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 pickpocketing, 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 rapes, or the beatings, or the years she lived on the streets as a rag picker, but when she remembers that a man who worked at an NGO refused to be part of her team because she was a sex worker.

Hajera decided she would change things for others like her. Previously, she had set up a support group for sex workers and eventually, with the backing of university students, friends and a generous journalist, she was able to set up an orphanage for abandoned children. Most are the children of sex workers, some of drug addicts and a few from parents who simply cannot afford to keep them. Hajera and 30 children now live in five small rooms near Adabor Market on the edge of Dhaka.

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 establish the orphanage. Instead of remembering that she is unable to bear children as a result of the 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 in the grounds of the House of Parliament, Dhaka. As friends, she would often visit my flat, an act deemed unacceptable by most. “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 increased need for money and schooling. Some students initiated a Facebook campaign to raise money for the orphanage which has helped Farzana, aged 13, the daughter of Hasna who still works on the streets, to be admitted to a respectable boarding school. Hajera 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 no one will have to sleep on the floor.

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