate with dignity
Before the pandemic began to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of people, many who were in need of help now, lead a modest but dignified life. So, under the #Bacharlorai hashtag, these expatriates are trying to ensure the basic dignity of those in need of support now.
"Most of the people we support are not beggars. They are day labourers or wage earners who lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic", said Mahia.
"Moreover, they are not begging even now after facing such a crisis. Instead, we are approaching them without them asking for it," Juneyna added.
Mahia then narrated a story of one of their local volunteers in Rangpur. On the aid packages, this volunteer writes, "Father, heard that it is your birthday. So, a little gift from your son."
"When we helped the sex workers, we ensured we trated them with dignity as well," Mahia said.
The #Bacharlorai hashtag campaign plans to continue working for the people in need until the pandemic is over. Mahia said they are holding an online concert where popular Bangladeshi musicians like Tahsan, Minar, Rafa, and Topu will perform to promote their efforts during Eid-ul-Fitr. This concert will be held in the evening on the Eid day and the day after.
Despite such efforts on so many fronts, for both Mahia and Juneyna, #Bacharlorai is not a uniform campaign. Rather, it is a hashtag where "people are chipping in whichever way they can.