Many of Dhaka’s estimated 4,50,000 street children are trapped in a cycle of sexual abuse, drugs, and casual sex work.

Tanzila, 15, had lived alone for as far back as she could remember; her mother had also lived on the streets and drifted in and out of her life.

In 2016, Tanzila and her friends told me of the sinister links between narcotics abuse and the sex industry, as well as the dangerous and vulnerable conditions in which they were surviving.

“If threats do not work, the sexual predators wait for us to fall asleep and sometimes they even lie down between us and touch us,” Tanzila said. “If you are weak or under the influence of drugs, they just lift you up and take you to that big field nearby. Who will stop them in the dead of the night?”

Tanzila spent her days begging and stealing with other children. When she was about nine or 10, she met an older child who taught her how to take phensedyl and sniff dandy, a highly addictive and harmful adhesive.

Tanzila also spoke of a man who tried to recruit her into sex work. While she initially vehemently denied being in this line of work, she eventually admitted she sometimes engaged in sexual activities for money, especially when she was desperate to fuel her addiction.

“It makes no difference to me after a while,” she said. “Why not? I am used to this life, and men try to force themselves on me all the time anyway. I might as well make money off it.”

It is now over two years since I first met Tanzila, and although most of her friends have moved on, the girls who have replaced them live in the same vulnerable and exposed conditions.

Out of the 13 or so girls I met, almost all spoke of drug abuse and being subjected to “bad things”, which is how most girls living on the streets refer to sexual abuse.

A sizeable portion of the homeless population of Mirpur spend their days in Shah Ali Majar, and during evenings you can frequently find a group of young girls aged 11 to 17 years old, lounging on the steps of the Majar.

It is the only place that resembles something akin to home for many of them. At night, these children sleep in front of its gate, often paying a 30 taka to rent a mat with a few other girls.

Substance abuse

“I came to Dhaka to work as a kajer meye in a house in Mirpur, but they used to beat me,” says Trisha, 14. “I was around nine, then. I ran away and found some older girls on the streets, including Tanzila apu, and I came to live here. We used to beg and steal, and I got addicted to dandy almost immediately. I met this guy here, and he introduced me to phensedyl, but I didn’t use it for too long. Almost everyone here is on something or other.”

Rokeya, 14, tries to explain the motivations for indulging in substance abuse. “We do it because we’re hungry, and we do it because we are bored,” she said. “Sometimes we do it to forget who we are and where we come from. But with that comes the risk of doing too much of it, and then you don’t know how to protect yourself when the local goons or other boys from the street try to take you by force.”

Noone knows this better than Mohsina, 14, who wandered into the Majar one day and found herself in the company of what she refers to as “bad women”. “They took me in and fed me, so I thought they were good people,” she said. “But then they taught me how to sniff dandy, and one day when I was really high, they took me to this man and his friends, and gave me to them for some money. They abused me all night and only let me go in the early hours of the morning.”

Rokeya said not even the police want to help the abused girls. “Because sometimes we get desperate and we sell ourselves in exchange for money or drugs, no one takes us seriously if we go to them and say that we were raped,” she said. “The police always shoo us away.”

Married at 12, mother by 13

Rupa first came to the Majar at the age of eight, when her mother died and her step-mother kicked her out. “They used to beat me all the time,” she said. “I came to the Majar and became friends with these girls who used to have dandy, and I started doing it with them too, at the age of 10. Around that time, this boy called Raju forced me to do bad things with him. But then I met another guy called Akash who drove him away, and we got married when I was 12. He used to make me steal for him and if I didn’t, he would beat me terribly.”

At the age of 13, Rupa became pregnant and gave birth to a baby. “He was tiny and would cry all the time,” she said.

Tragically, the child died within a year. “When our son died I realised I was done with Akash,” she said. “By then we used to do phensedyl and yaba together when we had the cash, but the police found out and he went in [to jail]. I was happy to be free of him but to be honest, no one here can be single for long. Someone will always try to take you by force, so you might as well choose a man and be with him.”

According to Trisha, only smart girls can survive the street life. “I know plenty of girls who did too many drugs, on their own, and they would get into a state and have men do things to them without fighting back,” she said. “We smart ones know to stick together. At night, when they come to us and try to force themselves on us, we hide blades in our clothes and cut them if they come too close. But at the end of the day, you always have to settle down with one person or you get a bad name.”

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.