Shan women and girls and the sex industry in South Asia; political causes and human rights implications


Beyrer, Chris. 2001. “Shan women and girls and the sex industry in South Asia; political causes and human rights implications.” Social Science & Medicine 53, 543-50.

Author: Chris Beyrer


The human rights abuses which occur during civil conflicts pose special threats to the health and lives of women. These can include rape, sexual violence, increased vulnerability to trafficking into prostitution, and exposure to HIV infection. The long-standing civil conflict in the Shan States of Burma is investigated as a contributing cause to the trafficking of ethnic Shan women and girls into the Southeast Asian sex industry, and to the subsequent high rates of HIV infection found among these women. The context of chronic human rights abuses in the Shan states is explored, as well as the effects of recent forced population transfers on the part of the Burmese Military Regime. Rights abuses specific to trafficked women may further increase their vulnerability to HIV and other STD. The need for a political resolution to the crisis in Burma is discussed, as are approaches aimed at preventing trafficking, empowering women already in the sex industry, and reducing the risks of HIV and other STD among these women and girls.

Keywords: Shan, Burma, Trafficking, human rights, HIV/AIDS, sex industry



“Given the chronic state of poverty, uncertainty, and threats to life and well-being, it should not be surprising that so many Shans have fled the Shan States, as refugees and as migrant or contracted workers to Thailand. Nor should it be surprising that trafficking networks have developed to move these workers from Shan areas into Thailand and onward to work sites throughout the country. (Beyrer, 1998?) The Thai government’s bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 375,000 Burmese, at least 2/3 of whom are Shans, were working illegally in Thailand in 1997. The Thai government and NGOs all agree however, that the actual figures are much higher, and typical estimates ranged from 900,000 to 1.2 million in 1997. During Thailand’s long economic “boom” period, these workers were tacitly welcomed, and did a significant portion of Thailand’s manual labor, on construction crews, road building, as agricultural and forest workers, and for women, as domestics and in the sex industry. In all of these industries, including sex work, Shan workers are illegal, vulnerable to exploitation, and subject to harassment and arrest by the Thai authorities.” (544-545)

“Although abduction happens, as does outright sale of daughters among the poorest of the poor, the trafficking road usually starts with a job offer. A girl is offered work as a waitress, a domestic, or in manual labor. Her family usually gets some money as an advance payment charged against future labor…This payment is the start of the debt-bondage. There are a limited number of trafficking routes into Thailand and all require bribes along the way. The three principal trafficking routes have been established through interviews with trafficked women. They include the Kengtung-Tachilek-Mae Sai-Chiang Rai route, a river route from eastern Shan State on the Kok river, to Mai Ai at the northern end of Chiang Mai Province, and down to Fang, and a route slightly further south, which crosses from the Shan hills to the Thai Province of Mae Hong Sorn. The bribes required to cross these borders are added to the women’s debt.” (546) 

Topics: Armed Conflict, Civil Wars, Gender, Women, Girls, Health, HIV/AIDS, Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights, Sexual Violence, Rape, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Sexual Slavery, Trafficking, Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking Regions: Asia, Southeast Asia Countries: Myanmar, Thailand

Year: 2001

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