A nighttime view of an area near Yangon’s Pansodan Bridge where sex workers are known to solicit customers. Photo / Hkun Lat / Myanmar Now
Sixteen-year-old Wut Yee, left to fend for herself and her younger brother, was relieved when her exhausted mother finally came home after a week’s disappearance, but the feeling was short-lived.
Her mother had two devastating pieces of news for her: Since her husband remarried she had been working as a sex worker to make ends meet and she had just agreed to sell her daughter’s virginity to a businessman for $3,000.
Wut Yee, who requested to change her name for this story, had quit school to handle household chores and look after her brother and she had no other source of income. Money was in short supply. The monsoon was coming and their thatch-roofed house in Yangon’s Hlaing Thar Yar Township required urgent repairs; her brother’s school fees and old debts also needed to be paid.
“My mother said: ‘I’ve already accepted the money. I worry you would be in pain since you’ve never done it before, so I’ve paid an advance fee to the clinic at the top of our street to give you anaesthetics.’ I cried the whole night,” Wut Yee said, recalling the events from two years ago.
“The next morning, I had to follow this man after the doctor injected me with anaesthetics. He took me in his car to a house on the outskirts of town. I spent the whole day with him. I wasn’t in pain when he sent me back home in the evening because of the medication, but I couldn’t walk properly,” the petite girl told Myanmar Now.
Soon afterwards, Wut Yee found herself working at a massage parlor that doubles as a brothel near Ba Yint Naung wholesale market, one of Yangon’s busiest places. After two months, she quit over disagreements with colleagues and exploitation by the owner, and she decided to ply the trade alone on the streets, often following men more than twice her age into dingy hotel rooms.
Due to the clandestine nature of sex work in Myanmar, it is almost impossible to know how many underage girls like Wut Yee are engaged in the work in Yangon, the country’s biggest city with more than 5 million inhabitants. Myanmar Now found one underage sex worker after interviewing more than a dozen workers, but was told that it was not uncommon for teenage girls to end up in the trade.
Aid workers warn the problem could worsen if authorities ignore it, especially as Myanmar society opens up after half a century of isolation under military rule. They also say rehabilitation and support is more important than punitive measures.
“This issue is directly linked to poverty,” said Dr. Sid Naing, country director for Marie Stopes International Myanmar, which runs health education and support programs.
“Underage sex workers have existed for a while so it is important the authorities do not deny their existence. Otherwise, their numbers could increase. It is also equally important for society to not just criticise them, but to understand why it happened and help them get on the right path,” he added.
“At a time when it is universally acknowledged that child labor is unacceptable, using children for sex should be completely out of bounds.”
The practice of buying underage girls for sex is fuelled in part by superstitious beliefs that sleeping with virgins has health benefits, such as long life and curing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), said Dr. Sid Naing.
Most underage girls arrive in big, commercial cities due to a combination of family difficulties and a lack of opportunities for well-paid jobs in the countryside, said Thu Zar Win from the Sex Worker in Myanmar Network.
“Most child sex workers enter this profession because their parents or guardians sold their virginity,” she said. “In most cases, they themselves see very little money because pimps and brokers usually take a large cut.”
Some 0.45 percent of Myanmar women between 15 to 49 years of age, an estimated 40,000 to 80,000, are engaged in paid sex work, according to government and United Nations figures released in 2013.
Poh Poh, a 21-year-old sex worker who requested not to use her real name, says most girls who became sex workers via the virgin market face difficulties leaving the industry. Many tend to work in brothels disguised as beauty salons or massage parlors, as they provide better protection than roaming the streets, she said.
“I’m also scared to ply the trade on the street,” said Poh Poh, a single mother who became a sex worker a year ago after separating from her husband.
Arresting and punishing sex workers would not eliminate prostitution, said Dr. Sid Naing from Marie Stopes.
“I don’t want to say anything about whether sex work should be legal or not. What we can do is to accept the reality that they exist and help them so that they don’t face more suffering.”
