Bangladesh's dark brothel steroid secret
Every country has secrets it does not want foreigners to discover, and I have just found one in Bangladesh.
It is a vast brothel, where 800 women and girls lead painful and degrading lives, in the otherwise pleasant town of Tangail, a place of flowering trees and atmospheric old bazaars, a couple of hours drive from the capital Dhaka.
At first glance the brothel does not look any different to countless other slums in this country, which is one of Asia's poorest and most congested.
It is a densely packed collection of tin shacks, alleyways and open sewers. It has perfectly normal looking shops selling things like soap, biscuits and light bulbs. It has a hair salon, tea stalls and a Muslim shrine. There are young children playing in every corner.
But the brothel, which is only a five minute walk from the town centre, is policed by men carrying heavy wooden staves. Its sewers have been blocked by used condoms, and at two in the afternoon it is crowded with customers taking an extended lunch break.
It is one of 14 official Bangladeshi brothels. All women working here have to have legal documents proving they are over 18, but many are clearly younger than that.
In theory the women can walk out of the brothel whenever they want, but in practice that seldom happens.
By working here, even against their will, they become social outcasts and are rejected by their families and communities.
For most women, the brothel is also their prison, until men no longer want to have sex with them, and they are forced out to fend for themselves.Desperate measures
Since the men do not pay much, the women need to have many clients every day.
And even though there is no shortage of clients, competition is intense, and the prostitutes are forced to take some desperate measures to survive.
Most, I learn, take a steroid called Oradexon. They take it because they say it makes them stronger, larger and more attractive. They say that Bangladeshi men like big women.
But it is also the same drug that farmers here use to fatten up their cattle before taking them to market.
Also, according to the charity ActionAid, it can cause terrible health problems, and even result in death if misused.
One user is Ranu. She is so sought-after that when I interview her, three men are prepared to sit in line for her on old bags of cement.
Her mother also worked in the brothel, so this is where Ranu, who is now 28, was born and brought up. She says she is taking the steroids so that her own child will have a better future.'No remorse'
"I used to have small breasts but they are now bigger and my hips are larger too...demand for me has risen," she says.
"I don't worry about the health risks because I have a son. I take Oradexon and I have good customers and I have made quite a good future for my son.
"If I die because of taking Oradexon I won't have any remorse because my son is all set," she says.
But not everyone here has the freedom to choose. The brothel is controlled by a group of madams, who used to be prostitutes themselves.
They insist that the women who work for them take the pills. Underage girls take them to become stronger, older women to stay fit.
One of the madams is called Shanti. She says that she is not worried about the health risks and she has never heard of anyone having any problems.Harmful
"When I came here as a young girl I was skinny and dark skinned. I had to take the pills to become fatter, and it is the same for the women who work for me now. I also make sure they eat lots of rice and take vitamin pills. That's what the customers like," she says.
These pills are indeed fine if prescribed by a doctor and taken for a limited period of time. In Bangladesh, Oradexon is commonly used to help asthma sufferers.
But the women in the brothel take them continuously for years, and local pharmacists and doctors are only too willing to keep pushing them.
A recent survey, carried out by ActionAid in two different brothels, found Oradexon to be extremely addictive and harmful in many different ways.
It says the pills can affect the women's hormones, cause high blood pressure, skin rashes and liver damage. Over time, they can make the women more likely to get infections.
It also believes that three women died after taking the steroids and has launched a campaign to inform the women of the drug's dangers.
"We are trying to make the sex workers realise that this is harmful for them and that if they can reduce taking it gradually, they can improve a lot," ActionAid's Luftun Nahar explained.
But without government help, this campaign is unlikely to have much impact, as there are so many prostitutes in Bangladesh.
End Quote Drug firm executive
We have learnt that prostitutes are taking it to develop their bodies, but we advise them not to as long-term use can be deadly”
The authorities however seem unwilling to intervene in the brothels in any meaningful way, apart from occasionally threatening to allow property developers to bulldoze one or other of them.
The drug's manufacturer, Orion Laboratories, says the drug is safe - if used properly.
"Oradexon can be used for curing allergies and inflammations. It is very effective and safe, but if anyone misuses it and takes it for a long time, it can cause all sorts of problems," said senior executive Nantu Krishna Kundu.
"We have learnt that prostitutes are taking it to develop their bodies, but we advise them not to as long-term use can be deadly. Nobody should buy it without the advice of their doctor."
The Tangail brothel used to have its own clinic and doctor, paid for by an aid group, but that has now closed down.
Aklima Begum Akhi, the head of the Tangail Sex Worker's Association, worries about the effects of the steroids.
"Bangladesh is a poor country and the women who live in brothels are the poorest. Nobody helps us, but we sex workers need help," she says. "People are only interested in us when they can exploit us."
The sad fact is that even if the prostitutes are able to escape life in the brothel one day, the effects of these steroids are likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives.