Teenager Wut Yee was devastated when her mother, a sex worker, told her that she had just agreed to sell her daughter’s virginity to a businessman for $3,000.
Wut Yee, then 14, had quit school to handle household chores and look after her brother but had no other source of income.
The monsoon was coming and their thatch-roofed house in Yangon’s Hlaingthaya Township required urgent repairs. Her brother’s school fees and old debts also needed to be paid.
“The next morning, I had to follow this man after the doctor injected me with anaesthetics. He took me in his car to a house on the outskirts of town. I spent the whole day with him,” said Wut Yee, 16, recalling the events from two years ago.
“I wasn’t in pain when he sent me back home in the evening because of the medication, but I couldn’t walk properly,” the teenager told Myanmar Now, an independent news service supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Soon afterwards, Wut Yee, who asked that her real name not be used, ended up working at a massage parlour that doubles as a brothel near Bayint Naung market, one of Yangon’s busiest places. She quit after two months to work on the streets.
Due to the clandestine nature of sex work in Myanmar, it is impossible to know how many underage girls like Wut Yee are involved in the trade in Yangon, the country’s biggest city that is home to about five million of the nation’s 53 million people.
But interviews with sex workers and aid workers revealed it was not uncommon for teenage girls to end up in the industry which is illegal in Myanmar.
Aid workers warn the problem could get worse if not confronted by authorities as Myanmar society opens up after half a century of isolation under military rule. They say support and rehabilitation is more important than punitive measures.
“This issue is directly linked to poverty,” said Sid Naing, country director for Marie Stopes International Myanmar, which runs health education and support programmes.
“It is … important for society to not just criticise them, but to understand why it happened and help them get on the right path.” Naing said the practice of buying underage girls for sex is fuelled in part by superstitious beliefs that sleeping with virgins has health benefits, such as long life and curing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
Most underage girls leave rural areas for the cities due to a mix of family difficulties and few job opportunities, said Thu Zar Win from the Sex Worker in Myanmar Network.
“Most child sex workers enter this profession because their parents or guardians sold their virginity,” she said.
Government and United Nations figures in 2013 estimated that 0.45 per cent of Myanmar women aged between 15 to 49 years – an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 – are engaged in paid sex work.
Poh Poh, a 21-year-old sex worker who requested her real name not be used, said most girls who became sex workers via the virgin market faced difficulties leaving the industry.
Many tend to work in brothels disguised as beauty salons or massage parlours where it is safer than roaming the streets.
“I’m scared to ply the trade on the street,” said Poh Poh, a single mother who became a sex worker a year ago after separating from her husband.
Since Myanmar’s political reforms began, campaigners and opposition lawmakers have called for changes to the law on sex work, the 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act, which they argue limits workers’ access to healthcare and makes the women vulnerable to threats and harassment from security officials.
The law makes it illegal to solicit in public, force or entice a woman into sex work, and to operate or work in a brothel. It was amended in 1998 to increase sentences to up to three years in prison.
Sandar Min, a lawmaker with the opposition National League for Democracy, submitted a proposal in parliament calling for decriminalisation of sex work in 2013, but it was rejected.
Taw Win Khayay, a network of sex workers, is calling for an analysis and rewriting of the law.
Local media reported in July that a parliamentary committee proposed making procurement of sex punishable with jail of up to one year with hard labour and a fine. It also proposed adding a section on “rehabilitating” sex workers through education.
Major Thi Thi Myint, deputy head of Yangon Police’s crime statistics department, said 1,772 prostitution-related crimes were recorded in 2014 but few related to under-age workers.
“If we apprehend underage sex workers, we don’t send them to prison. We send them to youth rehabilitation schools and teach them vocational skills and general knowledge that would help them to leave this job,” she added.