Commentary: Bad girls go everywhere

Liz Hilton

Mar 6, 2009 (DVB), Burma and Thailand have been neighbors for thousands of years, long before anyone drew a line called a border. We grow the same crops, we celebrate the same festivals. If it rains on your house, soon it will rain on mine.

Your river becomes my river; in modern times your road joins mine. For thousands of years we have visited each other , for trade, for work, for play. We make war, we make love. It shouldn't be so surprising that in desperate times we still go to our neighbour's house.

One morning a woman waded across the narrow river that separates Burma from Thailand. She climbed the riverbank and slipped onto the streets of Mae Sai town. She wandered past the market and went into a small mini mart. There she stole a few small items, a cheap watch, some soap, a comb, a pencil. She was clumsy and was immediately discovered. The police were called and, just as she'd hoped, she began her journey to court and eventually to jail. In the back of the police pickup truck she smiled and rubbed her huge pregnant belly. She would give birth safely in a Thai jail. A nurse from a district hospital would deliver her baby. Her baby would be vaccinated. She would have enough to eat to be able to feed her baby. They would have shelter and clean water. She hoped for a 12-month sentence so her baby would be almost one year old by the time they were deported back to Burma.

How do we see her? Is she just a criminal? Is she pitiful or courageous? Is she smart or foolish? Is what she did right or immoral? Is she a bad woman or a good mother, providing the best she can for her unborn baby? Is she an embarrassment to the people of Burma or just to the military regime that has forced her hand?

Another story about a woman who finds her family's suffering unbearable and can see no future in Burma. She crosses the mountains, rivers and roads to come to Thailand. She comes to work to make money for herself and her family. Her father can pay the military to avoid forced labor; her brother can stay at the temple school instead of having to become a soldier; her daughter eats well every day; her mother is able to get some medicine and a new roof before rainy season. She works hard in a karaoke bar, she does a good job, she brings happiness to government workers, businessmen, journalists, doctors, tourists, professors and many other men who society values. She helps build up the Thai economy and when she has extra money she supports the orphanage in her hometown. In her spare time she studies so she can share what she learns when she goes back home. She joins all the pro democracy events and dreams of the day when Burma is free.

How do we see her? Is she just a criminal? Is she pitiful or courageous? Is she smart or foolish? Is she right or immoral? Is she a bad woman or a good daughter and sister, providing the best she can for her family? Is she an embarrassment to the people of Burma or just to the military regime that has forced her hand?

Looking for a better life

At least a million people from Burma are living and working in Thailand. They have all taken the long journey to build a better life for themselves and their families. They never saw a borderline drawn on the jungle floors they walked through or floating in the rivers they crossed. Only when they saw paved roads, schools and hospitals did they know they had reached a new country, Thailand, the land of their dreams for a better life.

They come looking for work , any work. Women may want to be teachers, sex workers, doctors, politicians, lawyers, economists, artists, astronauts or a million other things but in reality they are limited to choosing between less than a dozen jobs e.g. working in a factory, construction, sex work, domestic work, waitress, laundry or farming. Each decides what job to take depending on her contacts, experience, plans, skills etc.

Some decide, despite the stigma, that sex work is the job that offers them the best opportunity of reaching their dreams. They apply to work in a karaoke bar, a massage parlor or a bar beer and begin work in "prostitution". Even though she hasn't changed at all, in society's eyes she has stopped being one of us women and she has become "one of those women." She has moved out of the place society has assigned her. She is no longer a good girl who can only go to heaven, she is now a bad girl who can go everywhere!

'Not like us'

When speaking about prostitution, it is usually a discussion of "other". They aren't us, they are someone not as smart as us, not as morally strong as us, not as clean and good as us. They are people who are dangerous, dirty and immoral; or weak, helpless and voiceless. They are not part of our culture, not from our ethnic group, not from our religion, not from good families like ours. Or, if she happens to be any of these things, well then, she must be the victim of someone else who is not. They aren't like us, they must be treated differently than other people who are normal people. Their rights don't count quite as much, they don't deserve the same respect we do, they cannot be taken seriously, they should be avoided, they have less value and certainly cannot be treated as our equals.

It is common to hear the story of young women from Burma who are tricked into prostitution. We have all seen the pictures portraying suffering women, photos of women arrested by police or rescued from brothels. The photos show women sitting on the floor or in the police station. Black strips are printed over their eyes or they try to cover their faces in their hands. The caption calls them illegal foreign prostitutes; or victims: the victim of prostitution or the victim of trafficking. Then what? There is no space in society for either a criminal or a victim, except in a cage.

Is this what she deserves? Does she deserve to be caged? Does she deserve crippling pity , denying her strength, courage and the decisions she's made? Does she deserve to be looked down on, gossiped about and punished, as if providing for her family, her community and her country were a shameful thing?

Or could we consider that maybe , just maybe , she deserves to be admired as the generous, brave, smart, intrepid woman she is; that maybe at least she deserves to have her human rights and human dignity respected; that maybe she deserves the right to work safely and fairly in the work she has chosen to do.

Like every country in the world, there have been customers and sex workers in Burma for centuries. Prostitution continues under SPDC and certainly will not end with the end of military rule, or any other event, short of the destruction of the planet.

Sex workers don't expect anything from military dictatorships, but we do wonder what sex worker's lives will be like under a future democratic government of Burma. Will democracy be for all peoples of Burma or not? Will sex workers enjoy their full human rights, including the right to work? Will a new civil society in Burma include sex workers' voices? Does the future for the sex workers of Burma hold more than just a cage?

In the meantime, at Empower we see migrant sex workers from Burma as our heroes. We share our skills and our experience, we fight for a space in society to stand together to say that sex work is work and sex workers are workers.

Empower is a Thai organisation based in many major cities and Thai-Burma border towns.

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