Former sex workers in Bangladesh add lemon essential oil to a soap mixture. They will sell the soap through Sacred Mark, an enterprise established by MCC Bangladesh to give the women a new way to earn an income.
MCC Photo by Austin Miller

Former sex workers in Bangladesh add lemon essential oil to a soap mixture. They will sell the soap through Sacred Mark, an enterprise established by MCC Bangladesh to give the women a new way to earn an income.

AKRON, Pa. – The decision to become a sex worker in Bangladesh is almost always one of desperation.
Piya was forced into a marriage with an unfaithful man. Disowned and beaten by her father after she divorced her husband, Piya tried making money by sorting through trash and giving blood until she became too ill. Eventually she began sex work because it gave her a reasonable income, even though it led her into many abusive relationships.
Mitu’s husband from an arranged marriage was a drug addict, who also gambled and misused alcohol. He beat her and offered no financial support. After a tumultuous four-year relationship with him, she resorted to sex work to support herself and her son and daughter.
Asha was raped by a neighbor and then beaten by her mother because she was raped. Asha escaped to her uncle’s house where she was raped again. After much pleading, Asha was allowed back home, but she was so filled with rage and frustration she turned to sex work for three years.
As desperate as they were, these women were not willing to accept the role that society assigned sex workers — despised and scorned, with no hope of redemption. They wanted a job with dignity, even if it meant they didn’t earn as much money.
With the encouragement of Shourav Nari Kallyan Shongha, an organization that helps women within the trade, MCC Bangladesh created an alternative job training program for sex workers in March 2008. Piya, Mitu and Asha were among the first 26 women accepted into the eight-month program. Their names have been changed for their safety.
The program, called Pobitra, means “holiness, sanctity, the fresh cleanliness of a newborn.” The name was intended “to remind the women that they were not bound to labels of ‘dirty,’ ‘filthy,’ or ‘spoiled,’” said Robin Seyfert, an MCC worker from Salem, Ore., who is in charge of MCC Bangladesh’s Health Education and Social Services programs, including Pobitra.
To become part of Pobitra, the women made a public commitment to stop sex work and to embrace the new opportunities in the program. Bita Barua oversees the program and Nipa Dutta is the training supervisor. Both are MCC staff members.
Each woman was given $1.50 per day, a caring environment, handicraft training, and teaching about health and hygiene, mental health, human rights, peace and literacy, Seyfert said. Staff insisted that the women treat each other with respect, although that was not easy to learn.
“The early days were full of fights and threats,” Seyfert said. “Often women had to be dragged apart and kept separate until they cooled off. They used to fight to survive on the street, and they didn’t remember any other way.”
On one particularly bad day, when women were threatening to leave because of various conflicts, Seyfert said to them: “OK, who do I need to say goodbye to now? Who’s leaving?”
No one left. Each day they came back.
“The hard lines on their faces gradually softened,” Seyfert said. “They literally began to look younger as renewed innocence replaced the look of one who’s seen too much abuse and pain. Instead of attacking, they became quick to support and share with one another.”
As the women changed, sometimes their families changed too. Pobitra offered abuse prevention training for spouses. Mitu’s husband took the class and, according to Seyfert, has taken a pledge not to abuse Mitu any more and has stopped most of his addictive behavior.
After eight months of training the women were ready to start full-time work. The majority began producing handmade, natural soaps at Sacred Mark, an enterprise developed by MCC Bangladesh. Piya and Asha are among them.
Piya enjoys mixing and cutting soap, but she still struggles to provide for her two daughters. Her 7-year-old is in boarding school. Piya hopes that her daughter will one day be able to manage an enterprise like Sacred Mark.

Two weeks after joining Sacred Mark, Asha got married. Her in-laws are now insisting that she quit working, but Asha loves her work and is refusing to leave. Asha is extremely grateful to MCC and all of the people who have given her a new chance at life.

Linda Espenshade is MCC news coordinator.