Download Burmese sex workers say they don’t carry condoms because if they do they will be arrested by the police.
Sex work is illegal in Burma and there are no government programs to educate against HIV/AIDS.
As a result Burma has one of the fastest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in Asia after Cambodia and Thailand.
Banyar Kong Janoi went to meet sex workers in the capital Rangoon and has this report.
It’s a Sunday night and the JJ night club is full of working girls who look between 16 and 20 years old.
They cross the dance-floor in super high stiletto heels and miniskirts made from flimsy material. They move awkwardly to blasting heavy music.
A few Burmese male customers watch closely from low tables.
18-years-old Ya Min says she works here to survive.
“I am working in this job to support my family who don’t have enough money. So I invest my body into this job.”
She began working as a prostitute two months ago after she struggled to find another job in the capital.
Sex work is illegal in Burma and the Burmese military government strictly prohibits prostitution and brothels.
But Yan Min says it’s easy to bribe the police.
“We bribe local policemen so we can work. When other police come they call us and warn us that there will be a raid and to hide. We pay them a monthly fee between 30 – 50 US dollars, sometimes it’s 150 dollars. We have to give them whatever they ask. I never carry condoms because if they see the condom they know that I am a sex worker.”
Lawyer U Aung Thein from the Central Executive Committee of the National League for Democracy, condemns the government’s handling of sex workers.
He says the Suppression of Prostitution Act, which was enacted in 1949, is not just.
“The law aims to stop all sex work. Women can be easily labeled as prostitutes and houses that are suspected of being brothels are targeted. But the law does nothing to the men who have sex with prostitutes.”
He says the military regime has mishandled the issue.
“Because it’s criminalised the sex workers go underground and therefore they are not being educated about health and sexually transmitted diseases. In this situation HIV/AIDS is being spread quickly because there are no controls.”
Figures from 2005 from the Burmese National AIDS Programme show more than 30 percent of sex workers are HIV positive.
Burma has one of Asia's highest adult HIV/AIDS rates after Cambodia and Thailand.
Another sex worker who goes by the named Tin Tin says many of collegues are HIV positive.
“One of them was beautiful and young when I met her with a slim body. But she became very thin and had abscesses on her body and on her mouth. When everyone is cold, she is hot; everyone is hot, she is cold. Then her abscesses became bigger and bigger. I don’t really know what a HIV patient looks like but another colleague said she had it.”
She says her colleague was sent back home after her boss found out that she was HIV positive.
“He gave her some money to go back home. The girls also gave her some money. We encouraged her not to be depressed but she was very sad. I told her you will be OK when you get home to your family. She insisted that she wasn’t HIV positive.”
She does not know if her friend is still alive.
As the people who are HIV positive are usually poor they can’t afford antiretroviral drugs.
Tin Tin has never even heard of them.
She says sex workers use traditional medicine.
“Three of my colleagues are HIV positive. They inject penicillin and drink some leaf liquid which you can buy on the street. It’s made by mixing the leaves with salt. It’s believed to kill the HIV virus. There are some people who drink that tea and stay healthy.”
Tin Tin says despite the risk she will continue working as a prostitute.
“I will not regret my decisions if I get HIV/AIDS because I have chosen my path. I knew the risks when I started this job. I do it because of the money. I don’t know if my body is clean. Some clients use condoms; some don’t. Some only use one when I ask them to. Sometimes the condom breaks. I protect myself as much as I can but I have to sleep with lots of men, I can’t say how many.”
Economic hardship also drives Burmese girls to travel to China and Thailand and work in the sex industry.
Along the Thai-Burma border, agents recruit women by promising them with jobs but then force them into the sex trade.
Naw Kanda is the spokesperson for a safe-house that helps migrant workers on the border.
“Not only HIV, we have tuberculosis, malaria and disabled people. The program is only for people who were arrested and deported. Some time, people come and drop a patient without letting us know. Like last time, when we went to the church and we came back, there was an old man here. He was dropped here and we don’t where he is from. We can’t just ignore them when they’re already here, and sick and nowhere to go! Right?"
She says most sex workers also have very limited choices.
“In my own opinion, sex workers, especially people from Burma, they have no choice. They are forced to do it even though they don’t want to do it. And then some men when they came, they don’t use condom that’s why they got it. Some time they got it from injection. They have to use drugs so they can work more for the employer.”