Thursday, April 26, 2007

Myanmar: Poverty Drives Hidden Sex Industry

A street vendor in Myanmar sells condoms. An estimated 20-30% of
prostitutes here have HIV.
(AFP/File/Khin Maung Win)

YANGON, MYANMAR -- Sandar was 13 years old when her mother talked her into selling her virginity to help pull the family out of poverty.

Two decades later and still far away from that goal, Sandar has been arrested for prostitution more times then she can recall, jailed twice, and forced to pay bribes or have sex with policemen in exchange for her freedom.

Her friend Sei Sar Nyo, who sits beside Sandar grasping her hand, has been beaten for asking clients to use a condom. Sei Sar Nyo's family no longer talk to her, and she faces regular abuse in socially conservative Myanmar.

Despite the hardships, Sandar, who gave one name only and is now 33, and Sei Sar Nyo, 25, laugh when asked what other job they would do.

Nothing else would pay so well, they say.

"I'm not interested in any other business," says Sei Sar Nyo. "If I worked in a company I would earn 30,000 kyat (about 24 US dollars) in a month -- in this job I earn that in a night."

These two women come from very different social backgrounds, but ended up in Yangon's underground sex industry for the same reason -- to support their families in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Both are now working during the day for international charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), but their nights are spent selling sex in the city's brothels, restaurants and karaoke bars...


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