Sex workers in Bangladesh, some as young as 12, are putting their health in danger by taking a drug to make them fatter so they are more attractive to clients.
ActionAid has started a campaign in brothels in Bangladesh to raise awareness of the dangers of the drug and help the women who are addicted to it.
Under pressure to look more attractive
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 £200 and are forced to work for free for years.
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 hope 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.
Lutfun Nahar from ActionAid Bangladesh, who works in the brothels, was one of the first people to realise that the drug was being widely used. “I remember thinking, there are all these bulky girls here – how did they get like that?” she said. “And then I asked around and someone told me they were all taking a drug called Oradexon, which is the same preparation used for cows in the cow farm, to make them fatter.”
Oradexon has devastating side-effects. “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.”
ActionAid has discovered Oradexon is used by almost 90 per cent of girls in most brothels in Bangladesh and found the age range of girls who take the drug is 15-35 years.
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.”
A cheap, easily available drug
The drug is easily available in many chemists and as prescriptions are not used in Bangladesh, even illiterate girls can buy it without a visit to a doctor for as little as one penny per pill. In a poor country where many people are malnourished, it is, unsurprisingly, a hugely popular 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."
photo : ©G.M.B. Akash/Panos/ActionAid.