On India-Bangladesh border, sex and smuggling are intertwined

Murshidabad (West Bengal), April 17 (IANS) She doesn't look more than 25, yet her eyes are sunken and body is frail. Asma Bibi, who hails from Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, illegally crossed into India nine years ago to smuggle saris - but got sucked into the dark world of sex trade.

Most of the 300 sex workers in the Kalabagan red light area of Duliyan district in West Bengal have similar tales in which smuggling and sex are intertwined. Around 13 of them are from Bangladesh.

'My mother was actually from Domkol (West Bengal), but she got married to my father in Bangladesh and that's where I was born. When I was still young, father left us,' Asma told IANS, sitting at an NGO-run night shelter on the river bank.

'My mother was detected with blood cancer and we had no money to treat her. Helpless, I got into the smuggling of saris from India to Bangladesh,' she added.

Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers posted on the border allegedly seek 'sexual favours' from women in exchange for letting them cross over for smuggling - and so it was with Asma.

This cycle of regularly giving sexual favours for 'free', when sex workers charge money for the same, makes a number of women turn to sex work professionally.

They earn only a couple of hundred rupees through smuggling. Working as a sex worker helps them earn as much as Rs.10,000 a month - a portion of which goes to the pimp or madam in the brothel and the bulk to their families.

A BSF senior official said on condition of anonymity: 'We take stringent steps if any of our men are found involved in smuggling or any human rights violation.'

Saima Bibi, another sex worker hailing from Bangladesh, said: 'Sometimes if a BSF jawan likes a girl, the whole group won't be allowed to go unless a few women are provided.'

'If we complain then the border will be forever closed for us,' she said.

Wearing a flimsy night gown with a dupatta, Saima said she has been working here as a sex worker for six years.

'My family was very poor. While I got into smuggling saris and condiments, paying bribes to border officials and at every point on the course got me into a huge debt. So I went to the Farakka area where a lot of sex workers wait on the roadside and then came here,' Saima said.

Farakka is in Murshidabad district. The area near the Farakka barrage is where a lot of truck drivers stop for meals at roadside restaurants. It has a floating population of around 300 sex workers.

'My children are with my mother back home and I send them money every month. I also visit them sometimes,' said Syeda, another sex worker.

Most of them also have a 'babu', a regular client who is like a proxy husband. He lives off the woman's earnings and stays with her. Having a babu gives the women a sense of 'security' and also helps ward off violent clients.

Samir Sheikh, 26, is from Bangladesh and is a babu to a 42-year-old sex worker, Shama Mondol. 'I was 21 when I started smuggling cattle to Bangladesh,' Sheikh told IANS at his home in Farakka.

'But two years back I met Shama here and we started a relationship. She has two daughters from her marriage and I take care of them while she goes for her work at night,' he added.

'I also have 10 girls working for me,' Sheikh said.

One of the findings of Swagoto Sarkar's research for the NGO Sanjog, which works on trafficking, said: 'In India the smugglers regularly supply women to BSF personnel to facilitate the passage of goods. Smuggling and sex are intertwined.'

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.p@ians.in)