Myanmar: Empowering Sex Workers to Prevent HIV
By Mette Hartmeyer and Sidney Traynham
February 16, 2011—Ma Thaw is a local community activist in Yangon, Myanmar. She uses drama and her network of friends to promote health and reverse discrimination in her community.
Another aspect to her life: She is a sex worker and is living with HIV.
“My positive status is very difficult to disclose to other persons, including my own family, my friends, and people in my community,” states Ma Thaw (whose name has been changed to protect her identity). She is fearful to publicly share her status, because she feels she could be additionally discriminated against and made a further outcast from her community.
After she learned of her status, one of her friends introduced her to a local self-help group to start getting information and education about what it means to live with HIV. The women in this group who welcomed Ma Thaw are part of a larger network of self-help groups linked to the organization, the Myanmar Positive Group (MPG).
“Now I have the chance to come and work here at MPG and get a little training in computers,” explains Ma Thaw after a recent coordination meeting with other self-help group leaders. “Wherever I go, I cannot get a good job because of this stigma and because I don't have an education. Most sex workers have a very low level of education.”
She now helps with HIV prevention training to educate others. “I am a sex worker and I am positive, and I have many experiences of discrimination. So I educate non-positive sex workers about how to protect against HIV,” she shares.
Kathrine Alexandrowiz, the head of programs for CWS Asia Pacific, has been working alongside and supporting MPG for more than a year. She notes, “We can’t necessarily change the exploitation of the sex industry in Myanmar overnight, but we can work directly with those who are most vulnerable in ways that promote dignity, health and safety.”
The network that MPG has created throughout Myanmar is one of the best prevention, awareness and care activities happening in the country, reports Alexandrowiz. “Their reach into communities is an incredible source of hope for people who have nowhere else to turn, particularly when they learn news that will change their life forever,” she shares. The partnership between CWS Asia Pacific and MPG is supported through funding from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
Through counseling, peer education and workshops, MPG is working to lessen the gap between people living with HIV and medical service providers. The workshops aim to train self-help group members to learn how to manage their own health status as well as that of their friends. They also learn more about the different kinds of treatments and various side effects.
With the knowledge and skills that Ma Thaw has gained through MPG, she continues to help her peers with the many challenges that sex workers face in Myanmar. “We discuss how to avoid not using a condom, and the dangers of non-condom use,” she says. Yet she adds that the pressure to not use condoms not only comes from clients, but it also can come from the police.
“Sometimes we are arrested with the evidence of a condom,” notes Ma Thaw. She says that police can use possession of a condom as a sign that someone is a sex worker.
“The only way that we can bring about lasting change is to dramatically increase the awareness of communities,“ says Alexandrowiz. “Our goal is for MPG to continue to empower its group members with knowledge so that they multiply and become local resources among their own families, friends and peers in order to connect people with assistance and decrease the prevalence rate of HIV in Myanmar.”
While living with HIV for the past decade, Ma Thaw has been on antiretroviral drugs for the past four years and is quite healthy today. She remains grateful for the acceptance she has found in her group and the sense of purpose she has to help her peers to prevent the spread of HIV.
Her group is called, Shwe Nyiama, or Golden Sisters.
How You Can Help
You can support projects like these that create education, prevention, treatment and awareness through the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, UMCOR Advance #982345. Through 20/20: Visioning an AIDS-Free World, a gift of $20 a month until 2020 can stop the transmission of HIV from mother to child, teach young adults about HIV prevention, and feed an HIV-positive person, that enables them to take their medicine and lead a productive life.
Mette Hartmeyer and Sidney Traynham work with CWS Asia Pacific.