The life of a young trafficked woman
October 19, 2012
“Ma Mya,” an alias, is a 19-year-old ethnic Pa-Oh woman from Mon State in southern Burma. The narrative of her life traces the risks and challenging decisions that often confront young women who have no education, no community support system, and limited employment opportunities. Ma Mya’s account illustrates the vulnerability, and ultimately the strength, that can develop out of adversity.
Ma Mya’s principal childhood memories consist of the gradual loss of her family, beginning with her father’s death when she was very small. Her three brothers were subsequently separated from her and her mother, and to this day she does not know where they are. When Ma Mya turned 10, a Burmese general living in her village took her to Yangon and placed her with a family as a domestic worker earning 4,000 kyat (150 baht) per month. The young girl had no training and did not always understand her duties, which led to harsh punishments by her employers.
“I was so young at that time and I didn’t understand what my boss wanted me to do. If they came home and I had not finished my jobs, they would beat me. I wanted to leave and be with my mother, but the owner of the house said my mother had sold me to them and I could not go home. When I heard that I felt so sad. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to see my mother again.”
Ma Mya was never able to confirm whether she was indeed sold because her mother died during her employment in Yangon. The family she worked for was aware of her mother’s declining health, but did not inform Ma Mya until after the death. At that point, the employer took her back to the village and cancelled her work obligations, but she had missed the funeral ceremony. She was still only 10 years old.
Ma Mya remained in her village and lived with one of her father’s relatives. She pieced together a small income working as a day laborer in town or on local farms, but her caretakers eventually said they were unwilling to feed her and asked her to leave the house. Having no other family, she and a few close friends travelled to Yangon in the hopes of finding domestic work. This time, she secured a job with a monthly salary of 10,000 kyat (370 baht), but had to work almost 20 hours a day. Her employer owned a manufacturing business, and when she completed the house cleaning duties she was expected to work in the factory at night. She described how two months of the grueling schedule and hardly any sleep led her to quit and return reluctantly to her village.
In 2010, shortly after her departure from Yangon, Ma Mya met a woman “broker” who provided passage to Thailand for migrant workers. At the age of 16, Ma Mya and two other local women were smuggled through Myawaddy and across the Thai border to the town of Mae Sot. She quickly found domestic work but was later fired due to her inability to communicate in Thai. She then made her way to Bangkok and got a job in a large pineapple-packing factory. Ma Mya did not have a temporary passport or migrant identification card, and was required to evade immigration officials.
“While I was working in the pineapple factory, I had to escape from the authorities two times. We [the workers] had to run outside and hide in the woods. One time when the police came to our factory, I was so scared of them that I ran into the bushes without my shoes. It was raining and it was almost midnight. The police finally left, and by the time the manager came to get us it was nearly 4am.”
One month later, the police conducted a surprise raid and arrested hundreds of undocumented factory workers, including Ma Mya. The detainees were transferred just over the border to the Burmese side of Three Pagodas Pass, where Ma Mya met someone who gave her a job at a wig and clothes factory. The 70 baht she earned each day was scarcely enough to cover her expenses, and the appeal of higher wages back in Thailand began to tug at her thoughts.
In 2011, Ma Mya met an ethnic Mon woman broker who invited her to work at a restaurant in Bangkok. The job would pay 5,000 baht per month, included meals, and the broker’s own daughters were already there and would be her coworkers. Ma Mya was pleased with the offer and agreed to pay the woman 8,000 baht out of the income she would make on arrival.
For the first two months back in Thailand’s capital city, Ma Mya’s life seemed to unfold just as the broker had promised. She worked as a waitress and lived with the broker’s three daughters, ages 14, 16 and 19. She made 4,000 baht per month, less than the broker had indicated, but enough to cover her expenses. However, she noted the difficulty she had making adequate payments toward her debt.
The restaurant owner was a Thai woman who also ran a massage business across the street, and she soon asked Ma Mya to consider working there instead. Ma Mya refused, but was eventually persuaded to learn massage and switch locations. As a masseuse, she made 100 baht per customer but was no longer supported with free food from the restaurant.
“Sometimes I got three customers and earned 300 baht for the day. There were a lot of women from Burma in the massage parlor, between 19 and 25 years old. I also saw four or five children working there, but I don’t know what they were doing. We never got to talk to each other much on the job. When we ate lunch on the street outside, we would see each other for just a few minutes.”
The time in Bangkok felt very lonely to Ma Mya, who was unable to speak the language, in debt to her broker, and lacking documentation to travel. Even if she could leave, she did not know where she would go.
“The massage business was in a very large building with about four floors. The girls would be sitting on chairs in front of the shop, and when the customers came they could choose the girl they liked. From the very beginning, customers would ask me for sex, and I always said no. Once I realized there was prostitution happening, even though I didn’t like it, I had no idea what to do and just kept working to pay back my debt. I refused to have sex, but there were just two people in that massage room – the customer and me – and when I shouted no one came to help. About three or four weeks after I started there, a man forced me to have sex with him and I couldn’t do anything to stop him. If I had known I would have to work in massage I never would have agreed to the [broker’s] arrangement and could have found another job.”
During her time at the massage parlor, Ma Mya had sex with around 60 men, mainly Thai, Mon, and Burmese. She had never had sex before and did not know about contraception. The business failed to supply condoms for the workers, and within seven months she was pregnant. Once she realized, Ma Mya told the customers that she was expecting a baby, but the demands for sex continued. Ma Mya described her time at the massage parlor like passing through a haze, and she could only frame the experience with the memory that it was rainy season when she arrived, and when the baby was ready to be born, the rainy season had come again.
“By the time I was around eight months pregnant, my boss told me to deliver the baby and give the child away so I could continue working at her massage business. One of my friends [the broker’s daughter] also suggested that I leave and give birth in the border area, and then come back to my job. I decided to return to Three Pagodas Pass and have the baby there.”
According to Ma Mya, throughout her pregnancy she was determined to give the baby away to people that wanted a child. However, she said that when she saw her daughter’s face for the first time, she decided she could not lose her.
“I never attended school and I faced so many difficulties in my life, like having to work very hard and being treated badly. I do not want my daughter to suffer like me and I want her to go to school. My parents died when I was a child and I don’t want my daughter growing up without parents. The feeling of having no parents has been very hard for me. I also feel sad for my daughter because she cannot know who her father is. So, I will take care of my daughter and live with her until she grows up. I will never leave her.”
Ma Mya’s daughter is now two months old. The new mother says she will find a job near the border and get her daughter into school. Some local elder women heard that she knows how to massage, and sometimes pay her a little to rub their sore muscles. She does not want to return to her childhood village because she has no family there and worries the community would look down on her for having a baby without a husband. Without a home, a supportive family unit, or an education, Ma Mya says her singular goal is to provide her daughter with the opportunities she never had.