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In Bangladesh, an MCC training program provides women with options to remake their lives after years of sex work.

When Barsha graduated from Pobitra in December 2016, she became one of 169 former sex workers who have completed a year-long, MCC-supported training that helps the women learn new job skills while gradually transforming socially and healing emotionally.

Barsha, whose real name isn’t being used to protect her identity, was 11 years old when her mother started forcing her to traffic drugs between India and Bangladesh. She was caught several times by police and was afraid of her mother, so she ran away from home and lived in a railway station. During that time she was forced into sex work and raped numerous times.

Barsha’s life seemed to take a happy turn when she got married, but her husband didn’t know about her past and was angry when he learned the truth. When he left her, Barsha moved back to the railway station where she gave birth to their son. Out of options, shortly afterwards she went back to sex work to support her child.

“My life was very difficult before coming to Pobitra,” she said, referring to the program in Mymensingh begun in 2008 by former MCC service worker Robin Seyfert. An 11-month program, Pobitra reports that 94 percent of the participants have stayed away from sex work.

Through tears, Barsha explained that when she was 18 years old, she learned about Pobitra and made the decision to leave sex work.

Barsha, a recent graduate of Pobitra, washes cloth she's dyed.MCC photo/Elizabeth Derstine

“When I looked at my son, I decided to leave my earlier life so that my past will not affect him and he can live a better life.”

In order to join Pobitra, Barsha, like all other participants, committed to stop sex work. From there, she was given US$1.80 per day and a caring environment to learn to read and write Bangla and to make handicrafts. She also participated in Pobitra's training that covers topics such as family relationships, child protection, health and hygiene, human rights and professional communication. The organization also offers childcare so participants like Barsha don’t have to be separated from their children.

Pobitra offers training in handicrafts, including sewing and dyeing cloth. MCC photo/Elizabeth Derstine

Now 19, Barsha has a variety of job skills, but more importantly, she’s reclaimed her dignity and found a new family through Pobitra.

“By leaving that path, you will find everything here. You will receive love, care and honor here,” she explains.

Another Pobitra participant, Chandni, whose real name isn’t being used to protect her identity, suffered from mental health problems.

Sultana Jahan, the project coordinator for Pobitra, explained that staff worked with Chandni to get her where she is now.

“When we found her, she was using only small top and a piece of cloth to wrap her,” Jahan said. She accepted Chandi into the program, even though she was mostly noncommunicative and what she did say didn’t make sense. 

The Pobitra staff and students took care of Chandni while she recovered and learned job skills.

“This is a place of support and respect for the people who come to work here,” Jahan explained.

Chandni and her husband, a former customer she married after joining Pobitra, own a roadside confectionery shop where they sell tea, biscuits, cigarettes and cold drinks.

Chandni (center), sits with her daughters, who aren't being named for their safety, at the family's roadside business.MCC photo/Elizabeth Derstine

“I can dignify my life. The customers are respecting me which is helping me to run the business. All these are possible because of Pobitra.”

Chandni is content with her life now, but has high hopes for her two daughters, who she had before joining Pobitra.

“They will be educated and self-dependent. My future is my daughters. So, I am expecting them to be educated and not do roadside business like me. Also they will have a happy family in future.”

With files from Elizabeth Derstine

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