Four sex workers were temporarily held for investigation by Ha Tinh Police early this year. Photo: Nguyen Dung
Sex workers who quit the trade will become eligible for low-interest loans this month of up to VND20 million (US$940), following a decision issued by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in May.
But the scheme beneficiaries apparently don't buy its efficiency.
Nga, a sex worker in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3, doesn't believe the scheme will work due to a stipulation that loan applicants must produce certification from high-ranking commune-level authorities that they have given up sex work.
“What sex worker is going to tell the local authorities that she used to be a sex worker? No! Never!” she said. “How are they going to identify ex-sex workers?"
The requirement has sparked wide concern among social and sex workers alike who believe the program is fraught with problems.
Nevertheless, the pilot program is set to run from 2014-2016 and will afford loan recipients three years to pay back the money.
The project will begin on June 15 in 15 cities and provinces before going nationwide in 2017.
Nga said most young sex workers earn VND300,000 a day, on average.
“If they work in restaurants, they can get tips of up to VND300,000 in addition to ‘going out’ at which point they can make VND500,000 or VND1 million a day,” she said.
Most earn more than VND30 million a month, she claimed, adding that VND20 million is a sum that's unlikely to convince anyone to leave the business.
Meanwhile, Linh, a transgender sex worker in HCMC’s District 1, said VND20 million is enough for one to start a small business.
“But no one is gong to seek a certificate from the local authorities stating that they have quit hooking," she said. "They don’t want to expose themselves."
Le Thi Amy, a former HCMC sex worker who now makes her living helping researchers study her former profession, said that the authorities should conduct a survey to identify those who actually wish to quit prostitution before kicking off a loan scheme.
The city’s Anti-Social Evil Agency recently offered sex workers loans of just VND2 million and Amy was enlisted to see what became of the funds.
“Some began to sell lottery tickets with the loans,” she said.
Meanwhile, Amy said the regulation should allow sex workers to gradually switch to a legal job, instead of requiring them to quit sex work as a precondition for assistance.
“The recipients of the previous loan package of VND2 million used the funds to pursue new work while continuing to make the bulk of their income from sex work. The important thing is that the loans allowed them to reduce their dependence on sex work.”
She said sex workers can begin a small business with just VND100,000 that grants them critical control over their working life. With the extra income, they can refuse customers (who, for example, refuse to use condoms) or limit their schedule to serve only two or three customers in a day.
“Without their legal business, they cannot afford to refuse customers,” she said, adding that the financial desperation can lead to riskier behavior.
Nguyen Thi Hong Phuong, deputy director of the HCMC Anti-Social Evils Agency, also said it would be difficult to require sex workers to present themselves to local authorities.
“Although a great deal of effort has been made, discrimination against sex workers remains,” she told Thanh Nien News.
“Based on specific conditions, local authorities should authorize relevant agencies, organizations and networks to vouch for sex workers who have committed to quit their jobs,” she said.
A job for easy money?
While the government is focusing a great deal of effort on helping sex workers find new lines of work, experts and insiders say many sex workers don't want to abandon their careers.
Nga, the sex worker in District 3, said many of her colleagues got into the work because they didn't have any identity papers (due to rapid urbanization) and faced difficulties getting a legal job.
Instead, they began working in prostitution and gradually became accustomed to it.
“Others are lazy and just want to make money quickly and easily. There are countless reasons for people to become sex workers. But many of them do not want to quit at all,” she said.
Nga told a story of a woman who works as a sex worker in District 1’s September 23 Park.
“She is more than 30 but she is still beautiful. She met and married a westerner. He sends her a few hundred dollars every month but she hasn't quit her career as a sex worker,” she said.
Linh, the transgender sex worker, said few work in prostitution out of financial desperation or to help their families.
“They just want to have money to spend on themselves and to show off; most of them don't want to quit. Many of them are just lazy,” said Linh, who has been a sex worker for 25 years.
Hoang Tu Anh, director of the Hanoi-based NGO Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP), said more research on sex workers is needed before the government starts handing out micro-loans.
“Sex workers are a diverse group, with varying levels of education, opportunities and income…Thus, it is important to prioritize sex workers before disbursing loans,” she told Thanh Nien News.
According to Anh, requiring sex workers to seek approval from local authorities is just unlikely to work--it represents a violation of human rights.
“We learned our lesson with HIV patients," she said. "When HIV cases were reported to the local authorities, they and their families suffered such intense discrimination that many could no longer stand to continue living in their communities."
So long as prostitution remains a stigmatized career path, Anh maintains that no one in Vietnam is going to march into a government office to report "I officially begin my foray into sex work" and then come back, years later to say, "I am happy to report that I have quit my career as a sex worker!"
Anh said if the policy aims to create opportunities for sex workers, it should grant loans to sex workers who are still engaged in the practice.
“They can run a small business and gradually quit sex work when they decide the job affords them sufficient profit,” she said.
Anh added that no society is without prostitution and no one can expect that a single plan or a project will eliminate sex work.
“We have to legalize prostitution to ensure the rights and benefits of all sex workers,” she said.
“The legalization of prostitution would help sex workers access education, health and social insurance and enable them to analyze different factors, targets and financial management for themselves.”
“Then, sex workers can take a holistic view of their job and switch to a new job if they want to,” she said.
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