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Sandra Hoyn is a freelance photojournalist, who was born in 1976 in Wolfenbüttel and currently based in Hamburg, Germany. Sandra studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences Hamburg. She started working as a freelance photojournalist for magazines, NGOs and on her personal projects concentrating on social, environmental and human rights issues. For her series “The Longings of the Others”, Hoyn documented the daily life of a Kandapara brothel in the district of Tangail, the oldest and one of the largest in Bangladesh.

Women waiting for customers in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.

Women waiting for customers in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.

Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution is legal. The Kandapara brothel in the district of Tangail is the oldest and one of the largest in the country – it has existed for some 200 years. Here live and work more than 700 sex workers with their children and their madams. It was demolished in 2014 but has been established again with the help of local NGOs.

Kajol with her 6 month old baby Mehedi and a customer on her bed. She thinks she is 17 years but does not know her exact age. She was married with 9 years. Her aunt sold her to the Kandapara brothel. Two weeks after the birth she was forced to have sex again with customers. Because of the baby her business is not so good.

Kajol with her 6 month old baby Mehedi and a customer on her bed. She thinks she is 17 years but does not know her exact age. She was married with 9 years. Her aunt sold her to the Kandapara brothel. Two weeks after the birth she was forced to have sex again with customers. Because of the baby her business is not so good.

After all, many of the women were born there, grew up there and didn’t know where else to go when it disappeared. Supporters of the brothel believe that sex work is also work – and that these women don’t want to do something else. The women themselves demonstrated for their rights as workers, and so at the end of 2014, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association convinced the High Court that the eviction of the sex workers was an illegal act. The sex workers quickly returned to their homes.

Bonna, 27, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail, is fighting with another woman.

Bonna, 27, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail, is fighting with another woman.

The area’s “brothel district” is surrounded by a two-meter wall. In the narrow streets, there are food stalls, tea shops and street vendors. The brothel is a place with its own rules and hierarchies of power which are completely different from mainstream society. For example, inside the brothels, the women are weak but also powerful. The most vulnerable stage is when a young sex worker enters the brothel – she is called a bonded girl. Bonded girls are usually 12 to 14 years old. These girls come from poor families and are often victims of trafficking. They have no freedom or rights. They belong to a madam, have debts and are not allowed to go outside or keep their money. When they have paid all their debts, which takes somewhere between 1 to 5 years, they become independent sex workers. Then, they can refuse customers and keep their own money. From the moment that a woman has paid her debts, she is free to leave the brothel. But these women are socially stigmatized outside their “homes” and thus often choose to stay and continue supporting their families with their earnings.

Papia, 18, with two customers on the bed in the Kandapara brothel. Her parents died when she was a child, she was married young. Her husband and she took heroin, she has been in jail because of this. She says that the jail was the best place she has ever been, because nobody beats her there. In the jail she got to know a woman who brought her later to the brothel.

Papia, 18, with two customers on the bed in the Kandapara brothel. Her parents died when she was a child, she was married young. Her husband and she took heroin, she has been in jail because of this. She says that the jail was the best place she has ever been, because nobody beats her there. In the jail she got to know a woman who brought her later to the brothel.

Regardless of how they got there, many women find some measure of strength in their profession. For example, some women arrive there by choice, fleeing their controlling husbands and needing to find a way to secure their livelihood. One resident has turned down the marriage proposals of her most faithful client because she doesn’t trust that he will let her keep her money. She’d rather maintain her independence as a sex worker. She is just 17. Officially, sex workers must be 18 years old, but most are underage.
Their customers are policemen, politicians, farmers, fishermen, factory workers, groups of teenage boys. Some of these men are looking just for sex, but others for love and the company of a woman.

Papia, 18, in the Kandapara brothel. Her parents died when she was a child, she was married young. Her husband and she took heroin, she has been in jail because of this. She says that the jail was the best place she has ever been, because nobody beats her there. In the jail she got to know a woman who brought her later to the brothel.

Papia, 18, in the Kandapara brothel. Her parents died when she was a child, she was married young. Her husband and she took heroin, she has been in jail because of this. She says that the jail was the best place she has ever been, because nobody beats her there. In the jail she got to know a woman who brought her later to the brothel.

In Bangladesh, a young man has no chance to holds hands with his girlfriend in a public area and cannot have sex before marriage. If he goes to a brothel, there he will find a moral-free environment. Indeed, I saw many men going to the brothel just to drink tea with the women who live there. Normally, in the public areas of Bangladesh, it would never be possible for a man to invite a strange woman for a tea. Similarly, many of the clients enjoy drinking alcohol, which is forbidden outside for Muslims. The women inside never wear the hijab. Only when they step out, back into the real world.

Rupa, 16, is dancing on the bed while a customer is filming her in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.

Rupa, 16, is dancing on the bed while a customer is filming her in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.

On the one hand these women are needed so much, but on the other hand they are not treated like normal citizens. Sex workers are a reality that society has to accept. The environment should be improved. Recognizing the existence of sex workers is the first step to ensure that they have a right to live a normal life as any other human beeing.

Five days old twins lie on the bed. They have not yet a name. Jhinik, 20 years, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel gave birth to them.

Five days old twins lie on the bed. They have not yet a name. Jhinik, 20 years, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel gave birth to them.

Bonna, 27, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail, is laughing with a condom in the hand. When she was 7 years old she was raped by her stepfather. She run away from home with 10 years as a man picked her off the street and sold her into a brothel. She has two regularly customers. On average she earn 1500 Taka (19 $) per day.

Bonna, 27, a sexworker in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail, is laughing with a condom in the hand. When she was 7 years old she was raped by her stepfather. She run away from home with 10 years as a man picked her off the street and sold her into a brothel. She has two regularly customers. On average she earn 1500 Taka (19 $) per day.

Dipa, 26 years, is crying. She is in the 2nd month pregnant from a customer in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.

Dipa, 26 years, is crying. She is in the 2nd month pregnant from a customer in the Kandapara brothel in Tangail.

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