DHAKA, Bangladesh — Prostitutes in this country, undaunted by threats from devout Muslims, say they must stay in business to survive.
"There is no way for us to give up," Reeta Khanam, a prostitute leader, told reporters. "We are committing no crime. To make a living is the primary instinct and cardinal principle of every human being. We have accepted the challenge."
Khanam criticized recent attempts by orthodox Muslim groups to demolish brothels in Dhaka and elsewhere in Bangladesh, an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 110 million people.
Protests against prostitution turned into open confrontation late last year when about 10,000 orthodox Muslims attacked two brothels in Narayanganj, 12 miles from Dhaka.
Nearly 40% of the brothels' 9,000 girls are between 10 and 14 years of age. Many have been forced into prostitution, sometimes by unscrupulous relatives.
Sociologists blame their plight partly on abject poverty in the overpopulated countryside, where many men have more than one wife but are unable to feed their children.
The Muslim protesters in Narayanganj suspended their campaign, at least temporarily, after the prostitutes threatened to stage a march in the nude and organize other protests.
"We are not saying that we don't want a clean life and a sweet, loving home. Is anyone out there who really wants a whore in his family?" said 15-year-old prostitute Nasima Begum. "We are victims of circumstance and probably have reached a point of no return."
"This business gives me two good meals a day," said Ayesha Begum, who works in a Narayanganj brothel.
The government is working to create more jobs for women as alternatives to prostitution, a Manpower Ministry official said.
Business at the brothels has dropped because customers fear violence or humiliation at the hands of protesters.
"We have been passing lonely nights in recent weeks," one prostitute said.
Last November, the Home (Interior) Ministry announced a drive to take children out of the brothels. The campaign would start after a January survey was completed of the total number of children living in brothels, a ministry official said.
"We do not have an exact figure for the prostitutes. There are many floating girls around us, but we cannot identify them," one police officer said.
Many girls from Narayanganj brothels have moved to cheap hotels or rented houses to continue their trade. Others have shifted to red-light districts in Dhaka.
Police say taking children out of the brothels is easier said than done.
"Mothers and guardians of the children will resist it. Besides, many of the children were born in the red-light areas and like it that way," one officer said.