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Sex workers on the rise in Rangoon

Dec 17, 2009 (DVB), More women and young men are resorting to prostitution in order to scrape a living in Burma's former capital of Rangoon, local residents and social workers have said.

Despite strict laws banning prostitution in Burma, owners of brothels and massage parlours are bribing police and local authorities to turn a blind eye, a Rangoon-based civil servant told DVB.

The increase is likely to cause alarm among health workers following a recent United Nations report that found that 18 percent of female sex workers in Burma carry the HIV virus. The report did not mention statistics for male sex workers.

"Before you saw only girls; it was rare to see boys," said a social worker at an organisation tackling HIV/AIDS in Burma. "Their networks are also numerous; the majority of them tend to be on flyovers and in public toilets."

According to a Rangoon resident, many of the young sex workers hail from nearby Irrawaddy, Mon, Karen and Bago divisions. Since cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008, leaving 2.4 million homeless, sex worker numbers in Rangoon have soared.

Many leave home and end up in the industry after telling their parents they are pursuing work as housemaids or factory workers in Rangoon, he said, although many are thought to be lured by false promises of high-earning jobs. Money is then remitted back to families.

"As the commodity price is rising and they have no regular income, they have to do whatever job they can find," said the social worker, adding that it is hard to survive on a factory worker's salary.

She said that crackdowns by police in Rangoon are causing the problem to become cyclical, especially when family members are forced to step in to the role to continue the flow of remittances.

"There have been arrests, but if they arrest one, two more emerge," she said. "If one girl is arrested and imprisoned, her younger sisters follow her path to feed both their family at home and their [imprisoned] sister."

According to the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) programme, HIV/AIDS is leveling off overall in Burma, but remains high in marginalized populations such as sex workers and injecting drug users. Across Asia, around 350,000 were newly infected with the virus last year.

The Burmese government has been heavily criticized for its low spending on healthcare; around $US43 per person per year, according to the World Health Organisation.

"The government gives no medication, no registration, and seems to claim that there are no prostitutes here," said the civil servant. "It will never do anything. The more die, the better it is; that's the attitude."

An estimated 25,000 Burmese sex workers are earning a living in neighbouring Thailand, where the industry feeds off high tourist numbers. It is estimated that 60 percent of Burmese sex workers in Thailand are under 18.

Reporting by Ahunt Phone Myat


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