Observers also say the current law governing sex work, the 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act, limits workers’ access to healthcare and makes them vulnerable to threats and harassment from security officials.
Under the law it is illegal to solicit prostitution, force or entice a woman into sex work, and operate or work in a brothel. It was amended in 1998 to increase sentences to between one and three years in prison, and to provide an expanded definition of what constitutes a brothel to “any house, building, room, any kind of vehicle/ vessel/ aircraft or place habitually used for the purpose of prostitution or used with reference to any kind of business for the purpose of prostitution.”
Since Myanmar’s political reforms began, opposition lawmakers and activists have called for amendments to the law. Sandar Min, a National League for Democracy lawmaker, submitted a proposal in parliament calling for decriminalisation of sex work in 2013, but it was rejected. Taw Win Khayay, a network of sex workers, is calling for an analysis and rewriting of the law.
Local media reported in July that a parliamentary committee proposed amendments to the law that would make procurement of sex punishable with a prison term of up to one year with hard labor, and a fine. It also proposed adding a section on “rehabilitating” sex workers through education.
The current 1949 law does not allow the arrest and detention of clients of female sex workers and police could only educate them, said Major Thi Thi Myint, deputy head of Yangon Police’s crime statistics department.
Of the 1,772 prostitution-related crimes in 2014, very few relate to cases of sex workers under the age of 18, she said.
“If we apprehend underage sex workers, we don’t send them to prison. We send them to youth rehabilitation schools and teach them vocational skills and general knowledge that would help them to leave this job,” she added.
Aid workers say underage sex work is not only morally reprehensible but also physically harmful.
Underdeveloped sexual organs are easier to bruise and injure and are vulnerable to sexually-transmitted diseases, said Dr. Sid Naing. Underage sex workers also tend to have poor knowledge of sex and how to protect themselves, he added, putting them at considerable risk in a country with a high HIV prevalence rate.
A 2014 UNAIDS report estimated that some 189,000 people in Myanmar live with HIV. Government figures cited in the study state that 23 percent of recorded HIV-infections in Yangon and Mandalay occurred among sex workers.
According to Sex Worker in Myanmar Network’s Thu Zar Win, sex education is almost non-existent for youths.
“It’s not just underage sex workers that lack knowledge of sexual issues. Young men are also unaware of such issues. They need to be conscious of other sexually-transmitted diseases that could spread, not only HIV.”
“Parents and business owners need to protect children who became sex workers for various reasons. They entered this industry because they were exploited,” she added.
Wut Yee had never encountered sex education. She was making an average of $30 a day in a country where, according to a UN report released last year, 43 percent of adults live on less than $2 per day.
“I was happy with how much I was making, but what terrified me was that my mother’s health deteriorated. We found out at the end of last year that she has HIV,” she said. “She was aware of the possibility of getting infected with the virus in her line of work, but I got really scared when it happened.”
Without a high school degree, job opportunities for Wut Yee were scarce. But she decided to quit prostitution for a less-paid but safer job of a salesgirl at one of the hundreds of mobile phone shops in Yangon.
She is still struggling to explain to buyers the different phone models, brands and prices. She is two months into the new job and finding it difficult to grasp the technical terms and specifications. Yet she says she is determined to make it work.
“I am only earning $80 a month now but I feel there is more security,” she said.
She regularly wonders whether she should return to prostitution, even if temporarily, to allay her family’s financial troubles. Her mother, now a street vendor and receiving healthcare through an aid agency, is against the idea, Wut Yee said. They now try and make do with their meager income while her younger brother continues his school.
Wut Yee hopes one day to find a husband who she could be honest with about her past. For now, aware of the deep discrimination towards sex workers in a deeply conservative society, she is not taking any chances. None of her co-workers know of her past.
“I don’t want to blame my mother for what happened to me. I will get married one day and I’m only thinking of ensuring my daughters do not have to suffer the same fate,” she said.
Text / Htet Khaung Linn / Myanmar Now