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Inside the world of sex, secrets and steroids

Last updated on: March 22, 2012 11:42 IST

Inside the world of sex, secrets and steroids

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Rediff News Desk

This is one lane where cops are not feared, they are 'taken care of'; a lane where the good night's sleep is bad for business and where pleasure and patrons are worshipped above all.

Tangail town is a few hours drive northeast of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. As you traverse through the narrow alleys of the Kandapara slum in the locality, nubile girls giggle and gesture you towards them. You chose to move on and discounted rates echo behind you. Wherever sight goes, decked-up women awaiting company can be seen.

It's business as usual in Bangladesh's infamous red light area.

Reuters journalist Andrew Biraj scratched the underbelly of flesh trade in Kandapara slum and came back shocked.

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Image: Seventeen-year-old prostitute Hashi, embraces a Babu, her 'husband', at a brothel house in Tangail, Bangladesh
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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Biraj discovered a rising, yet dangerous, trend of steroid abuse among adolescent sex workers to "enhance" their appearance.

"There is a huge difference between my appearance now and the malnourished look of my childhood," Hashi, 17, who was lured into the sex trade by a trafficker when she was 10 and sold to Kandapara's brothel, where she began taking steroids, told Biraj

"I am healthier than before and fit to serve a lot of customers in a day. Sometimes up to 15," she added.

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Image: Seventeen-year-old Hashi talks to a customer as Maya waits to get a customer at Kandapara brothel in Tangail
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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Hashi is one of around 900 sex workers -- some as young as 12 -- living a painful life of exploitation in Kandapara, not only bonded by debt and fear of stigma, but compelled to take the steroid, Oradexon, which brings more income but leaves dangerous side effects.

Oradexon -- a corticosteroid drug (trade names Decadron or Dexamethasone Intensol or Dexone or Hexadrol or Oradexon) -- is used to treat allergies or inflammation

Reportedly, the over-the-counter drug is taken by 90 per cent of sex workers in Kandapara and the other 14 legalised brothels across Bangladesh.

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Image: Seventeen-year-old prostitute Hashi stands in front of her small room at Kandapara brothel in Tangail, a northeastern city of Bangladesh
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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The girls are first forced to take it by their madams, or 'sardarnis', who run the brothels.

It increases their appetite, making them gain weight rapidly and giving the appearance that these poorly nourished teens are in fact healthy and older -- attracting clients who prefer girls with "curves".

The steroid can cause diabetes, high blood pressure, skin rashes and headaches and is highly addictive, according to social activists.

It also weakens the immune system and leaves patients more susceptible to illnesses. There have been reports of young sex workers dying from over-use of the drug.

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Image: Hashi shows Oradexon, a steroid, at Kandapara brothel in Tangail
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
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According to Biraj, the sex workers know about the risks involved.

Some of them said that despite their unwillingness to take the pill the sardarnis forced them to consume it, simply to enhance business.

The small white pill is easily available in Kandapara's slums. It is sold without prescription for 15 taka (Rs 9) for a strip of 10 at the tea and cigarette stalls blaring Bangladeshi pop music that populate a maze of open-sewer lanes, says Biraj.

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Image: Prostitutes apply makeup as they try to attract customers inside a brothel in Faridpur
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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"In this brothel, customers always look for healthy girls. I take Oradexon," says one chukri (that's how teenage sex workers of Kandapara are addressed). "I need customers so I can pay my bills and loans. If I don't get any customers one day, I cannot eat in the next day. I wish to save some money for my son."

According to ActionAid Bangladesh, girls and madams residing over brothels do not openly admit that they take or impose the drug.

Based on the uses, the business has been flourished by the quacks around the brothels. This is actually a chain of power structure where the bonded sex workers become an easy hostage of the process, the organisation points out.

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Image: Hashi washes her hair at Kandapara brothel in Tangail
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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AAB is facing a tough fight in persuading not only the brothels to stop using it but also authorities to regulate it.

"There have been attempts to raise awareness on the negative impact of the use of such medicine but brothel owners, madams and pimps are a long way from withdrawing such practices," Farah Kabir, country director for AAB, told Biraz.

"We have an uphill battle, yet it can be won. There needs to be greater regulation in the sale of such drugs. Government and the state must play an active role."

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Image: Hashi stands in front of Kandapara brothel to attract customers
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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UNICEF has estimated that there are about 10,000 child prostitutes in Bangladesh. Other estimates have been as high as 29,000. 

Prostitution is legal, but only for those over 18 years of age and with government certification.  

Because of widespread poverty, many children are compelled to work at a very young age. This frequently results in abuse of children mainly through prostitution.

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Image: Fourteen-year-old prostitute Lipi waits for customers at a brothel in Faridpur
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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Reports from human rights monitors indicate that child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking for prostitution continue to be serious and widespread problems in Bangladesh. 

However, this minimum age requirement commonly is ignored by authorities, and is circumvented easily by false statements of age. 

Procurers of minors are rarely prosecuted, and large number of child prostitutes work in brothels.

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Image: Feet belonging to Hashi, a prostitute, and Babu, her 'husband', are seen inside her small room at Kandapara brothel
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters
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According to Biraj, teenage girls are sold for as little as 20,000 taka (about Rs 12,230) by their poor, rural families to traffickers, they are then traded on to brothel sardarnis, who are former prostitutes themselves and keep the teenagers in bonded sex work.

The girls told the journalist about being with up to 15 men in one day, but added that their earnings were pocketed by their sardarnis, who tells them that they had to work to pay off the money paid for them.

Many girls have been in Kandapara's brothel for years, yet due to their illiteracy, they have no idea whether their debts have been cleared and what their rights are.

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Image: Sixteen-year-old Maya, a prostitute, talks on the phone inside her small room at Kandapara brothel in Tangail
Photographs: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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