When Rina was eight years old, she came to Dhaka with an aunt from her neighbourhood. She had until then only heard how Dhaka lit up at night with multi-coloured lights, now she could see it for herself.
But soon, her life was engulfed by darkness when the aunt sold her to a brothel in Old Dhaka.
It has been 25 years since the incident and now Rina manages a training centre for floating sex workers in Mugda.
The centre, which has been running since last year, falls under a project called 'Project Lorai' of a local non-profit development platform named "Give Bangladesh". The project is part of a rehabilitation programme for sex workers called Purba-Pashchim.
The centre trains floating sex workers to learn basic tailoring skills such as sewing and cutting with four sewing machines; they also learn how to stitch nakshi kanthas. Trainees are also provided one meal every day during the training period.
To date, 32 women have completed the 45-day training. The project also includes setting them up with jobs, such as ones available in the RMG sector.
Rina, who is also the executive director of a sex workers' support organisation called 'Bachte Chai,' left her profession quite a few years ago.
"I am not ashamed of my past, it is what it is," she said. After pausing for a bit, she added, "none of us wanted to become sex workers. Either we were sold, or fooled by brokers to come into sex work."
It was not easy to break off of a cycle she had known since the age of eight, but she was determined to start afresh because only then would she be able to help other women like her.
"Sex workers are abused in various ways. Sometimes police harasses them, sometimes they are killed by customers and sometimes, their children are forced to become sex workers," she said.
After volunteering with NGOs like CARE Bangladesh as an outreach worker for a few years, Rina eventually founded Bachte Chai. At the centre, she also provides information on HIV, counselling and contraceptives to floating sex workers.
Before the pandemic, Rina was living in a rented two-bedroom flat in Gopibagh where one of the rooms was a shelter for sex workers. After working at night, the women would shower and nap here during the day.
"I was also cooking rice and selling them to our girls in Kamalapur," she recalled.
Rina's initiatives to help her sisters, as she calls them, made news in 2020 when she was handing them meals during the lockdown period.
This caught the attention of Give Bangladesh and KK Foundation who then offered to jointly help her with a training centre. The former takes care of the centre's rent, trainer fees and meal cost for trainees.
While interviewing Rina, we also met and spoke to some of the trainees, all of whom were glad to not remain in sex work anymore. But they worried about their future because for most of their lives, sex work has been the only source of income.
Sumi Akhter has been training since Ramadan. She wants to own a small business after completing the training.
"The kind of work we do is not sufficient to accumulate capital; what we earn within a day is spent instantly," said the hopeful mother of one, adding, "but if I do something good with my life, maybe Allah will give me good returns."
When we asked Rupa, one of the younger trainees, how the training is helping her, she replied, "I do not want to remain a sex worker. It is not easy to change everything overnight but if you help us, we will be able to lead a much better life."
Executive Director of Give Bangladesh Abir Hossain is a final year student of law at the University of Dhaka (DU). He informed us initially, Give Bangladesh was an emergency response platform and they distributed blankets during winter.
From 2013 to 2018, they built a strong local network which eventually helped establish Give Bangladesh in 2018. "While working with sex workers' children, we realised the need for helping the mothers first.
If we did, then it could cut down the risk of the children [having to] take up their mothers' profession," Abir said.
Give Bangladesh is supported by more than 100 young volunteers like Tanha Tabassum, who guided us to the training centre and helped us with providing information, said Abir.
A second year student of child development and social relationship at DU, Tanha believes her achievement lies in seeing sex workers have a chance at normal life. "If we can help mothers move away from sex work, it will give their children the opportunity to have a better life."
Maya lives in Kamalapur. Now that she is in her 40s, in her words, "there is less demand for her in the market." In her profession, growing older means starving most of the days.
The tailoring training has given her hope. "My mind and body are both tired now. I want to buy a sewing machine or join a garments at least," she said, adding, "the fact that I could free myself from sex work is the greatest consolation."
Shathi is married with two children. Her older daughter is married and her younger one suffered from liver disease for a long time. Shathi needd money more than anything, but sex work earns barely enough to feed herself.
After completing the training at Mugda, she got a job at a RMG factory near Dhaka. "I am still struggling with money but this is a much better way to live," she happily stated.
An advocate of a respectable life with a steady source of income for sex workers, Rina proudly shared with us that no trainee from the centre has gone back to her old profession.
In Bangladesh, sex work is not legal, but it is not illegal either. And in effect, what happens to these countless women is different kinds of abuse and they have given up hope to seek justice.
"A few days ago, a group of customers broke one girl's leg because she asked to be paid," Rina said. In this case, Rina said, the girl went to a house to provide service to four men. But it turned out that there were more than twice the number of men, who she had to entertain. When she asked for fair pay, the men refused to pay, and instead beat her. She had to be taken to the hospital for her broken leg.
"Only last week one of our sisters was the victim of an acid attack," said Rina.
Jailing sex workers is not a solution neither is putting them in vagabond shelters. "Many sex workers are rotting in jails and vagabond shelters, these are in no way rehabilitation programmes," she opined.