Ma Nwe’s story: recognising sex worker rights in Myanmar
By Ma Nwe, a former sex worker who now works as a community advocate for Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWiM).
When I started as a sex worker, I was really afraid that my family would find out. In the end, the community discovered the type of work I was doing and my family discovered as a result. I faced discrimination and was extremely sad and frustrated with my situation. But I realised that by doing nothing, no change can happen.
In 2013, I founded an organisation called PNB to help female sex workers and ensure they are protected by the law and their human rights respected. Through my work I discovered SWiM and I now act as a community advocate, providing support, collecting case studies and delivering trainings to the sex worker community.
consequences of criminalisation
Many sex workers face multiple challenges and forms of violence on a daily basis. Because I am known in the community, women can seek me out to report incidents, often of brutality or violence.
Many of these challenges come from the police themselves. Sex workers are criminalised by the 1949 Act, and police authorities often set targets for the arrests of sex workers when they are trying to meet arrest quotas. During these times, police will do sweeps and many sex workers will be put in prison. It is part of my role to assess their case and see what support and services they require in prison. This can be medical support too, if the arrested sex worker is HIV positive and reliant on antiretroviral therapy we ensure they get their medication whilst they are incarcerated.
In the months when these sweeps are on, sex workers simply can’t move around freely. They avoid the places where they can operate more safely, such as red light districts monitored by pimps and the police, instead working in less protected areas where they are vulnerable to sexual violence. They are afraid to go outside during these periods and this fear is a major hindrance to them accessing support or healthcare services and medication.
Because they are criminalised, sex workers have become vulnerable to police exploitation. Every month, they will pay an amount, to the police to be able to operate without arrest. It seems police can do whatever they want. If a policeman wants sex, a pimp can make the sex worker do it without payment. Before, when police arrested sex workers it was always male officers who made the arrests. So we have been advocating for more female police officers to be involved in sex workers cases and we are beginning to see this.
The power of the pimps
One of the biggest challenges we face in delivering support to sex workers is accessing them. Many of their pimps force them to stay silent about what’s happening. To overcome this barrier, I run a sewing service so that, if a sex worker needs to come and report something to me, they only have to ask the pimp for permission to come and repair their clothes.
I try to use this time to raise the women’s awareness of their human rights so they can understand that violence or threats from pimps, clients and police are all rights violations. Many believe they deserve the violence they are experiencing. So we are working to support them to recognise they have rights and we can help them if they come and share their stories. I tell them that if they are experiencing violence they must record the details – the dates and times and, if possible, audio record the incident for evidence. I also provide them with sexual health education, focusing a lot on the prevention of HIV and STIs. We have software and educational videos, which the women can copy onto their phones if they cannot stay long.
We also conduct training sessions for sex workers on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) but often their pimps will forbid them to attend. I have been advocating for the rights of sex workers since 2011 and in this time, we have worked hard to gain the trusts of the pimps. When we want to run an SRHR or family planning training session I am now able to contact some and seek permission for their workers to attend, or even come to a house or brothel to run it. But many pimps worry that, if sex workers come to the training and learn about their rights and health, they will become empowered and demand full access to services or leave the job. Even just coming for one meeting or training is time and the pimp loses money for that time. The pimps have so much control. For instance, many sex workers are aware of the importance of preventing HIV. They will agree safe sex with their clients but when it comes to the session, if the client doesn’t want to use condoms, the pimp will make the final decision.
Sometimes I will take a sex worker for blood testing. In the past, we had to give the test results to the pimp directly. If a pimp found out one of his workers had HIV he would fire her straight away, so sex workers were obviously reluctant to test without having confidentiality. Now we have worked with some of the pimps, engaging them in human rights training, to ensure the sex worker can keep her results confidential after testing.
When a sex worker goes to the healthcare services, she will be told: “No wonder you got these diseases, you are a sex worker – what do you expect?” If she wants to get treatment for STIs, she will be told that both partners must be treated and will be asked who her past partners are, but for a sex worker this can be hard to answer. These kinds of reactions put sex workers off accessing healthcare. But through SWiM’s support and capacity building activities, I have learnt how sex workers can access friendly health services.
We are working hard to overcome discrimination towards sex workers in society. Religious leaders can have a lot of influence over community attitudes, so we are working to have these leaders acknowledge us and our rights. We will go to the Pagodas to do cleaning and basic tasks in order to challenge the views people have of sex workers and gain acceptance.
When I started PNB, we struggled to get the National AIDS Programme to recognise us. They wouldn’t invite us to events or activities or engage us in their work. But I persisted and even though we weren’t invited we would turn up. Gradually they have seen the work we are doing to help sex workers and so are beginning to acknowledge us.
Recognising sex work as work
So many women enter into sex work to support their families. But if they become infected with HIV, it can limit the quality of their family life. We want sex workers to have the information so that they are empowered to put their health first.
To the government I would say – decriminalise us. We are not criminals, but we have families we need to support; we have financial needs. Sex work needs to be regarded as a job that provides for these needs. We are oppressed by the 1949 Act, which doesn’t reflect human rights values – to reform it would bring about tremendous positive changes and opportunities for sex workers.
Female sex workers have huge potential. But emotionally, with the struggles they face, many are ready to give up. We must organise. Though my advocacy work, I want to support other sex workers to rise up.
To gain acceptance from the community is not a rosy journey, rather it is a struggle full of tears. But through SWiM I have been connected to other sex workers and I have received support from these women who encourage me to keep going and not give up. The persistence of these advocates in fighting for sex workers rights and their resilience has made me the woman I am today. When we are being discriminated against or looked down on, we need to be united in order to demand our rights.
SWiM campaigns for the decriminalisation of sex work and for the right of sex workers to access health services, including primary health care and HIV and sexual and reproductive health services. SWiM is a partner in PITCH, a five-year strategic partnership between the Alliance, Aidsfonds and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The photos above were created by Ma Nwe as part of the Alliance’s Photovoice project in Myanmar. For more photos from this project, see the photo galleries Voices of sex workers in Myanmar and Support Don’t Punish.
This article was written as the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, before we changed our name to Frontline AIDS.