The Suppression of Prostitution Act, which is adapted from a colonial-era law, carries a jail term of up to three years for sex workers.
Under this law, police can prosecute anyone considered to be “loitering with intent to solicit” and there have been cases in which condoms were used as evidence to charge women with prostitution.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has been making efforts to amend the law in order to protect sex workers. Dr. Sid Naing from Marie Stopes International, who is a specialist in combating HIV and also participating in amending the Suppression of Prostitution Act, recently talked to The Irrawaddy’s Thazin Hlaing about the proposed amendments to the law.
What part are you playing in amending the law?
The law was enacted after independence, and it was then called the Elimination of Prostitution Law. It was wishful thinking to say it would ever be eliminated. Later, it was changed to the Suppression of Prostitution Law. Unfortunately, people are suppressed as the name suggests.
The law was promulgated with the goodwill to prevent [women] from entering the [sex] industry. In reality, the reverse has happened as this law has contributed to the spread of communicable diseases including HIV. This law has become harmful legislation for the people.
Another thing to note is the women affected by this law. They are forced into this industry either because they are poor or exploited.
But they have to adopt a ‘let it be’ attitude after getting into this industry, otherwise they will have to hang themselves. But seeing them happy, people jump to the wrong conclusion and think they get into the industry because they are naturally rotten.
This law threatens public health. Though its intention is to prevent and protect [sex workers], it in fact causes bigger problems and social injustices. So, lawmakers and scholars have worked to amend it.
This law is important for the prevention of communicable diseases. We are participating thanks to the invitation of legislative committees, commissions and government agencies.
What is your personal view of the 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act?
The law carries penalties for both sex workers and pimps. It also allows the police to use a person’s reputation as a sex worker to arrest her, even after she stops being a sex worker. There was no provision in this law, but for many years, condoms were used as an evidence of prostitution in [police] procedures.
Authorities have issued a formal order to change this procedure. And courts no longer consider condoms as evidence to convict. But not everyone in the street knows of the change. They only know that it is criminalized.
What is the impact of the law on sex workers?
As prostitution is criminalized, they have difficulty in getting blood tests, and receiving counseling and medical care.
What provisions do you think should be amended?
According to my knowledge about international practices, prostitution needs to be decriminalized, especially against women. We don’t need to legalize the industry as some suggest. It is impossible in our country due to religious and cultural restrictions. But I’m afraid the law won’t be changed that far.
So, what are the proposed changes?
The jail term and fine will be reduced. They get into this industry because of poverty, and it is hard for them to pay the heavy fine. They will only fall deeper into the spiral if they have to pay.
Other important amendments will criminalize the prostitution of women without their consent, and the prostitution of children with or without consent. Another one is in regards to human trafficking – transporting someone from one place to another and forcing them into a sex-related industry. We will also criminalize this.
How high is HIV prevalence among sex workers in Myanmar compared to other countries?
It is 5.4 percent, not very high nor low.
Does this percentage include only those who are receiving treatment?
Illiterate and poor sex workers, as well as those who got into the sex industry because of debts, won’t seek medical care. It is not convenient for them to go to NGOs and health departments. What’s worse, some pimps bar them from going outside, and even when health officials come [to their brothels], they hide them, far from getting blood tests. This is the worst part of the problem. The illiterate, poor, and migrants are the most vulnerable groups.
Some voluntarily come and receive treatment [at health centers]. But mostly, we have to go to their places with the help of their peers. This is also the same for intravenous drug users. They get infected because they share needles in a group. So, we have to give medical treatment through their peers as they only trust each other.
Some believe that rape cases may decline if prostitution is legalized. What is your view on this?
Personally, I think this is not the case. But I’m happy that there is such a belief because it will relieve the burden on female sex workers.
What do you think of the cultural and religious points of view that there should be no prostitution?
It has nothing to do with religion. Every nation in the world has prostitution. There are religions that suppress prostitution more than we do. But in the case of our country, the way prostitution is banned is wrong. Debate on this from religious and cultural perspectives will never solve the problem. What is important is in any society, there should be no business that exploits the poor.
Translared from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.