When Thet Mon Phyo underwent a gender change operation in 2005, her parents told her not to bother returning home.
“They were ashamed and I had to go and live with my aunt,” 34-year-old Phyo recalled. “When I was young my father often scolded me for my feminine behaviour. Later, my lover left me because his parents persuaded him that same-sex love was unnatural,” she said.
In Myanmar, many transgender people and men who have sex with men (MSM) face widespread stigma and discrimination, complicating efforts to halt the spread of HIV.
According to UNAIDS, the HIV prevalence among MSM and transgender people in some places is much higher than that of the general population (9.4% versus 0.53%). Male-to-male sex is illegal in Myanmar and there are no laws to protect MSM and transgender people from discrimination.
“They are objects of ridicule for some people, even hated,” Phyo said.
“There is discrimination in the workplace and even within families….some MSM are disowned, disinherited and expelled from their homes,” she added.
Phyo is Programme Manager at The Help, Myanmar, a group which focuses on HIV prevention, care, support and advocacy for MSM and transgender people and works to ensure their voices are heard and their issues taken up at the national level. All members of The Help are MSM or transgender and almost half are living with HIV.
The Help Myanmar was awarded a prestigious Red Ribbon Award at the XIX International AIDs conference held in August for its work on the prevention of sexual transmission of HIV and other STDs. The Red Ribbon Award is the world’s leading award for innovative and outstanding community work in the response to the AIDS epidemic.
The Help, Myanmar is working to change attitudes, reduce discrimination and improve access to HIV services. It is a challenging task.
Phyo said MSM and HIV positive people are denied equal employment opportunities and access to proper medical treatment, which in turn discourages them from safe behaviour.
Police often act as barriers in seeking legal protection. Threats and extortion attempts by some police highlight the need for immediate measure to increase public awareness of people’s rights and for the government to enact rights that protect people from discrimination.
Phyo said the authorities have not interfered with The Help’s work to increase MSM and TGs capabilities and set up self-help groups to support them. In fact, The Help sees this as a sign of tacit cooperation. But there is a long way to go.
“We are greatly encouraged for being recognized for helping MSMs and others in the community. The Red Ribbon Award has strengthened our determination to continue our struggle for truth, rights and benefits,” said Phyo.
The Help Myanmar’s efforts may also receive a boost following the recent appointment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as UNAIDS Global Advocate for Zero Discrimination.
“She has many things to do, but we believe in her and we think she can make a difference,” said Phyo.