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After her father’s death, Thu Thu’s family fell into destitution. Faced with the prospect of losing their home – she told her mother that she had found a good job near the Thai border and promised to send money back home. Then she took up sex work.
“I still lived in the city, but refused to go out during the day for fear that someone might see me and tell my mother,” explains Thu Thu. “I was ashamed.”
Each night a taxi would take her to one of the local nightclubs in downtown Rangoon, where she would jostle for clients amid Burma’s booming sex industry.
Over 10,000 prostitutes are estimated to work in Rangoon, mainly in informal settings such as karaoke bars, nightclubs and guesthouses to avoid police action. With no legal protection, they are among the most vulnerable citizens in Burma, facing widespread discrimination and abuse, often at the hands of authorities.
“We only get about one-third of the money we make, the rest we have to give to the police,” says Moe Moe, another Rangoon-based sex worker.
“Now we really hate to see them – they want the money so much that sometimes they are even waiting downstairs of the guesthouse. They’d search in our bags and we have to buy them beer and things like that.”
Many opt to use middlemen, such as madams or pimps, to navigate the corrupted elements of Burma’s police force. But this option is not open to transgender sex workers, who face additional stigma and legal obstacles due to the criminalisation of homosexuality.
Those who refuse or are unable to bribe the police face arrest and incarceration, sometimes in so-called “rehabilitation centres” intended to reform immoral behaviour. But while prostitution is a criminal offence, buying sex is not, which leaves sex workers largely at the mercy of their clients. Cases of rape and sexual assault are a daily occurrence.
“Because clients know that sex work is criminal, they can be violent or refuse to use a condom and the sex worker can’t say no,” says Thu Thu.
To make matters worse, police often use condoms as evidence of prostitution, even though the government formally banned the practice in 2011. Unsurprisingly, Burma has one of the highest HIV rates in Asia, with as many as one in three sex workers infected.
Campaigners on HIV prevention have long called for harm reduction strategies to replace prohibitionist measures. According to an October report by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the continued criminalisation of sex work across the Asia-Pacific region is one of the biggest impediments to effective treatment.
“What the report shows is that by removing the legal penalties against sex workers this allows HIV preventative and other treatment programmes to reach them and their clients,“ says UNDP’s Marta Vallejo Mestres.
But while there has been an overall shift among donors towards a rights-based approach to prostitution and HIV prevention, some key actors are lagging behind. The US government, which recently earmarked $170 million in development aid to Burma, continues to enforce its so-called “anti-prostitution” pledge for all HIV or anti-trafficking related funding.
It means that any organisations that refuse to condemn sex work – even though they often have the best access to vulnerable persons – are systematically excluded. This policy also provides a government incentive to target prostitutes in a country that some say could become the next sex tourism destination of Southeast Asia.
The anti-prostitution pledge has also been criticised for conflating voluntary prostitution with sex trafficking – most notably in the US government’s heavily influential annual trafficking in persons report. In November, the Burmese and US governments announced the launch of a joint partnership to combat human trafficking to mark President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to the country. This month’s USAID-funded MTV-EXIT concert in Rangoon cemented the first step of their bilateral commitment.
But an independent report submitted to the Ministry of Health in 2005 argued that most Burmese sex workers have chosen their profession “as part of their limited livelihood options” and trafficking was not “a major issue”, although it recognised the prevalence of underage prostitutes.
“The actual number of people trafficked is so much less than the targets [governments] are supposed to meet, so they end up running around and accusing people of being victims of traffickers and sticking them in cages to try to satisfy this US hysteria,” explains Liz Hilton, a veteran campaigner for the Thailand-based sex workers collective, the Empower Foundation.
Although many sex workers based in Thailand are from Burma, they are predominantly economic migrants, she says.
“We’re not saying that people aren’t being trafficked into Thailand and we’re not saying that they don’t matter. What we’re saying is that [abolitionist] strategies don’t address their situation.”
Indeed, campaigners say decriminalisation is the most effective way to combat trafficking and the exploitation of minors, because it would open the sex industry to oversight and regulation. They now fear that US funding pouring into Rangoon will be used to indiscriminately crack down on sex work.
“Some organisations are using anti-trafficking to stop all sex work. It is these types of groups we don’t need in Myanmar [Burma],” says Kaythi, a community organiser for sex workers in Burma.
The real issue, she says, is addressing stigma and discrimination. “You may not like it, but many people have no other way – they have to support their families. We are not part of the problem – we are part of the solution.”
Over the past few years, sex workers’ rights activists in Burma have multiplied. The Sex Workers in Myanmar network and Populations Services International both run projects that aim to educate workers on HIV/AIDS prevention, the legal environment and to lobby for social justice. They are hopeful that the democratic changes seen in Burma over the past year will translate into a brighter future for sex workers too.
“Ten years ago we didn’t have any avenue to talk to the government, but now we can. This is an opportunity for us,” says Kaythi.
Hilton adds that migrant sex workers have played a pivotal role in Burma’s transition and should not be left out in the cold.
“Sex workers have been very supportive of the exile movement and struggle for democracy in Burma, they have sent money home that’s built up communities, supported orphanages and schools,” she says. “They deserve part of the credit for any success and I hope that will translate into good and fair policies for sex workers in Burma.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.