Sex trade thrives in post-coup Burma: Research finds up to one third of unemployed factory workers turning to sex work
As unemployment rises in traditionally female sectors, those made jobless are left with few options. Researchers following Burma’s sex workers say that this desperation is leaving a growing number of women in precarious situations.
When Aye Aye, armed only with the ID card of a friend, found work at a factory in Hlaingtharyar, she thought it was her ticket to a stable future. But when the garment factory shut down, she was left with no compensation, and no money for her bus ticket home. Stuck in Yangon, she wandered into a KTV with a friend, seeking work as an entertainer.
“It’s not as good a job for me because the income is not guaranteed day-to-day. We get money depending on if customers visit: if there are no customers, we won’t get money,” she told DVB, adding that she makes at most about K10,000 (US$5.10) a day, compared to her previous monthly salary of K600,000 (US$309) a month. “The customers are also rare these days because of the country situation and the third wave of COVID-19.”
With tens of thousands more women in the same situation, Aye Aye is just one voice trying to find work on Yangon’s increasingly chaotic streets.
Since the coup, Burma’s sex trade has swollen with newly unemployed women, disproportionately drawn from the country’s collapsing garment trade and hospitality sector. Hundreds of thousands of women have been forced out of the formal economy; a minority have returned home to family or farm, but most have chosen to remain in cities, working odd-jobs to provide for themselves and others.
For those entering Burma’s sex industry, there is no social safety net. In neighbouring countries, decades of growth in the welfare provided by aid groups has provided a veneer of protection to sex workers; in Cambodia, for example, NGOs offer transport, skills training, and free healthcare services. In Burma, women have been left to fend for themselves in an increasingly volatile new environment.
“I wanted to work in the factory because it guaranteed a monthly income. Now, all I know is that if I work today, I eat today… Some days, I don’t have any money at all.”
No money also means no remittances sent home to Aye Aye’s family, a fact that weighs heavily on her.
In the first six months of 2021, the International Labor Organization found 250,000 jobs had been lost in Burma’s garment manufacturing sector, and that 86% of those now unemployed were female.
According to a study by business oversight group Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, 70% of 240 factories interviewed closed as they had no orders; fires (post-coup sabotage, insurance scams, and accidents), the imposition of martial law, and COVID-19 outbreaks surprisingly constitute a far smaller number of cases.
An organization, which asked to remain anonymous to safely continue its work in the country, conducted interviews with 500 workers, in research that focused on ways to assist newly unemployed women.
The group found that as many as one third of all former garment workers are turning to sex work as a way to meet the ever-pressing need for cash, food, and hygiene supplies. The garment sector’s decrease by 31% pushed women to diversify their income, with sex work and construction among the top alternatives.
“Some others went into housekeeping and cleaning. A large percentage went into sex work, so there was unfortunately a very disturbing rise in sex workers amongst these women,” said a representative from the organization.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done. There’s no social protection, no safety net, no access to justice—there’s a huge wage gap between the men and the women.”
Made illegal under the Prostitution Act of 1949, procuring or selling sex carries a sentence of up to three years, meaning sex workers also face doing time in Burma’s notorious jails.
Several female-centered organizations focusing on providing cash transfers, stable housing, and health services for these women. The Chairwoman of one of the groups, Hnin Hnin Yu of Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWiM), echos the experience of many when saying that, since their founding in 2009, SWiM’s donor base, as well as the availability of volunteer medics, has dried up amidst the civil disobedience movement and the banking crisis.
Based on what SWiM can offer, she says the sheer number of women in need of help can quickly overwhelm their capacity. A coalescence of desperation, resource scarcity, and low levels of sex education could be disastrous—SWiM is anticipating health crises.
“With a lack of supporting knowledge on sex work, the newer women could end up with diseases and unplanned pregnancy from a lack of birth control,” she said, adding that the group already assists in providing antiretroviral therapy and education campaigns for HIV. The spread of COVID-19 is another concern, and has already resulted in the deaths of sex workers, Hnin Hnin Yu said.
“SWiM predicts that the number of those contracting HIV and AIDS will increase in the next few years.”
Left to wander streets in search of clients, sex workers face increasing danger in a Yangon on the verge of lawlessness. With the closure of bars, massage parlours and KTVs due to COVID-19, Hnin Hnin Yu says women are now more vulnerable than ever to unpredictable and brutal violence:
“I’ve been witnessing rape cases recently. For example, the daughter of a prostitute was raped. There are some cases of sexual violence and abuse, but many victims are afraid to report to police stations because they are afraid to deal with them,” she said. “So, they told us... But what can we do?”
She said, quite apart from charging those performing assaults, local authorities are more likely to charge sex workers under the Natural Disaster Management Law, the same charge against former NLD leaders accused of spreading Covid-19 during travel to other regions of the country.
This lack of legal oversight is breeding a culture of manipulation, whereby clients simply refuse to pay, or force women to engage in sexual activity with more men than agreed upon.
It is not only clients that can take advantage of sex workers in their current state. Hnin Hnin Yu told DVB that she had seen cases where women had been snatched to work as unpaid porters by the military’s newly imposed local authorities, returning home battered and bruised.
Cultural norms also play a role in the women’s ability to speak out against abuse, says Burmese Women’s Union Representative Zue Zue, adding that sex work is perceived to be a completely unacceptable profession, reflecting a broader reluctance within Burma to countenance conversations on sex.
“[The taboo] is not only in mentioning this profession, we can’t even speak out about women's bodies publically,” says Zue Zue. “The public especially didn’t get enough sex education. Parents do not openly give knowledge about sex education. Schools never mention about sex education.”
Gaps in education and social programming are causing a host of other issues, making women more vulnerable to increased gender-based violence and discrimination. The anonymous organization carrying out research into Burma’s sex worker boom says that one way to provide social support and reduce stigma is to decriminalize the industry at its core.
“Unlike Cambodia, Thailand or elsewhere where this industry is very developed, that is not the case in Myanmar. There are no safety nets,” she said. “There is a lot of competition for aid provisions now, a lot of desperation. Many people have suffered violence in the course of actually having to sell their bodies.”
But despite the social taboo, Zue Zue says that, for most women, the feeling of responsibility in supporting their families through the coup still outweighs the risks involved in sex work: the trade of their body in exchange for staple goods is quite simply keeping them and their families alive.
“Most women are taking responsibility for their family so they can overlook the social taboos,” says Zue Zue. “A few months ago in Myanmar, oxygen cylinders and ventilators were very difficult to find, even if you had enough money. In this situation, a woman could sacrifice her body to get medical support for her family.”