Sex work has been illegal in Myanmar since the 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act. The punishment is up to three years in prison. This punitive legal framework is a major obstacle to scaling up HIV care and other health services. It also leads to treatment disruption for sex workers as they are often denied access to ART while in prison. This can result in drug resistance, treatment failure and the progression to advanced HIV infection and AIDS. To address these challenges, country partner Aye Myanmar Association (AMA), a sex worker-led network in Myanmar, is demanding the law is changed and has been involved in drafting a new act.

An unusual partnership

AMA is receiving support for their demands from a perhaps unexpected source. Under the military regime, political activists and sex workers were often imprisoned together, which led to an unusual, but enduring, partnership. One of the people to get to know sex workers in prison is political activist Daw Sander Min, who was imprisoned for campaigning on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The sex workers had been locked up under Myanmar’s harsh laws against sex work. Some of the activists are now Members of Parliament and remain supportive of the sex work movement. Listen to a BBC documentary about this remarkable alliance

Draft law on sex work

The process of developing a draft law on sex work started in 2015. Members of the sex work movement began by collecting stories and recommendations from sex workers throughout Myanmar. During this process, sex workers openly discussed the challenges they face with Members of Parliament. The commission in charge of law reform finally agreed to review the law in May 2017.

Educating the police on rights

So far, sex workers have had twelve meetings with policy makers, Members of Parliament and representatives of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Home Affairs to develop the new law. During these meetings, sex workers presented their recommendations and priorities, such as the discontinuation of sex worker arrests and educating police on the rights of sex workers.

A 28-year old sex worker in Yangon, Myanmar:

The police is not much interested in arresting us these days. They know that if they arrest us, we will call AMA. And then AMA staff will come to the police station and release us. If we have a problem with our boyfriends, we can tell them that we will complain to AMA as well, and that they will help us to file a case. Now we have a place where we can get help for harassment by anyone.

Reviewed by civil society

The draft law is now being reviewed by the Law Reform Commission and civil society representatives. It will then be sent to the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament for approval. If there is no objection from Parliament, the proposed law will be published in Myanmar’s national newspaper for suggestions from the general public. Any citizen of Myanmar can then give their opinion within a period of two weeks. If there are no objections within that time, the draft bill will pass into law.