She asked to be called Wutt Yee and she smiled at the name she had chosen for herself. This is not the real name of this 16 year-old girl, who lives in Hlaingthaya Township, some 30 minutes’ drive from central Yangon.
Two years ago, Wutt Yee’s father became very ill, turning her life upside down. The eldest of four children, she decided it was her responsibility to drop out of school so she could help her family pay the bills. At first, she helped her mother sell salads at the side of a busy road but they were still not making enough money to cover her father’s medical expenses and her siblings’ school fees.
“A friend told me I could earn more money selling sex. I decided do to it,” Wutt Yee reveals. She was just 14 years old. “I didn’t know anything about anything. I only cared about my father’s health,” she says.
During the day, Wutt Yee continued helping out at her mother’s small business, but at night she started selling sex to adults. “I sit near tea houses and when I meet a client we usually go to a shed built in the nearby bushes,” she says.
Adults who exploit Wutt Yee for sex violate her rights as a child and put her at grave risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. “I didn’t have any idea how to protect myself. I didn’t know what condoms were,” she says. As a result, she only had safe sex when the adults requested it.
Wutt Yee was found by volunteers from the Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWIM) Network during their daily health and HIV prevention campaigns.
“I was terrified when I understood I could have contracted HIV. I immediately burst into tears thinking that I could be sick and would no longer be able to support my family,” she recalls. With the support of SWIM Network, she decided to take the test. “It took me a while to open the result. I cried with happiness when I found out I was HIV negative.”
Throughout the whole process, Wutt Yee was supported and accompanied by SWIM volunteers. Since then, they have been in contact three times a week. For adolescents like Wutt Yee, having these ‘big sisters’ makes a huge difference.
“There wasn’t any other organisation providing this kind of support to these girls at risk”, explains Khin Cho Win, one of the SWIM Network project managers. “Health awareness can make a difference in their lives. As their big sisters and as sex workers ourselves, we can support them in a more effective way. There is no criticism or judgement.”
SWIM Network works in 10 regions across Myanmar. It provides HIV/AIDS prevention sessions, legal support services, condom distribution, vocational training, small grants, and/or HIV tests and counselling. These services are provided in the streets and in brothels, or at SWIM’s drop-in centres, where girls and women are welcome at any time of the day or night.
At least twenty adolescents have been using the centre as a safe haven. For Pann Ei Phyu (name changed), everything is new – both the centre and her recent life at a brothel. The 16 year-old orphan started selling sex some four weeks ago, receiving around $200 USD per month. She was found by the ‘big sisters’ a few days ago.
“I don’t know anything about sexually transmitted diseases that might threaten my life”, she admits. “I never asked any client to use condoms, it just happened that all of them had the initiative to use it.”
There are no circumstances in which using children for sex is acceptable. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is no such thing as a child prostitute – any child under the age of 18 selling sex is a victim of sexual exploitation. It takes away their childhood, and puts them at risk of HIV.
According to a new report, ‘Adolescents: Under the Radar in the Asia-Pacific AIDS Response’, the region is facing a ‘hidden epidemic’ of HIV among adolescents. Published by the Asia-Pacific Inter-Agency Task Team for Young Key Populations, including UNICEF and UNAIDS, the report shows that although new HIV infections are falling overall, they are rising among at-risk adolescents.
There were an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15-19 in 2014, accounting for 15 per cent of new infections. There are now around 220,000 adolescents living with HIV in the region, including an estimated 7,700 in Myanmar, one of the most affected countries.
The groups of adolescents particularly at risk include not only young girls and boys who sell sex, but also men who have sex with men; young people who inject drugs; and young transgender people. UNICEF is working with governments throughout the Asia-Pacific region to ensure they meet their obligations to protect adolescents’ health.
In Myanmar, UNICEF has been working with the National AIDS Programme to develop and implement policies that allow adolescents to access HIV testing without consent from an adult, and to improve prevention and treatment services.
“Given the high vulnerability of adolescents at-risk of HIV and the increasing mortality rate among those living with HIV, addressing national policies for HIV prevention and treatment is a priority”, says Pa Pa Win Htin, UNICEF Myanmar HIV/AIDS Specialist. “We are supporting the Government to strengthen its responses for adolescents, to ensure their specific needs are met.”
As part of these efforts, a music video has been produced to raise awareness of the risks of HIV and promote testing among at-risk adolescents. Adolescent counselling training for health service providers will begin soon to improve the quality of care and treatment. Finally, an electronic patient management system, which facilitates medical follow up and treatment adherence, is being piloted in three hospitals.
Wutt Yee’s father died a year ago, but she is still selling sex every night. “After I met the big sisters, I stopped having sex without a condom. I explain to the younger girls everything I know about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases,” she says. “At home and in my neighbourhood, I explain to children how to be safe, and not fall into prostitution. I don’t want them to have this life, that’s why I talk about it.”
Wutt Yee doesn’t want to live this way much longer either. She is saving money to take a sewing course. “I want to learn how to sew so I can open a little business at my house,” she says with a big smile. “I want others to dress well. I want to make nice clothes for my siblings and, if possible, for myself as well.”
Mariana Palavra is Communication Specialist at UNICEF Myanmar