Social affairs officials at a national meeting on Friday said the government should legalize prostitution and create red-light districts in major cities to monitor the sex industry more effectively.
Officials at the meeting held by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs in Ho Chi Minh City said the number of sex workers in the country has surpassed 11,240, based on their estimates.
They said the current ban on prostitution has created thousands of disguised businesses where workers mainly offer sex services.
There was a lively debate at the meeting as officials could not agree on how Vietnam should see prostitution.
Le Van Quy, a senior official from HCMC’s social affairs department, said prostitution has existed for so long “we have to accept it and regulate it with a set of rules.”
Quy said there should be legislation and planning to bring all businesses providing "sensitive services" such as bars, clubs and massage parlors to one single area.
He said the central government needs to make the “bold” move and try setting up such districts in major cities, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and Hai Phong.
Vietnam currently imposes a cash fine on sex workers while those procuring sex services can go to jail.
Quy said that under the current system, prostitution is still available everywhere.
“If we don't change, we will have to chase after it forever,” he said.
Quy however was not sure about what to call those areas.
“We may not call them ‘red light districts’ like in other countries, but maybe ‘concentrated areas for prostitution.’”
Trieu Huy Tao, an official in the central province of Thanh Hoa, also supported the idea of legalizing prostitution.
“It exists whether you recognize it or not,” he said.
Tao said that different agencies have spent years fighting prostitution in vain.
“Instead of fighting it, we should focus on measures to reduce the negative impacts,” he said, referring to human trafficking, sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.
But other officials, who said they wanted to protect Vietnam’s “beautiful values," opposed Quy and Tao.
Phung Quang Thuc, in charge of social violations control in Hanoi, said the fight against prostitution just needs to be “more drastic.”
“We cannot see prostitution as something we have to accept. Otherwise it will grow and destroy all the good traditions of Vietnam,” Thuc said.
He said the government should only change the way it deals with sex workers and make more efforts to find them other jobs.
Fining them will only prompt them to work more to compensate for the lost money, he said.
Nguyen Xuan Lap, director of the social violations division at the social affairs ministry, said that the suggestion of opening special areas for prostitution will be discussed further at another meeting next month.
Lap told Thanh Nien in an interview after Friday's meeting that he has seen many sex workers being exploited and abused and no one protects them.
He said that the strict ban on prostitution is not consistent with the articles in Vietnam's constitution regarding human rights.
“We should have a more open mind about this. We should rethink the matter so that we can regulate it better," Lap said.
Sociologists interviewed by Thanh Nien are also divided on what the country should do with its sex workers.
While some are concerned that making prostitution legal can harm society, others argue that it can actually protect sex workers and the public in general.
Khuat Thi Thu Hong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies, said that strict prohibition could never work.
“There’s a lot of evidence showing that wherever prostitution is outlawed, it will operate in secret forms that cannot be controlled.”
She said discrete operations can lead to human trafficking, sexual abuse and sex slavery and many women and children will be exploited.
Hong said that bringing sex services into special areas is something other countries have done and it has worked well.