The naked truth about prostitution in Vietnam

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Sex workers have allegedly been operating more openly since the country shut down its compulsory rehab centers, but experts are quick to note that poverty is the root cause of the problem


Female employees clad in bikinis caught sitting beside guests during a recent police raid on a karaoke parlor in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District. Prostitution has reportedly increased nationwide over the past year since prostitutes who are caught hooking no longer have to serve compulsory terms at rehabilitation centers. Photo: Manh Nguyen

Tran Thien Thu was delighted when Vietnam authorities scrapped the policy of sending prostitutes to rehabilitation centers a year ago, as "the oldest profession" represents her sole means to eke out a living in Ho Chi Minh City.

"It's easier to breathe now. I can't earn enough doing anything else. It is difficult to get a good job because I quit school at fifth grade," said the 24-year-old woman who has been a sex worker for seven years.

"On the street I can earn VND400,000 (US$19) a night serving two customers. I can't get a legal job that pays VND2-3 million a month," she told Vietweek.

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Meanwhile, facing intensifying prostitution nationwide, government officials and experts are still divided as to how to tackle the issue.

According to a parliamentary resolution which took effect in July of last year, sex workers no longer have to serve compulsory terms at rehabilitation centers.

Prostitution remains illegal and sex workers may be fined VND300,000 for their first offence and up to VND5 million for repeat offences. According to a 2004 government decree, those found paying for sex may be fined between VND500,000-VND5 million, depending on the circumstances.

At a teleconference on July 8 held by the National Committee for HIV/AIDS, Drug and Prostitution Control and Prevention to review its efforts over the first half of this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc singled out leaders from HCMC, Nam Dinh and Hai Phong to report on their prostitution situations, because there have been many emerging problems in those localities.

According to relevant reports, dealing with the prostitution situation has become more "complicated" due to "new ploys" aimed at avoiding police detection and the increase of male, homosexual and foreign sex workers.

In response to the reports, Phuc said: "Are you aware of hotspots like Quat Lam (Nam Dinh), Do Son (Hai Phong) and Binh Thanh (HCMC)? Why did you report in general without mentioning details?

"Why didn't you take action? Are the police aware of this?"

Last week, HCMC police raided several karaoke lounges in HCMC's Binh Thanh District and found dozens of female employees clad in bikinis seated beside guests. Police believed that several rooms were being used for sex, but failed to catch anyone red-handed.

Earlier, local media launched several investigations that found sex workers operating rampantly in Binh Thanh, as well as in tourist towns known for prostitution like Quat Lam and Do Son in the north.

At the teleconference, Phuc instructed the three cities and provinces to officially censure the chiefs of their respective district police due to the pervasive prostitution in those localities that has been widely reported by the media recently.

According to Nguyen Trong Dam, deputy minister of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, there are 30,000 prostitutes nationwide.

"Many hi-end prostitution rings involving models and celebrities, students and foreigners have been detected recently," he said at the teleconference.

He said there are more than 180,000 technically legitimate establishments, often hotels, restaurants and karaoke and massage parlors, which employ 60,000 female employees, 7,000 of which are suspected of being sex workers.

According to a recent report by the HCMC People's Committee, many criminals have abused the "open regulations" meaning the elimination of compulsory rehab and the lack of punitive measures against sex acts other than intercourse to offer sex services at their places of business.

The city administration pointed out a number of harmful consequences prostitution can lead to, such as its negative impact on the culture in general, the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as human trafficking, drug crimes, loan sharking, illegal protection rackets and other organized crime.

Nguyen Thanh Long, deputy minister of Health said there were 213,400 patients living with HIV as of the end of May, including 4,400 new cases reported in the first five months of this year.

"The spreading of HIV through sex is increasing, especially in the Mekong Delta and central region. There have been localities like Can Tho, where 75 percent of new patients contracted HIV through sexual relations," he said.

More confusion

Government officials have blamed the increase of prostitution on lax regulations, including the abolition of mandatory rehab. But experts have countered that the rehab was ineffective anyway, and have urged the government to take new steps.

Previously, those caught working as prostitutes had to serve three to 18-month terms at rehab centers where they received vocational training and information on the dangers of working in the sex industry.

Hua Ngoc Thuan, HCMC's vice mayor, said the prostitution situation in HCMC has become "complicated again" over the past year, because sex workers are no longer sent to rehab.

"Prostitution is increasing. Sex workers are working more openly because they know that if they are caught, they will be fined instead of being taken to rehab centers like before.

"They are willing to pay the fine and then move to other places to avoid being caught again."

He said it has been difficult to make sex workers aware of the dangers of their job, as well as to help them find alternate work.

But Nguyen Thi Tu Anh, director of the Hanoi-based NGO Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, said it was right to shut down compulsory rehab centers because they were an ineffective deterrent.

"Under current regulations and social perceptions, no one would "˜choose' to be a sex worker," she told Vietweek.

Truong Thi Hong Tam, a retired sex worker in HCMC and the author of a book on HIV/AIDS, said virtually all sex workers return to their old line of work after being released from rehab.

"What [else] can they do to survive once coming home? No job, no money, no education, what can they do? Hunger forces them back on the streets," she told Vietweek.

Truong Thi Hoa of the HCMC Bar Association said abolishing the mandatory rehab was a humane step for the government to take.

"So now there should be strict administrative measures like heavy fines so that they cannot simply pay the fine easily by working as prostitutes," she said.

According to statistics from social affairs agencies, half the sex workers sentenced to rehab centers in the past were drug addicts; and a third of them were HIV positive.

Do Thuy An My, founder of the Hoa Cat Tuong Group that tries to help sex workers find other jobs, said it is really difficult to convince sex workers to give up the age-old trade all at once.

"Some women over 60 years old are still working as prostitutes. We have offered them small amounts of money to start small businesses. Many of them continue as sex workers at the beginning and then gradually shift to legitimate forms of trade exclusively when their business becomes stable," she said.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Ngoc Thach, head of the anti-social evil agency under the HCMC labor department, was not optimistic about reducing the number of prostitutes in the city.

"In anti-prostitution work, it is a success to reduce the number of new HIV cases. HCMC will be just as unable to eradicate prostitution as any other country."

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