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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 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.
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. I take Oradexon and I have good customers and I have made quite a good future for my son. But not everyone here has the freedom to choose. The brothel is controlled by a group of madams, who used to be prostitutes themselves.