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Harsh laws put Mandalay sex workers’ health at risk

Sex workers in Mandalay face poor healthcare access and worsening conditions. (IMAGE:DVB)

Existing laws and regulations used to crack down on prostitution are denying education and health care to sex workers, according to a Mandalay-based civil society group.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, a sex worker told DVB that police habitually arrest women for carrying condoms under suspicion of prostitution, forcing sex workers to work without protection.

“Most sex workers are afraid to carry more than one of two condoms on them, even if they are aware of the health risks. Usually they will have more than two customers a day, so they are unable to effectively protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases [STDs],” she said.

Mandalay Divisional parliament is currently reevaluating the laws, with a view to increasing both prison terms and fines for prostitution-related offenses.

Khin Myint Wai, leader of civil society organisation Yinkhatpann, said if the new laws are passed, it would become even more difficult to offer support to sex workers. Yinkhatpann provides health checks and other assistance to Mandalay sex workers.

“There are both HIV positive and HIV negative sex workers in Mandalay, and while it is relatively easy to provide them with medication, it is a different story elsewhere – the medication has to be taken on time otherwise the [HIV patient] may die faster,” Khin Myint Wai said.

She said that while it is easier to educate sex workers that work in a regular venue, it is still difficult to identify and assist independent sex workers, particularly when they often communicate with potential customers online.

According to the 2013 UNAIDS report, HIV in Asia and the Pacific, female sex workers in the Asia and Pacific region are 29 percent more likely to contract HIV than female non-sex workers. Despite national rates declining, some specific high-prevalence areas such as Pathein in Irrawaddy Division continue to see climbing figures. In Burma alone, UNAIDs reported some 7,100 new HIV infections in 2012, however that figure was down significantly from 25,000 in 2001.

Khin Myint Wai added that more women are turning to sex work due to increasing financial struggle.

“Even with sex workers around, rapes cases are still happening – it could be even worse without them. I’m not encouraging prostitution, I understand that no one wants to work in this profession but had to choose it as they had no other options.

“It is the government’s responsibility to reduce STD infection rates among sex workers and help them change professions and lifestyles.”

According to a 2014 study by Population Services International Myanmar, there are between 1600-4400 female sex workers in Mandalay.