Tucked away between the mazes of overflowing sewers and tea stalls in Tangail, just a few kilometers outside of Bangladesh’s crowded capital, Dhaka, are rows of brothels with sex workers addicted to a steroid intended for cows.
Bangladesh is one of the few majority-Muslim countries in which prostitution is legal, and the minimum age of the workers is 18. But that law is meaningless in a country so poor that parents are forced to sell their daughters for as little as $200, from as young as nine years of age.
That’s where Oradexon, a steroid meant for cattle, comes into the equation. This medicine meant to fatten cows has become the preferred drug among the madams of Bangladesh. They are using the pills to mask the real age of the underage girls working for sex in their brothels by making them appear older and at the same time making the more ‘seasoned’ sex-worker look plum and voluptuous.
The use of this cow steroid amongst prostitutes in Bangladesh is so widespread that the British charity, ActionAid, which has done some of the most extensive research in the field, reports 90% of commercial sex workers are addicted to the drug. Many of them were turned into addicts by their madams.
Legally available only by prescription, Oradexon is in fact readily available in the teashops that populate Bangladeshi cities. At less than a dollar for a sheet of 100 pills, it is often even cheaper than a cup of tea.
This is a story of a continuous cycle of exploitation: The girls are considered “owned” by their madams, and if they want to get out of the commercial sex business, the girls have to repay their “purchase cost.” The “larger” they get, the more clients they get, inching them closer to freedom. At least that is what they hope, and that’s why many of the sex workers readily take Oradexon. They earn less than 60 cents per client.
Despite the popularity of Oradexon, the majority of the country's estimated 200,000 sex workers remain unaware of the dangerous side effects of the drug, which include heart disease, kidney infections, osteoporosis and heart failure. Oradexon is also highly addictive and has intense withdrawal symptoms, such as skin rashes and chronic migraines.
“It is a basic violation of human's rights to force malnourished, poor underage girls into consuming Oradexon on a daily basis to enhance unnatural physical growth and energy,” Bangladeshi advocate Naila Hussain Chowdhury, founder of Women4Empowerment, says. “The sex trade is using steroids to make young girls physically develop faster and unnaturally. This is a frightening development. The perpetrators operate in an environment of impunity, paying no heed to the health risk, jeopardizing lives of many young girls and women. These are human beings we are talking about, who are illiterate and ignorant to the actual side effects of this medicine.” NGOs working in the field have a responsibility to raise awareness among the women and girls about the dangers of consuming cattle steroids, Chowdhury adds.
“It is the basic right of every citizen to have minimum access to all information related to drugs being sold in open market,” she points out. “Responsible NGOs in this field must be more assertive, to ensure information regarding this particular medicine be accessible to all girls consuming this drug. This is a basic human right.”
Tasmima Hossain, former member of Parliament in Bangladesh and longtime feminist, suggests that the core issue is poverty, which informs every aspect of this problem.
“Poverty pushes women to do anything to survive,” Hossain explains to me. “These pills also suppress the appetite, so the sex workers do not feel how hungry they are.” Hossain contends that this issue is also just one aspect of the much larger issue of women and girls’ oppression in Bangladesh.
“Sex workers are called potita in Bengali, which means ‘the fallen group of society,’” Hossain says. “But the men who sleep with these women are referred to as gentlemen, or Babu, a term of respect given to males. Society creates labels for the benefit of men while degrading women.”
The stories of young Bangladeshi women and girls abusing cow steroids makes me think about how these women are trapped in a system that has no regard for their health or rights. On my last trip to Dhaka, I visited a brothel with a relative conducting research for a major international organization. Often the children born to these women and girls live with their mothers in their brothels, and we saw many of those children hiding under the bed while their mothers had sex with their clients.
These women and girls are already ostracized by society and rejected by their families. They pass that stigma onto their children, who often grow up in the brothels and begin working in them as soon as they are mature enough. With open access to Oradexon, they are at the mercy of the madams who can hide the real age of their youngest victims.
In this twisted tale of exploitation and addiction, controlling the flow of the drug is one thing, but ending the business of exploiting women and girls is even more important.