Late one night, after several years of working in advertising at a large agency and living a life of expense accounts and “A-list” parties—but not saving the world—I applied online to the Peace Corps. “I’ll just get the physical,” I thought. “I need one anyway.” I was invited to join the first group ever sent to Bangladesh. Teaching English, assisting local businesses, and building school libraries replaced fancy dinners.
One project involved educating children born in brothels. Due to the caste system, those children are destined to follow in their mothers’ footsteps. Bangladeshi colleagues brought the project to me. I was a little reluctant to take it on, since it is difficult even to bring up prostitution in Muslim society. But my co-workers lined up support of key people in town, so we set to work.
The project was a huge success and was duplicated in other areas of the country. A staggering number of girls were “saved.” Also, among these poor in one of the poorest countries in the world, sexually transmitted diseases declined.
But a few years after I left, the project shut down. Why? We had programs for the girls and boys, health education for the prostitutes, and programs to help older women no longer able to work. But we never did anything about the demand in this sexually oppressive society. Without new girls, brothel owners sought out young girls elsewhere. Impoverished families sold their children, creating a commerce that hadn’t previously existed. Eventually the mayor closed down the project to stop this from happening. Clearly, this story does not have a happy ending. Even with the best intentions and community support, some Peace Corps projects ultimately fail due to unintended consequences.
Still, starting a new project out of virtually nothing and building it up taught me to meet challenges and overcome setbacks. Perseverance and thinking creatively go a long way when other resources are unavailable.