Vietnam's new law on prostitution leaves too many loose ends: officials

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Vietnam will release sex workers from compulsory rehabilitation centers under a new law on civil infractions, but some officials are concerned that there are no plans yet to help the inmates make new lives for themselves.

There are nearly 900 sex workers at Social Labor Education Centers nationwide. These are women who'd previously been fined several times and are now receiving vocational training at the centers.

When the new Law on Civil Violation Punishment, which was passed on June 20, takes effect starting in July next year, all of them will be released.

Nguyen Ngoc Thach, head of the Ho Chi Minh City Social Evil Prevention Office at the city's labor department, said "I don't know where all of them will go and what they will do.

"Most of them have wandered about for most of their lives and do not have the educational background required for another job."

Current laws place sex workers aged 16 to 55 at rehabilitation centers for three to 18 months.

The new law means that sex workers will only be fined and no longer forced to undergo rehabilitation. Accordingly, they will be fined VND300,000 (US$15) for their first infraction and VND5 million for repeat offenses.

After several repeat offences, local governments will be responsible of reintegration measures.

But Le Thi Ha, head of the Civil Violations Prevention Department at the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs said at a recent press briefing that no specific support measures were planned yet.

Ha said "the government has few policies to help commercial sex workers reintegrate into the community, and the community itself is highly discriminatory against these people and not accepting them back."

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She said these problems would only drive the sex workers back to their profession.

The weak management of porn publications and relaxation services such as spa and massage parlors that can be a front for sexual services have made it a tough job to reduce the practice, she said.

Her predecessor Nguyen Van Minh said similar troubles will exist with the new law, which aims to give prostitutes easy and optional access to healthcare, legal and vocational services.

"Although it's a more human approach, it has come with a lot of shortcomings," Minh told Tien Phong in a Thursday report.

"It does not specify the responsibilities of related agencies and that will leave the society to suffer consequences."

He also expressed concern about HIV threat to the community, noting that most prostitutes are drug addicts and HIV positive, but the new law does not pay attention to that.

The Ho Chi Minh City rehabilitation center is currently home to 79 sex workers, and eight percent of them have HIV.

Minh said there should be plans made for those infected with HIV.

"Will they be sent to hospitals for treatment? Who would pay for it? And who would employ them after they regain their health?"

He said the new law fails to provide sufficient help to sex workers and this could expose the community as a whole to HIV risks.

Loose control

The loose control over prostitution has been a concern expressed even before the new law.

Surveys by the ministry over the first half this year counted around 30,000 sex workers in all cities and provinces, most of them in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong, the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho and the southern beach town of Vung Tau.

But only about half of the identified sex workers are being managed by the authorities. According to the ministry, there are 862 sex workers in rehabilitation facilities, and 578 are being educated at home among their communities.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a recent survey found 49 prostitution dens and 75 relaxation places, such as spa and karaoke parlors, providing sexual services.

The city has arrested 567 people this year so far for involvement in prostitution, more than twice the number in 2011.

Nguyen Thi Hong Phuong, deputy head of the city's Civil Violation Prevention Department, said in a VnExpress report Thursday, that economic development, including tourism development, has fueled prostitution and other social evils, "as bringing a large number of people," making it hard to maintain public order.

Officials said at a conference in August they could only keep track of 183, or 5.2 percent of around 3,500 sex workers in the city.

It has become more difficult to tackle the issue with the introduction of new services including same-sex prostitution as well as the involvement of models, actresses and young students from high schools and colleges, attracted by the high income it provides.

Phuong said "There is no sign that prostitution services by actresses and models have reduced."

Officials said prostitution used to be an option for uneducated women trying to survive, but now, others were choosing it in pursuit of a more luxurious life.

A study by the labor ministry done in the first half of the year found that the average income of sex workers exceeded VND10 million (US$480) a month, but actresses, models and beauty queens were able to earn several thousand dollars each time.

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