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RIGHTS-BURMA: For Sex Workers, A Life of Risks

A news story by Mon Mon Myat on the australia.to website which explores the situation of older sex workers in Burma.

RIGHTS-BURMA: For Sex Workers, A Life of Risks

Written by Mon Mon Myat

RANGOON, Feb 25 (IPS) – When Aye Aye (not her real name) leaves her youngest son at home each night, she tells him that she has to work selling snacks. But what Aye actually sells is sex so that her 12-year-old son, a Grade 7 student, can finish his education. ”

Every night I work with the intention of giving my son some money the next morning before he goes to school,” said Aye, 51. She has three other older children, all of whom are married.

Her 38-year-old friend Pan Phyu, also a sex worker, has a greater burden. After her husband died, she takes care of three children û apart from her mother and uncle. But Aye and Phyu’s source of income is fast declining, because it is no longer that easy to get clients at their age.

Many younger women are in the sex trade today because of the difficult economic conditions in Burma, where prostitution is illegal. Aye and Phyu’s daily lives are marked by living with the risks that come with being in illegal work, ranging from abuse from clients and police harassment, to worrying about getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.

Accurate figures of the number of sex workers are difficult to come by. But some media reports say that there are more than 3,000 entertainment venues such as karaoke places, massage parlours or nightclubs where there are sex workers, and that there are an estimated five sex workers in each venue.

There are fewer opportunities available for Aye and Phyu in the nightclubs in downtown Rangoon, but they found a place near the highway in the city outskirts. ”I’m already having a hard time finding even just one client a night, yet some clients want to use me for free. Sometimes they cheat me and go without paying,” Aye said with a sigh.

Their clients vary, ranging from college students, policemen, business people, taxi drivers or trishaw drivers. ”It’s true that sometimes we get no money but just pain,” Phyu added. Many clients think that they can easily abuse commercial sex workers because they have little clout in an illegal area of work.

”Sometimes I receive money for one client but I have to serve three clients. I would be beaten up if I refuse or speak up,” said Phyu, who has been a sex worker for 14 years. ”If the local official in my ward or my neighbours don’t like me, they could inform the police who could arrest me anytime for trading sex,” Aye added.

To keep from being harassed by the police, Aye and Phyu say they have to either give money or sex. ”The police want money or sex from us. We need to make friends with them. If we can’t give a bribe we are threatened with arrest.” Phyu said, ”Some clients came in plain clothes, but through the conversation, I later knew that some of them are police officials.”

A few years ago, Aye and Phyu were arrested when the police raided the hotel they were in under the Brothel Suppression Act. Aye spent a month in a Rangoon jail after paying a bribe. Phyu could not afford to pay, so she spent one year in jail.

Like many commercial sex workers, getting infected with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases is never far from their minds. Aye recalls that two years ago, she suspected that she might have HIV. A blood test at the Tha Zin clinic, which provides free HIV testing and counselling service for CSWs, confirmed her worst fears.

”I was shocked and lost consciousness,” Aye said. But Phyu said calmly, ”I already expected to have HIV infection as I’ve seen friends of mine dying from AIDS-related diseases. ”My doctor told me that I can live normally as my CD4 counts are above 800,” she added, referring to count of white blood cells that fights infection and indicates the stage of HIV or AIDS.

Still, Aye and Phyu say they remain in sex work because that is the only job they know that can bring them enough money. ”I tried to work as a street vendor, but it didn’t work because I didn’t have enough money to invest,” Aye said. Aye earns from 2,000 to 5,000 kyat (2 to 5 U.S. dollars) for a one-hour session with a client, an amount she would never earn as a food vendor even if she works the whole day.

Because she has HIV, Aye carries a condom in her bag as suggested by the doctor from the Tha Zin clinic. But her clients are stubborn and refuse to use any protection, she said. ”It’s even harder to convince them to use a condom when they are drunk. I was often beaten up for urging them to use a condom,” Aye pointed out.

Htay, a doctor who asked that his full name not be disclosed, says he has heard a similar story from a sex worker who comes to see him. ”Every month we provide a box of free condoms to sex workers, but their number does not get reduced by much when we checked the box again. The reason she (sex worker patient) gave me was that her clients did not want to use a condom. That’s a problem,” said Htay, who provides community health care for people with living with HIV.

According to a 2008 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), more than 18 percent of some 240,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Burma are female sex workers. HIV-positive sex workers are a hidden reality in Burma.

”Our society covers up the truth that prostitution exists because of shame and fear of sin, but it actually makes the situation worse,” pointed out Htay. ”I think a network of commercial sex workers needs to be set up in this country,” said Nay Lin of Phoenix Association, a group that provides moral support and vocational training for people living with HIV/AIDS. ”Through that they could stand for their rights and protect their communities.” ”Just like others, commercial sex workers who are mothers earn money in exchange for sex to support their children and their families, but they always work under fear of the police and of being abused by clients,” Lin said. ”We should respect them as mothers instead of abusing them.”

To this day, Aye leaves home to go to work as soon as her son falls asleep at night. She worries about earning enough money, and what will happen to her son if she does not. ”If I have no client tonight, I will have to go to the pawnshop tomorrow morning (to sell items),” she said. Showing her one-foot-long hair, Aye added: ”If I have nothing left, I’d have to sell my hair. It could probably be worth about 7,000 kyat (7 dollars).”