Many people visit the street in Shweli where the bars are. Shweli, also known as Ruili, is a Chinese town on the Sino-Burma border. A few years back and as the sun went down, Nwe Ni (not her real name) could be seen at one bar, putting on make-up and waiting for customers to take notice. To pass the time, she would talk with her friends, perhaps sharing a joke or two. Nwe Ni was a sex worker.
Nwe Ni was a 17 year-old girl from Kyauk Pantaung town in Mandalay Division. She had brown skin and was about 5 feet 2 inches tall. She didn’t really enjoy working at the bar, though. Before Nwe Ni came to Shweli, a trafficker had sold her into prostitution to a bar in Muse, a border town in northern Shan State. The bar paid 300,000 kyat (about US $390) for her.
"I never thought I would have to work like that just to survive," Nwe Ni told me as she started to speak about her life.
Nwe Ni had studied as far as 9th standard at a school in her hometown. However, she had to leave school to help her family. Their house caught fire and the damage was severe, meaning more hardship. Although her father worked for the government, he could not support the family with his meager salary.
"I had to stop my education and become a vendor as there wasn’t not enough money,” she said. “So, I sold fresh vegetables at the market. I got some money by doing this but, even with my income added to my father’s salary, it still wasn’t enough. I had to think for a long time about how I could solve this problem,” she continued.
"One day, a woman who was my neighbor lent me 20,000 Kyat at 30 percent interest. I thought this neighbor was sympathetic,” Nwe Ni remembered. “With the money, I was able to open a small shop near the bus station where I sold cigarettes and betel nut. This brought in enough money to live on but I still had to pay back the loan. That I couldn’t do. My costs were so high, so I had to focus on simple survival rather than on paying back the money.”
Nwe Ni, though only 17 year-old, was determined to ease the family’s economic hardship. One day she met someone who seemed to have all the answers.
"I spoke with a woman who worked as a broker,” Nwe Ni explained. “She told me there was a good job available in Shweli. I would not have to pay the travelling costs and the salary was 30,000 kyat a month. I was very interested in this so I talked it over with my family members. My family trusted the broker because she was a good speaker and very persuasive. On top of that, she gave us 15,000 kyat up front. My family gave me permission to go to Shweli and I was excited by the thought that I might earn 30,000 kyat by the end of the next month.”
The broker also told her that she would not have to pay for food or accommodation. She’d never been to Shweli before and had no experience of long distance travel. Nonetheless, she was excited by the prospect of this trip, which seemed to offer so much.
The distance between Nwe Ni’s hometown of Kyauk Pantaung and Shweli was at least 230 miles. She took a bus from Kyauk Pantaung to Mandalay, then another from Mandalay on to Pyin-Oo-Lwin. Finally, she took a third bus via Lashio to Muse, the border town and last stop before Shweli in China.
Once in Muse, however, she soon began to wonder what was going on.
“What I had imagined would happen and what actually did were totally different,” she said. “I overheard the broker talking with another man, a stranger. Then I was put in a room. The woman told me to take a shower, change clothes and just wait. Then the broker went outside. Sometime later, maybe around 8 pm, a girl called for me and brought me to a restaurant. The girl told me it was my job to take care of the customers.”
Nwe Ni had been told before she left home that she would be working as a waitress. It would not take long before she realized how big a lie that was.
“One night, the broker told me that I didn’t need to work as a waitress in the restaurant and that I should take a rest in my room. So I did what she said. At about 10 pm, there was a knock on the door and I opened it. There was a man. He came into my room without saying anything. The man didn’t understand Burmese and he was drunk. He then began to rape me. I shouted out, but nobody came up to help me,” she revealed painfully.
“The next day, the broker came to my room and handed over 50,000 Kyat (about US$ 50),” New Ni told me.
“This is for you,” the broker told her. “It is up to you whether you take it or not.”
There are many young ladies like Nwe Ni. They travel from their homes and often cross borders looking to better their lives and to help family members back home. Many fall prey to unscrupulous brokers who are really human traffickers and those girls end up in the sex industry.
Despite her shock and pain, Nwe Ni took the money. Her family needed it badly and she felt trapped with little choice. In Burmese culture, as well as in other Asian ones, there is a big stigma associated with being a sex worker. They are looked down upon by society. Nwe Ni herself felt the work was unclean.
After the rape, her life became like water in the hands of brothel owners. Her life depended upon them. If they wanted her to do something, she had to comply. After some time in Muse, Nwe Ni crossed the border to Shweli. She found a brothel there to work at and the owner taught her some useful Chinese words.
"In Shweli, I had to talk with customers outside the brothel and on the street. While I stood at the roadside, I felt ashamed and later cried at night. This was upsetting. Tears ran down on my face," Nwe Ni said.
