Share via Email I'm walking along a brightly painted corridor when a couple of young girls catch first my eye, and then my arm. They smile at me, and giggle; they look about the same ages as my elder daughters, 17 and Just like my daughters, these girls have taken a lot of time over their makeup and their clothes: But there the comparisons end. Because I am in Faridpur in central Bangladesh , on the banks of the Padma river; and these girls are sex workers.
And for most of the girls here, there is no monetary gain whatsoever: It is a terrible, filthy, overcrowded place, this Faridpur brothel. To reach it you walk through a series of dusty, narrow alleys, uneven underfoot; past endless booths selling dusty bottles of soft drinks and past-their-sell-by-date packets of crisps; past skinny goats and even skinnier, rag-clad people.
And then, ducking under a couple of greying rags that serve as makeshift curtains, you turn into a new alley; and then to a doorway with several men hanging around, and two or three cigarette-sellers at the entrance they sell cigarettes singly here; the men like a post-coital smoke. The brothel is huge: There are many doors, and behind each one is a tiny room with a barred window, and just enough space for a rag-strewn double bed where the girls take their customers.
The girls sleep two to a room; when one arrives with a client, the other simply makes herself scarce. Many of the customers are migrant workers, who are employed in the numerous brick-making factories in the area; other clients are truck drivers, since Faridpur is on an important trading route, and the ferries bringing lorries from Dhaka dock nearby.
What is strange is that using prostitutes seems to be tolerated in this Muslim country: The sound, the sight and even the smell of sex is everywhere in the brothel. A young couple duck into a room, closing the door tightly behind them; an older man emerges from another door further along the corridor, his face beaded with sweat.
And it is on one of these corridors that I meet the girls who remind me so much of my own girls. I try to start a conversation, but we don't speak the same language. And then I see another, even more shocking, sight: The photographer arrives, and he speaks Bangla.
The photographer, hearing her answer, shakes his head. That girls this young are condemned to a life of sexual slavery anywhere in is bad enough; that it has to be in an overcrowded hellhole such as this, with a stench so bad it is hard not to gag, is unbelievable.
These days there is also a new horror, one that could snuff out the chance of a future for these girls. The horror is a drug called Oradexon; a drug identical to one used to fatten cattle. A drug that is now being used routinely in brothels throughout Bangladesh, by madams desperate to make the girls in their employ seem older and more attractive to clients.
No one is quite sure how long Oradexon has been a feature of life in the brothels, but it has been a while; long enough for the sardarni, or brothel caretakers, to have found out that there can be long-term health implications, and to have chosen to ignore them. According to the charity ActionAid, which has just published a report into the use of Oradexon among Bangladeshi sex workers, the drug is most commonly taken by girls and women aged between 15 and Nahar was one of the first people to realise that the drug was being widely used.
It 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. And then they are even more powerful in the girls' lives, because the girls are hostages — they need to go on taking the drug, because if they come off it they get all these side-effects: With those effects, of course, they can't work — and they can't stop working or they'll have no food, and nowhere to live.
The campaign to educate the girls about the importance of condoms to stop HIV infection is held up as a model that worked, on the whole. But no one thinks this will be an easy battle, because for the madams there are clear advantages in having workers on Oradexon — dissuading them from getting their girls to use the drug will be tough.
He says Oradexon can be extremely dangerous for healthy young women. Taken by these girls, it impairs the kidneys, increases the blood pressure and interferes with normal hormone production. It also causes widespread oedema, or swelling, throughout the body. There are also severe problems with coming off the drug, because it's highly addictive. So if the girls stop taking it, they need a lot of help — they get bad stomach aches, they are sick, they get headaches.
Asha works in Faridpur brothel as a sex worker. She is 19 years old. She says she doesn't have another name — "I'm just Asha — it means 'hope'" — and she has been in the brothel for two years. She is keen to tell me that she came here alone, that she wasn't coerced into this life — but I've already been warned that all the girls here will tell that same story, because they've been told by their madams not to say anything to blame their families or their employers.
Many of the girls here have been sold by a stepmother or even their own mothers — and some are second-generation sex workers, born to a prostitute and an unknown client. Like the other girls, she is given Oradexon by her madam — some of the girls say they have tried refusing, but have been told they must take it, to make them look "fairer". Asha thinks it makes her look healthier. I got a little plumper when I started taking the drug.
God knows — there is no happiness here," she says. If they did they'd only keep me for two or three days, and then they'd sell me back. Some of the girls here have thought they had found their knight; the many babies, conceived by girls who allowed men they thought would marry them in order to have condom-free sex, bear witness to that.
But though she's realistic about her future, Asha has that irrepressible optimism of the very young — and because she has only been on the drug for a year, her body doesn't yet look too swollen by it. Juaina Begum is very different. She has been taking Oradexon for five years, and though she says she was thin once, she is heavy and swollen now. Her midriff and legs are swollen too — she moves around slowly and deliberately. Like so many of the poorest people in Bangladesh, she's unsure of her actual age — but she looks in her early to mids.
In brothel terms, that's over the hill — and Juaina knows it. Juaina thinks Oradexon keeps her looking good, which is why she's going to go on taking it. If you take the medicine you will look healthy and otherwise you will look ugly. Also, my body is used to the medicine now. If I take it, I'm OK.
If I don't take it, I feel bad — and then I can't work. So stopping it isn't possible. For a while, she says, her fortunes changed — she fell in love and left the brothel to live with a man.
She said I had to. I've stopped dreaming of another kind of life. What I really want to do is die — I pray for God to take me. I'd have liked to have had my own family, my own children. No one in the world loves me — I don't even have any friends here. Then she takes me to look around the space she calls home: The room has no windows: There is hardly room to stand up: It is no life at all, and Juaina — a woman who carries herself with dignity, and who talks with the honesty of one who has no need to lie — knows it.
The tragedy is that today's Ashas are tomorrow's Juainas, and there are thousands upon thousands of women, both old and young, at brothels across Bangladesh. On the outskirts of Faridpur, on the River Padma, is a smaller brothel of around women. I spend my last morning in Bangladesh here, much of it with Payel, who is 15 and has been taking Oradexon for several months. Payel says she's never been to school; she is a second-generation sex worker, the daughter of a prostitute. She has been working since the age of 12, and she arrived yesterday from another brothel.
She wants to know more about my teenage daughters. What do they look like? When it's time to go, she walks with me to the car, holding my hand to guide me across the cobbles. I'm touched by how gentle and sweet-natured she is; but when we get to the car, and I turn to say goodbye, she is nowhere to be seen.
As I watch her, Payel turns, smiles and shrugs her shoulders in a gesture that seems to say, "This is how it is for me.