The global award in photography and sustainability

Shahidul Alam

Still She Smiles

And yet she smiles. Gang raped numerous times as a child, forced into pick pocketing, caned until unconscious, sold to a Madame, Hajera Begum’s life has little that would give cause to smile. Yet she smiles. She cries too. Not because of the gang rapes, or the beating, or the many years she lives in the streets as a rag picker, but when she remembers that a man who worked at an NGO refused to work in her team because she was a sex worker.

Hajera decided she would make sure it was different for others like her. She had previously set up a self-help group for sex workers, but eventually, with the help of some university students and other friends and a generous journalist, set up an orphanage for abandoned children. Most are the children of sex workers, some of drug addicts, a few are children of parents who simply cannot afford to keep them. Hajera and her thirty children live in five small rooms near Adabor Market 16, on the edge of Dhaka. Run entirely by volunteers, she pays for only one member of staff, the cook. “What would I do with a salary?” she says. “We share what food we have. I have a roof over my head and I have my children.”

Remarkably, Hajera is not bitter. While she remembers every detail of her nightmarish life, she also remembers the friends who believed in her, and helped her set up the orphanage. Instead of remembering that she is incapable of bearing children because of brutal unwanted sex, she basks in the warmth of the 30 children who now call her mother.

When I first met Hajera, back in 1996, she was a sex worker based in the grounds of the House of Parliament, Dhaka. We became friends, and Hajera with her friends would often visit us in our flat, an unacceptable act in most homes.

“You hugged me today when you saw me in the street, just like the old times. That’s something men will never do. They will have sex with me, grope me in the dark, rape me if they get the chance, but they will never hug me, as a sister, as a friend. That is what I want for my children. That they will grow up with dignity, in a world where they will be loved.”

As the children grow, there is greater need for money, particularly for schooling. Some of the students who support her have graduated and now have jobs. With their help this February, they initiated a Facebook campaign to raise money for the centre. The oldest girl Farzana is 13. The daughter of a mutual friend Hasna – who still works in the streets – she has just been admitted into a respectable boarding school. Two of the boys are also being sent to good schools. She has high hopes for the other children too, although she worries about Shopon who is deaf and mentally ill, but takes great pride in showing me the bunk beds she has had made, to ensure the children no longer have to sleep on the floor.

As I look back at Hajera peering through the little window, bidding me goodbye, I realise how lucky the children are, to have her as their mother.