Myanmar

MYANMAR: The kindest cut

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YANGON, 6 January 2010 (IRIN) - Yu Yu, 19, valued her thick, wavy hair for its beauty but today it is a source of much-needed income for her destitute family.

"At first, I just felt so sad about losing my hair. But later, I was really happy that I was able to save my father's life and solve my family's extreme financial problems," said Yu Yu, now a garment factory worker.

Two years ago, her father fell seriously ill, while her four-member family, whose combined monthly income was US$45, was debt-ridden. With no other way to help them, the high-school drop-out sold her waist-length locks for $30.

Later this year, she will sell her shoulder-length hair to pay for her younger brother's school fees.

Long hair is highly valued in Burmese society, celebrated in literature and songs. But now women are being forced to part with it as a last resort.

In Myanmar, where one-third of the population of 57.6 million lives below the poverty line according to the UN, hair traders say selling hair has become a way of making ends meet.

Households face rising living costs and are vulnerable to food insecurity; 69 percent of all household expenditure is spent on food, according to a 2007 UN Development Programme (UNDP) household living conditions survey.

Booming business

Hair traders say business has boomed in the past five years, thanks to growing demand from China and South Korea for wigs.

"The price of hair has been quite attractive in recent years. This encourages more and more women to sell their hair," said Ya Min, 29, a trader for the past nine years.

Hair is weighed by the kyat tha (16.33g) and priced according to length and weight. The average weight of hair per woman is about 20 kyat tha.

Traders say one kyat tha of hair was worth about $0.80 five years ago. While exchange rates fluctuate, traders say prices have nevertheless been rising in recent years.

These days, hair typically sells for $1 per kyat tha, but if it is over 30cm in length, it can fetch more than $1.50. A woman selling 20 kyat tha of hair that is as long as 40cm could earn $35.

Because of this lucrative trade, buyers and sellers alike say those with long hair have to beware of hair thieves while commuting in crowded buses.

Desperate measures

Mindful of the difference even tiny sums of money can make, hair buyers say they sometimes find it difficult to turn hopeful sellers away.

"There are many poor old women like her who come and sell their damaged, excess hair for a small amount of money," said a hair-buyer, Ma Mya Mya, after buying a small bag of grey hair from a barefoot, elderly woman.

Ma Mya Mya initially offered the woman about $0.30 but she insisted on more, saying she needed to buy some rice for dinner. The elderly woman finally walked away satisfied with $0.50 - enough to buy about 1kg of rice.

"Actually, we don't want to buy hair like this. But sometimes we can't refuse, because they are so poor," she said.

Paying for school fees

Traders say their business is better from June, the start of the school year.

"Around June, many mothers come and sell their hair so they can get school fees for their children," said Ya Min.

June also marks the start of the rainy season, bringing floods and cutting off roads, forcing families to look for alternative sources of income, traders say.

Lured by the potential income, more people, especially women, are joining the hair-trading business. Despite poor transportation, petty traders make the journey from urban centres to remote, hard-to-access areas to buy hair, which is then resold to larger traders in cities such as Yangon and Mandalay.

Some hair traders also say they are getting an increasing supply of hair from the Ayeyarwady Delta in the country's south in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 as people seek to restore their livelihoods.

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