Forced rehabilitation not sexy anymore

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Experts welcome scrapping of old regulation, say time to legalize prostitution

Vo Thi My Xuan, a Mekong Delta beauty pageant winner, seen in this file photo, was arrested in June for allegedly running a high-priced prostitution ring.

Phong used to hang around a café in Tan Binh District well known as a hub for MSM (men who have sex with men).

He would meet customers there, negotiate a deal and drive to a nearby hotel.

"The café is an intermediate place to avoid police raids that always end up with sex workers being sent to rehabilitation centers," said the 37-year-old man, who had migrated to the city from the Mekong Delta and got involved in prostitution through a friend who was also a sex worker.

Many sex workers like Phong are afraid of being sent to compulsory rehabilitation centers that offer them little help in quitting the profession and finding a new job.

But such centers might not be open for long.

On June 21, the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, passed a law overturning a regulation under which people found guilty of prostitution are sent to rehabilitation centers. The new law will take effect in July, next year.

The Law on Handling of Administrative Violations was passed at a National Assembly session with more than 85 percent of deputies voting for it. The clause to abolish the regulation requiring sex workers to be sent to rehabilitation got 394 votes for and 108 against, while 16 legislators abstained.

Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam. Currently, sex workers aged between 16 and 55 are sent to the centers for three to 18 months. According to the social affairs ministry, there are around 15,000 documented prostitutes in Vietnam but the actual number is believed to be two times higher or more.

Experts have praised the move and urged alternative measures to tackle what the government has considered "social evil".

Phong was lucky to get support several years ago from a project that offers no-interest loans and vocational training for sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City.

Quitting sex work, he opened a pho (beef noodle) restaurant in Binh Tan District and is also working part-time as a chef at another restaurant in the city.

But M., a female sex worker in Gia Lai Province, was not so lucky. The 36-year-old woman was taken to the province's rehabilitation center for the second time recently. She was first taken there in 2007, two years after working as a prostitute for financial reasons.

Last year, more than 1,720 sex workers were sent to rehabilitation centers in Vietnam.

The United Nations on June 25 commended Vietnam for passing the new law, including not forcing sex workers into rehabilitation centers, saying it will benefit the health and wellbeing of Vietnamese women, men and children.

"Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers raise human rights issues and threaten the health of detainees, including through increased vulnerability to HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infections," it said in a statement.

Eamonn Murphy, acting resident coordinator of the UN in Vietnam, told Vietweek that "there is no basis to associate the removal of detaining sex workers with increased sex work or with any changes in Vietnam's traditional values as sex work has always existed in Vietnam as it does in every other country."

For many female sex workers in Vietnam, it is "poverty, trafficking and violence" that are the main reasons they have been forced into the profession, he said, calling for developing alternative livelihood programs that can promote the basic human rights of sex workers and reduce sex work.

Hoang Tu Anh, director of the Hanoi-based NGO Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, said she had proposed that the compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers be annulled at a meeting of the National Assembly's Social Affairs Committee last November.

"It is really necessary to annul compulsory rehabilitation for sex workers because it has been ineffective, wasteful and a violation of human rights," she said.

Anh said the sex trade is driven by demand but the government has only focused on managing sex workers instead of their customers.

"Sex workers have been forced into rehabilitation centers and fined and their names and pictures publicized, while their customers have been protected."

She said the passage of the new law was not to encourage prostitution but a positive move to effectively manage it and relevant problems like sexual transmitted diseases and violence.

"There are not many people whose first choice of work is prostitution. But because of current regulations and social attitudes, they are insulted, cheated and quite often, the victims of street violence. And they do not know who to ask for help because their work is illegal," she said.

Phong, the former male sex worker, also felt that the regulation forcing sex workers into rehabilitation centers should be abolished.

He said the centers should offer free vocational training for those who voluntarily admit themselves.

"Many others and myself who used to be sex workers have quit it since we were supported with vocational training and loans; and no one has gone back to it, although none of us has ever been taken to a compulsory rehabilitation center," Phong said. "The main issue is you have to give them (sex workers) a skill so that they can earn a living. I migrated from Can Tho to HCMC with no money and it was difficult to find a job because I had no skill then."

Dr. Nguyen Thi Hue of the HCMC HIV/AIDS Control and Prevention Committee said her agency always finds it difficult to approach sex workers and raise awareness of safe sex and risks of relevant diseases because they do not want to expose themselves to the possibility of being caught and forced into rehabilitation centers.

The government has evidence that the current approach does not work, although their stated aim of the "Treatment Education Social Labor" centers is to offer "treatment, rehabilitation, vocational training." Sex workers and drug addicts also have to work at these centers.

The social affairs ministry released in March the results of a survey that interviewed 189 male and 199 female sex workers in Hanoi, Hai Phong and HCMC.

Asked about their plans for the next three years, nearly 35 percent of the respondents said they would continue their job because of the high and stable income. Only 23 percent said they had quit the job for a period of six months or longer. They said they had quit because they had either managed to find a legal job, obtained enough money to pay debts or opened a legal business.

Le Duc Hien, deputy director of social affairs at the ministry's Social Evil Prevention Department, said many sex workers relapsed after quitting because their new jobs were unable to provide for their family or their spending habits the way prostitution did.

About 12.5 percent said they returned because they were addicted to the job, said Hien, who was a member of the research team.

Legalize prostitution

Experts say that meaningful actions are needed to mitigate the harmful consequences of prostitution.

"The media should play an important role in reducing stigma against sex workers and giving them information for self protection," Anh, the Hanoi-based expert, said.

She also called for establishing groups and regulations to protect sex workers from violence and sexual abuse.

"Legalizing prostitution will make it easier to manage," she said.

In a recent interview with the Giao Duc Viet Nam (Vietnam education) newspaper, Ho Sy Tien, acting chief investigator for the Ministry of Public Security, also said prostitution should be legalized with strict regulations for better management.

George Blanchard, founder of the NGO Acting for Women in Precarious Circumstances Vietnam (AFESIP), said the government does know about the inefficiency of compulsory rehabilitation centers but they have only acknowledged it recently. It might take some time and a lot of money to make needed changes, he said.

"At a meeting with us two years ago, the government already wanted to close the centers in order to develop our model, because they had seen our success," he said.

At its centers in Cambodia, AFESIP prepares the residents for reintegration by supplying a protected environments, food, clothes, hygienic items, accommodation, healthcare, psychological care, counseling, vocational training and life skills.

He said such models need a lot of money to tackle prostitution but "if we can develop such centers, we can change the situation."

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