Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Grace talks more about her campaign

"Selling Safer Sex in Conservative Burma"
Earning the trust of sex workers is another obstacle for HIV prevention and education. “We went to the clubs once a month as part of our HIV education and Aphaw condom promotion campaigns,” Swe Zin Htaik, once a well-known actress-turned-social activist who works with PSI, told The Irrawaddy.

Selling Safer Sex in Conservative Burma
by Htet Aung
September 1, 2007
HIV/AIDS education efforts face many obstacles
Gasps rippled through the group of young people gathered for a workshop on HIV/AIDS prevention and education in the former capital Rangoon. The girls covered their eyes, and the boys sent nervous glances anywhere but at the front of the room, where an instructor stood before an upright model penis.
“Look at it, please,” the workshop leader urged. “How can you learn to protect yourself against HIV if you are too shy to watch a demonstration about how to use a condom?”
This kind of response to condom education is typical in Burma, where an estimated 360,000 people currently live with HIV, according to a UNAIDS report in 2006.
Today, condoms can be easily obtained in retail shops in Rangoon and other major cities in Burma. But the country’s predominantly conservative culture can make them a difficult sell.
“I don’t sell condoms in my store any more because many of my staff are young girls who find it difficult to sell them,” said a shop owner in Kyeemyindaing Township, who said most of his customers are between the ages of 20 and 30.
Those who do manage to find shops with the nerve to sell condoms face still other social and cultural obstacles. Carrying a condom can create friction in a man’s social and family life.
In response to an interviewer’s question about condom use, a middle-aged man said: “Do you think I am a person who has relations with sex workers?”
Many people in Burma consider it immoral or dirty to talk about condoms and sex in public, and they view those who carry condoms for protection against disease in the same fashion—this, despite the relatively wide distribution of condoms in Burma.
Population Services International, a non-profit organization working on HIV/AIDS prevention in Burma, is the sole distributor of the Aphaw brand of condoms—a central element in the group’s social marketing campaign targeting sex workers and men having sex with men, or MSM.
PSI distributed 42.8 million condoms in Burma in 2005, many more than the 2.6 million distributed in 1996, when its social marketing campaigns began, according to the organization.
Efforts to educate sex workers about the threat of HIV/AIDS remain difficult, despite the success of its condom distribution programs.
To illustrate this point, a Rangoon resident recounted how an international NGO that had launched a blood test campaign at a city nightclub a few years ago had to cooperate with local police, who staged a raid at the club in order to conduct the tests.
Prostitution is against the law in Burma, so the sex industry generally operates out of restaurants or nightclubs.
Earning the trust of sex workers is another obstacle for HIV prevention and education. “We went to the clubs once a month as part of our HIV education and Aphaw condom promotion campaigns,” Swe Zin Htaik, once a well-known actress-turned-social activist who works with PSI, told The Irrawaddy.
She said the organization had to work patiently to build a network among sex workers. once a relationship had been established, the group selected potential peer educators among the sex workers to serve as “interpersonal communicators” at the group’s drop-in centers, where visitors could get condoms and information on HIV prevention.
The sex industry is growing in Burma’s major cities, such as Rangoon and Mandalay, where sex workers are easy to find.
“You can take a girl from a nightclub for 20,000 kyat (US $15) per night,” said one resident of Rangoon. “The JJ and May War clubs are popular places in Rangoon for finding sex workers. But even on the streets of the city, you can get a girl for as little as 2,000 kyat ($1.50).”
In their report “AIDS Epidemic Update: December 2006,” UNAIDS and the World Health Organization noted that nearly one in three sex workers in Burma were living with HIV in 2005—a much higher level than in 2000, when an estimated 26 percent of sex workers had the virus.
However, Burma’s military government is reluctant to admit to these statistics.
“In the period between 2000 and 2002, the authorities warned me that in Burma there were no sex workers, no men having sex with men and no mention of such words should appear in my communication campaign,” said Swe Zin Htaik.
She does admit that things have improved since the regime’s decision to launch a national HIV/AIDS prevention program at an Asean meeting in 2002. An increasing number of education and prevention programs exist, and condoms are more widely available throughout the country.
In addition to PSI’s distribution of Aphaw condoms—which the group sells at a subsidized rate of 5 kyat (less than 1 US cent) but which are generally marked up by retailers to about 50 kyat (4 US cents)—the condom brand Pleasure has also become popular in Burma.
Pleasure condoms sell for 800 kyat per package (60 US cents), more than 10 times the cost of PSI’s Aphaw, and are imported and distributed by Mega Products Ltd in Rangoon’s Bahan Township.
Despite some success, social workers and activists such as Swe Zin Htaik continue to face a two-front battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Burma. They contend with social constraints on the one hand, and the crushing bureaucracy of the country’s military government on the other.
According to the actress-activist, PSI and other organizations need prior approval from government authorities before initiating their campaigns or taking field trips—a process that can typically take up to two months.
Swe Zin Htaik likens her and other activists’ efforts to getting through a locked door. “What we need is the key to unlock the door rather than just knocking on it.”