I’m not sure what prostitutes are doing in a predominately Muslim nation like Bangladesh, but there they are, nonetheless, plying their trade in the many legal, licensed bordellos that operate throughout the country.
According to ActionAid, the girls range anywhere from 12 to 35 plus years of age, and many of those are not even there of their own volition.
There are 17 brothels in Bangladesh, all operating legally under a licence. The busy trading town of Faridpur in Bangladesh hosts one of the country’s most popular. The brothel is like a prison for the hundreds of girls who have to work there. They get sold into sexual slavery for as little as two hundred pounds and forced to work for free for years.
What’s even more troubling is the fact that a huge portion of the prostitutes in Bangladesh are taking the inexpensive, easily-obtainable Oradexon to plump themselves up, in spite of the dangers of taking the drug. Unlike the West, where stick “thin” is “in” and eating disorders abound to maintain that rail thin, anorexic-like figure, Bangladeshi men seem to like their women corpulent, so these women are taking a drug that is given to cows to fatten them up, in order to appear more attractive. In some cases, the drug is given to underage girls to make them look older, since the legal age for a sex worker in Bangladesh is 18. But the pimps and the madams don’t seem to care that this drug is dangerous, addictive, and has many side affects, they just want to make sure they get as much out of their ‘girls’ as they can.
One girl called Asha is just a teenager but she has to serve customers all day. Her name means ‘hope’ but there appears to be very little of this in her life. She is forced to work seven days a week and gets just one pound per customer. The money goes directly to her madam. Unlike other girls her age around the world, Asha is under pressure to become fatter to make herself look more attractive and healthier to clients, so her madam makes her take a drug called Oradexon – a steroid which was originally meant to make cows fatter
Asha calls her madam a ‘mother’. The madam owns five other ‘daughters’. She gives all her girls Oradexon because she needs to maximise her profits. “The clients like plumper girls and this is why I give them the drug. I know it has bad side-effects but I also give them vitamin pills,” the madam said.
Besides the obvious health issues of being overweight, the side-effects of Oradexon are apparently devastating, according to ActionAid.
“The women rapidly gain fat after they start taking the drug. But they also get diabetes, high blood pressure, skin rashes and headaches. It’s highly addictive,” Nahar said.
Dr Bashirul Islam, head of the healthcare services in Faridpur, added: “This drug often causes a kidney failure which can lead to a premature death of the patient.”
Nahar said the drug is a godsend to those who run the brothels. “Here in Bangladesh the girls must be 18 to do this work. But this drug means the pimps are able to get girls who are as young as 12 or 13 – many of them have been trafficked, and have nowhere else to go – and make them look much older.”
But not taking the drug doesn’t seem to be an option for many for several reasons, including the fact that since it is highly addictive, withdrawal symptoms can be quite nasty. Then there’s the whole issue of the need to attract men, and being thin apparently does not cut it, according to one prostitute.
Another girl called Juaina is also a sex worker who has been taking the drug for over five years. If she stops taking the drug, she gets withdrawal symptoms. “I must give it up gradually, if I give it up suddenly I will get health problems like fever and body pain and I will stop eating,” she said.
But Juaina thinks Oradexon keeps her looking good, which is why she’s going to go on taking it. “If you work in this brothel, you have to take this medicine. Everyone does. If you take the medicine you will look healthy and otherwise you will look ugly.”
Thanks to ActionAid, the world has become aware of this huge problem, and the organization is trying to educate the women in the brothels as to the terrible side-effects of the drug.
ActionAid’s campaign aims to raise awareness of the drug’s dangers. Nahar said: “We are creating awareness amongst the sex workers about the drug’s side effects. We are also holding meeting with the quacks who are selling the drug. In addition we are reaching the policy makers in drug administration and civil surgeons who can really keep track and play an effective role in stopping this.”
Whether they will be able to accomplish anything is yet to be seen, since it will take more than just raising awareness of the drug’s dangers. You have to change the whole perception of Bangladeshi men that fat is better, and that women are no better than a cow, and that prostitution is okay, because it’s not, particularly when we are dealing with sexual slavery.