The Red Light District in Bangladesh is a squalid boulevard of ruined dreams and aspirations. Teenage prostitutes peddle their tarnished wares just a few hours northeast of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city.
Due to the fact that the cost of love on the streets costs only about 60 U.S. cents, the need to attract as many customers as possible is all-consuming and frantic. This in turn has prompted the rising and highly dangerous trend among adolescent sex workers to abuse steroids to “enhance” their appearances.
It is estimated that as many as 900 sex workers, some of whom are as young as 12, are being exploited and compelled to ingest the steroid Oradexon, which brings the instant gratification of more income, but at the cost of long-term perilous side effects.
This steroid, which is also known as dexamethasone, is used by farmers to fatten livestock, and to treat inflammation and allergies in humans.
The drug is available over the counter at local cigarette stalls, which is part of the problem. The small white pill costs a mere 15 taka (US$0.18).
It is estimated that 90% of the sex workers in Kandapara and the other 14 legalized brothels across this impoverished country use this steroid on a regular basis.
The steroid serves several purposes. When the madams or “sardarnis” force the girls to take it, their appetites increase and the gain weight rapidly. This in turn fosters the illusion that these under-nourished teenagers are healthy, older and curvy, which is the preference for many customers. The steroid also is highly addictive and can cause diabetes, high blood pressure, skin rashes and headaches, and weakens the immune system.
Worst of all, there have been accounts of sex workers dying from overuse of this steroid, which is often forced down their throats.
Indirectly, steroid abuse also keeps the police at bay because the girls look as if they are of the legal age for sex work, which in Bangladesh is 18.
Kandapara’s teenage sex workers are known as chukris.
These girls’ poor parents have sold them as if they were cattle, for about US$250 to sex traffickers, who then trade them off to brothels.
It is said that the girls are with as many as 15 men per day and that they never see any of the money, which is pocketed by the madams who tell them they have to pay off “their debt” before they can be compensated. That never happens, however, for they are illiterate and never told how much they owe.
In 2010, a campaign to promote awareness of the drug among sex workers began.
Activists behind Action Aid Bangladesh were well aware of the challenges they faced in attempting to persuade not only the brothels to stop using the steroid but also authorities to regulate it.
“There have been attempts to raise awareness on the negative impacts of the use of such medicine, but brothel owners, madams and pimps are a long way from withdrawing such practices. There needs to be greater regulation in the sale of such drugs,” said Farah Kabir, country director for Action Aid Bangladesh.
Is there hope for the sex workers of Bangladesh?
In addition to increasing awareness, the replacement of public indifference with righteous indignation might go a long way.