They were six other girls working at the brothel. The owner was harsh and required each girl to earn at least 1,200 yuan (US$170) each night for him. This was not always possible and when their earnings fell short the girls were beaten. The owner would also confiscate other money the girls had earned. Nwe Ni recollected how bad it was:
“I had lost track of time and was unable to sleep much. Sometimes I was beaten. The brothel owner would get very angry with us whenever customers complained to him when they weren’t satisfied with the sex. Also, the brothel owner’s assistants beat us with hard wooden sticks. They beat us on our backsides, on the upper part of our waists and on our heads. We girls were forbidden to speak to each other and we were closely watched by the owner’s assistants."
Another fact emerged, Nwe Ni discovered. The same trafficker who had brought Nwe Ni to Muse and then to Shweli and the brothel owner in Shweli were working together as business partners. Nwe Ni also received a letter from her parents. She learned that broker was sending the promised salary, 30,000 kyat, to Nwe Ni’s parents. But they weren’t told the real nature of her work.
Nwe Ni’s parents thanked her for helping the family out and for working so hard as a waitress. She felt pain and cried when she read those words.
There was worse to come. Two years later she received a letter from her mother telling Nwe Ni that her younger sister, only 15 years old, was coming to Shweli with the same broker who had brought her there. Nwe Ni was heartbroken. She knew what was going to happen.
"My mother permitted my sister to follow me with the help of the same broker,” Nwe Ni said. When I asked my sister why she came to Shweli, she replied ‘I am just following what you did.’
“My sister also told me that our grocery shop near the bus station was shut down by the government because it had decided to expand the road the shop was on,” Nwe Ni continued. “In my mother’s letter, she requested that I ask my boss to please give my sister a job in the same restaurant so we could work together."
According to Nwe Ni, she repeatedly asked the brothel owner to let her younger sister go home. He refused.
"My sister was too good looking,” she said. “Chinese customers liked girls with faces like hers. Also, my family was advanced 100,000 Kyat (about US$ 100) before my younger sister came to Shweli. Therefore, I felt I couldn't do anything and was upset over what happened to my sister. My sister was very shy, especially about being a sex worker, and she was very afraid of the brothel owner. She cried many times and for many nights because she was being beaten. I tried to encourage my sister as best I could. That was all I could do."
The brothel house owner separated the two girls because he was afraid they would try to escape from his business.
Nwe Ni was also afraid of being arrested by either the Chinese or Burmese police. She cried for many days and nights. She wanted to escape from the brothel but she couldn’t.
After one more year working at the brothel, Nwe Ni was able to get away with the help of a Burmese anti-human trafficking group. What happened was this:
“One night, a group of people grabbed me when I was waiting for customers. I thought I was being arrested. I was wrong. They explained to me that they were helping me to escape from this brothel. After hearing their explanation, I was overjoyed and thanked them.”
But not everything went well. “I attempted to find my younger sister but I couldn’t find her. The brothel owner had moved her to another place,” Nwe Ni said.
Nwe Ni was able to save about 200,000 Kyat (US$ 200) after five years of working in brothels, largely from the tips customers had given her. She then learned that, aside from the 100,000 kyat advance for her sister, the broker was only remitting 15,000 kyat (US$15) per month instead of the agreed upon 30,000 for her sisters wages.
“My family told me that my sister was not doing such a good job and that was the reason for the difference in salary. I was very upset to hear about this felt frustrated because I didn’t know how I could respond,” Nwe Ni explained.
People began to gossip in Kyauk Pantaung as word got out that Nwe Ni had worked as a prostitute. People looked down on her. Nwe Ni’s voice shook as she spoke about how that felt. Her family moved to another place to live. Her father was depressed when he realized the reality of his daughters’ lives in Shweli and afterwards died.
Nwe Ni decided to go to work again in Shweli town again because her family’s economic situation had by no means improved and there were was no work in Kyauk Pantaung. However, she had no intention of becoming a sex worker again.
This time, she sold vegetables in the Shweli market in the mornings and worked as a waitress at a noodle shop in the evenings. After three years in Shweli, Nwe Ni was reunited with her younger sister after an anti-human trafficking group was able to spring her from the brothel. Now, they work together and send money back home.
Nwe Ni dreams of returning home some day. "If the community doesn't push me out, I would like to go back home and work as an ordinary citizen like other people do. I want to live together with my whole family," she told me.
Nwe Ni’s story is not unique. Many Burmese girls have become sex workers out of necessity or through trickery. Until Burma’s structural problems, such as the pervasive economic hardship and lack of jobs, the political instability, the sheer costs of social dislocation, and lack of education are addressed forthrightly, many young women from Burma will find themselves following in her path.