|Trying to be on the right track|
By Moe Moe Oo
“I want to be out of it but I just can’t. I need money to support my mother,” says 20 year old Ma Htwe (not her real name), a commercial sex worker. She wears a face of fresh makeup, her lips were painted just a few minutes ago but her eyes become dull and tearful as she says this.
Ma Htwe lost her father when she was very young and she finds it difficult now to remember what he looked like. As a child, her mother suffered from poor health and Ma Htwe spent most of her time with the neighbours. At the tender age of 12, under the neighbour’s influence she was misguided into commercial sex work. With no food at home, she was happy to be able to make money on her own and buy food for herself and her sick mother. But if she didn’t bring money home, her step-father would beat her.
The happiness in her life stopped abruptly two months ago when she learned of her health status. She was seriously ill with a high fever for several days and received a blood-test at Township Health hospital in Myeik, her native town and learned that she is HIV positive.
She had heard of the disease named HIV/AIDS but never knew about modes of transmission, nor did she learn how to prevent herself from getting infected.
“I told my Mum about my disease. I’m very sad for that but I’m tough enough to live my life. Many people suffer from this or that disease. The only difference is the type of disease” she says with a maturity that belies her age.
Soon after her test, one of her friends took her to PSI’s Drop-in-Centre (DIC). There, she received counseling and health education on how to cope in the days ahead.
She says she has now learned the importance of using condoms and she now uses them regularly. She comes to the DIC every day to sleep, watch television and relax her mind.
“Thanks to the DIC, I can have regular meals. There were many days I had no money to buy lunch. I’m so happy to meet many people like me here, share our experiences and support each other to live happily and healthily” Ma Htwe said.
She doesn’t feel comfortable at all to go and visit or stay with her relatives, saying that “I don’t want to stain their reputation for having me at home”. The stigma extends to finding a job. “People here know each other quite well and don’t want to employ a girl like me”. She wishes to find a job that will take her away from sex work, but can’t find the opportunity – and says that within her situation she is trying her best to be on the right track.
Ma Me Me Kyaw has been working as a DIC Supervisor at PSI’s DIC since April, 2010. The DIC is mainly focusing on the behavior change of sex workers for their own safety and their partners’ by providing Voluntary Confidential Counseling Test (VCCT), referral for blood tests, travel expense and nutritional support. The DIC is also trying to open a General Health service clinic for DIC visitors.
“I always have private conversations with DIC visitors about their health and social life. Some people are very open. They don’t hide anything from us so that I can educate them very well and persuade their mind to stop whatever they are doing wrong and get back on the track. But, some people just like being who they are as they can make money easily or their own personal desire. For those kinds of people, I need to be very gentle with them and keep reminding to use condom” she explains.
Awareness of modes of transmission of HIV is still weak in Myeik. Some of the men still refuse to use condoms when they go to sex workers. As a result, some of the sex workers cannot use condoms even though they are aware and willing to because they don’t want to lose their job.
“I encourage all the girls who cannot stop their job for whatever reason to use condoms but I can’t help those who cannot use it due to their customer’s request. Ma Htwe is a very nice girl. Her mindset is very admirable. She doesn’t take the job if a man refuses to use a condom even if he pays more. She always tells me she doesn’t want to give her disease to others” Ma Me Me Kyaw said.
Against all odds she comes across, Ma Htwe is trying to be a nice girl by all means. She also wishes people like her to keep strong determination and not to spread the disease just for the sake of money.