TIM PALMER: The arrest of four men bound for Bangladesh carrying $1 million and a large quantity of steroids at Sydney Airport this week has highlighted concerns about the growing trend of steroid abuse among sex workers in Bangladesh.
The men were charged with a range of offences including supplying a prohibited drug and goods in custody. A police search of two units in Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west found more cash and steroids.
It’s been reported sex workers in Bangladesh commonly use steroids to enhance their appearance and improve their endurance.
The most common drug, known as Oradexon is normally used to fatten up cows. It’s highly addictive and can have serious medical consequences including diabetes, kidney damage and increased blood pressure.
Alison Caldwell reports.
ALISON CALDWELL: About 200,000 women and teenage girls work in Bangladesh’s sex industry and according to the anti poverty agency ActionAid 90 per cent of them may be addicted to steroids, the most common being Oradexon. It’s known as the cow drug because it’s commonly used to fatten up cows.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world where many people are malnourished. Forty six per cent of children suffer from moderate to severe underweight problems.
In Bangladesh, body fat is considered attractive and steroids are seen as a cheap, easy way to put on weight.
Two years ago the Guardian newspaper visited a brothel in Faridpur in central Bangladesh which houses 800 sex workers, some as young as 12.
Many of them are forced to take Oradexon daily – they’re told it’s a medicine.
The Guardian spoke to one teenager, Asha, who says it makes her look older and more attractive.
ASHA (translated): I take two tablets per day. When I take it I feel good. When I’m not on it, I lose my appetite and I have health problems.
ALISON CALDWELL: In Bangladesh prescriptions aren’t used. Oradexon is sold in vitamin bottles and costs one cent per pill.
Asha’s madam is Joyeeta. She owns four other sex workers in the brothel and gives them each Oradexon.
JOYEETA (translated): It makes them prettier and healthier and attracts more customers. I know there are side effects but I give them vitamins as well so they won’t have health problems.
ALISON CALDWELL: But Oradexon causes severe and devastating side effects, including diabetes, kidney damage, high blood pressure and possibly death.
Anti poverty agency ActionAid’s Archie Law.
ARCHIE LAW: This steroid’s originally been designed to fatten cows. It’s not designed for human consumption. It has all sorts of horrible side effects as far as diabetes, high blood pressure, skin rashes, headaches. It’s highly addictive, leads to kidney failure and often can lead to a premature death.
Ultimately, this is all about the power relationship between men and women and if this is what men want, this is what these women are prepared to do to increase their value to that man.
So, no it’s a disgusting situation.
ALISON CALDWELL: In 2010, ActionAid Bangladesh launched a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of Oradexon and to help the women who are addicted to it.
ActionAid Australia executive director Archie Law says sex workers are coerced into taking Oradexon by brothel owners who are seeking to maximise their profits.
ARCHIE LAW: Some of the brothels have thousands of sex workers working there.
They’re organised. Women who know they have rights under the law. They’re working on trafficking issues. They’re working on underage sex workers. They’re putting pressure on government to actually deliver on their own legislation.
So we’re supporting a lot of those groups as well.
ALISON CALDWELL: Would this be the first time you’ve heard of the steroid being a bid to take it out of Australia?
ARCHIE LAW: Yeah this is the first time we’ve heard of alleged Australian involvement in this issue.
It’s very difficult to think that it’s for anything else other than headed for the brothels. Bangladesh isn’t a typical destination for drug trafficking in the region.
Although, at the same time, you know the police inquiry hasn’t revealed why the destination was Bangladesh. There’s a lot more detail that needs to come out.
TIM PALMER: Archie Law from the anti-poverty charity ActionAid Australia.