RANGOON — A sex workers’ rights group is calling on Burma’s government to reform a 60-year-old prostitution law in order to decriminalize the practice, end harassment of sex workers and provide them with better health care access.
The Sex Workers in Myanmar Network (SWIM) called for an overhaul of the antiquated law during a two-day meeting in Rangoon, where some 80 sex workers from across Burma had gathered to learn about their rights, prevention of abuse and safe sex practices.
“Our current law has oppressed sex workers, not protected them. The government needs to reform this law,” said Hnin Hnin Yu, SWIM’s chairperson.
“We found that some sex workers were arrested at hotels after they provided sex services, or they were arrested on the street while officers pretended to be customers,” she said.
Burma’s Suppression of Prostitution Act 1949 provides punishments for sex work, soliciting or keeping brothels, making it one of most repressive laws on sex work in the region.
A 2012 UN study, said penalties for soliciting sex work in Burma “may include imprisonment for between one year and three years, and female sex workers may be detained in a ‘prescribed center.’”
Burmese sex workers, the study found, “are subject to extortion, arrest and incarceration which is continual and systematic,” adding that sex workers are also vulnerable to contracting HIV/Aids because of a “lack of access to safe workplaces and lack of access to services.”
Burma has one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in Southeast Asia and SWIM called on the government to do more to protect sex workers’ health and introduce better care for HIV-positive workers.
“Sex workers need medical treatment to protect their health and they have a right to be protected if they are being abused,” said Hnin Hnin Yu.
Government health clinics only provide antiretroviral (ARV) medication to HIV-positive patients if they live in one place for an extended period of time, she said, explaining that HIV-positive sex workers often struggle to get treatment as their job requires them to frequently move to different parts of the country.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that less than 20 percent of HIV-positive sex workers in Burma are able receive ARV drugs.
SWIM was formed in 2011 and this week’s workshop was co-sponsored by UNAIDS and Australian public health organization the Burnet Institute Myanmar. Several dozen civil society organizations also attended the event.
Hnin Hnin Yu urged the government and Burmese society to end discrimination of sex workers and recognize their rights, saying they are among the most vulnerable and poor women in the country.
“No one wants to be a sex worker unless they are hungry for food. Many women became sex workers because their families are going hungry,” she said.
However, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Kyaw Tun told Parliament earlier this month that the government was not planning to amend the Suppression of Prostitution Act.
He said authorities had prosecuted people in 1,956 prostitution cases in 2011, 3,226 cases in 2012 and 640 cases so far this year.
The minister was replying to questions by lawmaker San Thar Min, who has been advocating for an overhaul of the repressive law.
San Thar Min told participants during the workshop on Tuesday that she would keep pushing for an amendment of the act. “I will continue to address this issue. The people have the right to gain protection and right to health care,” she said.