‘They Shouldn’t Be Ill-Treated for Their Occupation’

By Sanay Lin 30 November 2013

The question of how to handle the sex industry in Burma was raised in Parliament earlier this year, with a proposal to legalize and regulate the trade ultimately rejected by lawmakers. The issue is a controversial one in Burma, pitting those who adhere to what they call “traditional Burmese cultural values” against those who approach the subject from a public health perspective, arguing that it is better to bring prostitution out of the shadows.

According to data collected by the United Nations and Burmese government, an estimated 0.45 percent of women in the country aged 15-49, or between 40,000-80,000 people, are sex workers.

The Irrawaddy recently interviewed Dr. Sid Naing, the Burma country director for Marie Stopes International (MSI), a London-based NGO that provides sexual and reproductive health care to millions of under-served women around the world. The doctor discussed whether the country’s sex industry should be officially sanctioned, and described how Burmese culture has at times been an obstacle to the implementation of sex education programs in the country.

Question: In our country, parents generally don’t talk about sex education or share related experiences with their children. Prostitution is a crime and promiscuity is considered social deviance. What is your read of the situation?

Answer: Prostitution is seen as a crime because the law says so. Whether it should be that way or not has to be debated among the general public, legal experts and concerned individuals in order to find a solution.

However, the thing is that parents don’t want to talk about sex with their children at all. Neither do the teachers because they think talking about it would bring disrespect upon them.

What we suggest is asking a third party, which both parents and children trust, to talk about sex. Children do need to know about it. If they grow up without that knowledge, by the time they find out, they might have already had intercourse without any protection.

Difficulties arise when it is termed ‘sex education’ at schools. It is not teaching about how to make love. In fact, it is educating children to make them aware of the good and bad, cause and consequences, of sex, as well as its dangers and how to deal with them. In some schools, we were asked not to talk about it with children who had already passed eighth grade. We were told that we could talk about anything but condoms.

The bad does not wait for children. Who will protect them? Do we have a responsibility to let them know as much we can about how to protect themselves? The danger does not come with an age specification.

Q: In our country, some doctors are pushing for proactive programs on contraception and sexually transmitted disease protection. Others say such efforts should be prevented because they encourage sexual promiscuity. What do you think?

A: These two lines of thinking will exist. We will continue to argue for how to contain the bad and how to bring more positive outcomes based on the current situation.

What we are being attacked for the most now is related to emergency contraception pills. Many people do not see the lives of women who were saved by these pills.

We can’t amend the law or change the culture so we will have to do what we can. There are those who are grateful for us but don’t dare say so because of shame. Those who are not grateful for us speak out loudly.

Q: In some foreign countries, prostitution is legal, licensed and regulated. Proponents of this approach say it helps reduce transmission of sex-related diseases and crime rates to a certain extent. How come Burma only has a law to penalize sex workers and no legislation to protect them?

A: Like drugs, the prostitution business will never disappear completely. So, what should we do with something that will always exist? We can control it by granting official licenses and applying various strategies to prevent people from being harmed. Consequently, we can reduce social problems and crime.

Q: Do sex workers come to MSI regularly for medical check-ups?

A: Yes. We tried quite hard to reach that point because we had to come up with a special arrangement for sex workers to regularly receive medical check-ups on their free time. Some women cannot move around freely as their movement is restricted by pimps or others who manage their lives.

In terms of medical check-ups, even those who have regular incomes and live in urban areas do not prioritize it, so you can imagine the situation for those who do not have proper jobs, are poor or live in the country’s remote areas. Also, many people with official positions and military backgrounds do not think that health is something that they need to care about.

Q: I asked a number of women from karaoke and massage parlors, and ‘call girls,’ whether they received regular medical check-ups, and they said they had never done so.

A: We find it difficult still. When we tell those girls to keep condoms with them, they think we are accusing them of being sex workers. Even when we ask hotels to make condoms available inside, they respond that they are not prostitution-related establishments. Likewise, when we tell sex workers to take blood tests, they refused to do so, saying others will then know that they are involved in sex work. We still need to deal with these issues properly.

Q: What kind of attitude do you think communities and authorities should have toward sex workers in Burma?

A: As one of my teachers has said, ‘I just want them to enjoy the same rights as others and have an opportunity to live like human beings. That’s all.’ I am not trying to encourage this business, but I do not think they should be ill-treated for their occupation.

It seems to me that whenever an arrest order comes, it only targets those who are poor and cannot protect themselves. Efforts to stop this business appear to have suppressed poor people in it. This is not the way it should be.