‘I have to do this’: Myanmar garment workers forced into sex work by Covid

When Hla, 19, tried to go back to work seven months ago after having a baby, there were no jobs. Hundreds of garment factories in Myanmar had closed after western fashion brands cancelled orders due to the pandemic, leaving thousands of women jobless.

As lockdown gripped Yangon, her marriage broke down, her husband left, and her father had to sell his trishaw – no longer able to take passengers in the city. Her parents and baby were hungry. Five months ago, she became a sex worker.

“I feel very scared,” she says. “Since I’m always working in the dark, I try to be careful. I do this with my family in mind, thinking about how I’m going to feed them.”

Hla’s situation mirrors those of a growing number of women pushed into the sex trade to escape destitution, say campaigners. Covid-19 has dealt Myanmar’s garment industry several blows, beginning with a shortage of raw materials from China in February that closed factories and cost between 10,000 and 15,000 jobs.

Factories were ordered to temporarily suspend operations during Yangon’s first lockdown in April and then from 24 September until 21 October, as authorities struggled to protect the country’s weak healthcare system.

A regional minister told local media in September that 223 factories have filed for closure, temporary closure or redundancy. The latest round of job losses could be steeper than from January to July, when 60 factories laid off more than 40,000 workers.

Sex work nets Hla about 5,000 kyats (£3) a day during the current stay-at-home orders.

“We just stand around for a long time and wait for men to approach us,” she says. She no longer has time to spend with her baby. “I had to stop breastfeeding my child altogether so that I could do this work. Now we feed him rice and cheap milk powder.”

Khine, 30, lost her job with the closure of a Yangon factory six months ago. Her husband could no longer afford the rent for his trishaw. Now her sons, aged 16 and seven, beg her not to leave the house.

“They try to stop me and I tell them not to cry, that I have to do this for our survival,” she says.

Some men are sadistic with their sexual demands, others violent, “smacking my ears and face”, she says. “I get really scared and think what if he kills me.”

Some days she makes 7,000 kyats (£4.10); other days not enough to get the bus home. Then she walks, taking detours around stretches where men hurl abuse and assault her. When she gets home, she hopes neighbours have fed her sons rather than gossip about her.

“Some look down on me for doing this kind of thing and treat me like I’m less than them,” she says.

Khine is risking more than Covid-19. 5.6% of the country’s estimated 66,000 sex workers are estimated to be HIV positive, according to UNAids.

Hnin Hnin Yu, 48, founder of campaign group Sex Workers in Myanmar, became HIV positive in 2004 after four years of sex work. Her group has provided 200 women with personal hygiene items and prepaid supermarket cards in the past two months.

The government has also given sporadic instalments of cash, along with cooking oil and rice, to low-income families, although sex workers miss out if they lack official identification or have registered as full-time company employees to conceal what they do (sex work is illegal).

Yu says more women have entered the sex trade during the pandemic despite a drop-off in clients.

“Especially the girls who worked for factories that have closed during the pandemic,” she says. “They have to pay their rent and debts and feed their families. They have no option.”

Arrests have also increased, she adds, alongside a wave of domestic violence.

“Many are beaten up by husbands who tell them to go out and earn money for the family,” she says. “On the streets men sometimes leave without paying them, and police extort them by threatening to arrest; if they can’t pay they get arrested.”

Sex work in Myanmar is riddled with danger, but women also fear the police. Officers send informants for sting operations and convicted women face up to three years in prison.

“We try to stay away from the police,” says Hla. “With the lockdown curfew, we can’t find any clients past midnight, but sometimes I walk home around then and it really stresses me out.”

Kyi, 38, a sex worker for 14 years, says she has seen the streets fill with factory girls since April.

“A lot of them are naive and have no experience in this work, so they get easily arrested when they can’t differentiate between customers and police informants,” she says.

Kyi and other sex workers regularly sleep with police to avoid arrest, or bribe low-ranking officers. In return, the officers warn them when informants are in the area.

“It’s part of the game in this industry,” Kyi adds.

Many women hide the job from their families, among them Kyi, who says she works in marketing, because of the stigma.

In Hla’s family, the decision was made between daughter and mother. She expected a beating from her father when she told him, but he just stood there silent, she says.

Covid-19 remains a risk. Cases surged in Myanmar from a few hundred in August to the current figures of nearly 40,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.

“I am not worried about myself, I’m worried that I will pass it on to my family,” says Hla. “We’re already struggling so much and things will get worse if we get infected. We don’t have money so no one will treat us.”

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