Vietnam sex workers haunted by specter of violence, HIV

By Minh Hung, Thanh Nien News

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A sex worker waits for client on a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Minh Hung A sex worker waits for client on a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Minh Hung

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Ngoc Thuy, a sex worker in Ho Chi Minh City, was almost assaulted by a client recently for failing to satisfy him.
“I was on a street negotiating the price with a client when he suddenly appeared and pulled my shirt, asking me for the money back,” she said.
“He was too drunk the previous night and wanted to claim the money from me for failing to ejaculate,” she said.
It was one of countless occasions on which sex workers potentially faced violence – a permanent threat that also includes sexual violence and rape that could result in HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Thuy’s new client walked away and a quarrel broke out between her and the man who had been about to attack her.
Luckily, Do Thuy An My, a member of the peer group Hoa Cat Tuong, managed to persuade the man to leave after calming him down.
“He only gave up after I reminded him that his violence could end up at the police station where his family would know about him having sex with a sex worker,” My said.
According to a survey by the Institute of Labor Science and Social Affairs, almost 44 percent of all sex workers have suffered from physical violence.
Nearly 46 percent of them did not report to authorities due to limited knowledge of the law and lack of trust in the authorities, according to a poll of 150 sex workers.
Vietnam has around 32,700 sex workers, according to statistics from the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.
Gang-raped, without condom
My said sex workers are scared of law enforcement authorities because their work is illegal.
“They belong to a disadvantaged group who will never dare report violence. They don’t even share it with other sex workers because they are ashamed.”
Le Van Quy of the Ho Chi Minh City Anti-Social Evils Agency, said violence is a permanent threat for sex workers.
“Some men pay money just for having sex. But some others think it is their money and can do whatever they want.
“Sometimes, a client takes a sex worker to a place with three or four other men are waiting. They use violence to force the sex worker to serve them.”
The damned thing you need to say is you are a prostitute", a Ho Chi Minh City doctor told a patient who wanted to test for HIV.
Ngo Thi Mong Linh, head of the peer group Binh Minh Dem, said gang rape is one of the most dangerous things a sex worker faces.
“Recently a woman in District 8 said a client offered her VND1 million for spending a night at his home. At his home, she was forced to serve him and his five friends.
“She said she was raped by men who were not using condoms.”
Say you are a hooker!
Nguyen Thi Hue of the HCMC Aids Prevention Committee said many sex workers do not test for HIV despite the possible threat of contracting the disease due to discrimination by healthcare workers.
“A woman recently called me and cried a lot after testing for HIV at a medical facility. They asked why she needs to take the test and she replied that her health was not good and she worried she had AIDS.
“They asked her what she does. And after she told them she runs a rice shop, they said: ‘Why should a rice seller get tested for HIV? The damned thing you need to say is you are a prostitute’.”
Hue said discrimination and stigma are still rife, especially in the medical sector.
“In District 5, an intern doctor was about to be hired. The hospital made a big issue and called us to handle it after it became aware the doctor had HIV.
“I told them that it is normal, nothing special.”
At a recent meeting at a hospital Hue was invited and was about to take a seat when a man: “Don’t sit! Don’t sit! That section is for HIV patients. It’s dangerous.”
“They are also surprised to know that we often have meals with HIV-positive people.”
She said scathingly that while they tell others to consider HIV merely a chronic disease like any other they do not follow their own advice.
According to the HCMC AIDS Prevention Committee, there are nearly 60,000 people with HIV, mostly aged 30-39. Around 22 percent of infected people got HIV from sex workers.
Loopholes
Tran Ngoc Du, diretor of the Ho Chi Minh City Anti-Social Evils Agency, said despite amendments to regulations, there are loopholes in protecting female sex workers.
“There is no clear definition of and what behaviors should be considered gender-based violence.
“There is no article in the Ordinance on Prevention of Prostitution about the need for protecting sex workers from being raped and sexually abused - the two most common problems they face.”

Retired sex workers and experts at a conference on gender-based violence against female sex workers held in Ho Chi Minh City May 19. Photo: Minh Hung
He cited several reasons for gender-based violence against female sex workers, including Confucian mores that favor men, unequal financial capacity, dominating role of men and limited participation of women in social activities.
Hue of the HCMC AIDS Prevention Committee said that there are many reasons preventing sex workers from raising their voice for their protection and against discrimination.
“It is difficult for them to raise their voice. First, they will face an administrative fine. Then there is a perception that a person working in the field must suffer from that form of violence.”
Besides sexual violence, they also suffered violence at the hands of pimps and facility owners who live off the sex workers and can extort up to 70 percent of their income, she said.
“They are also victims of loan sharks with huge debts and high interest rates that they would never be able to pay, forcing them to cling to the vicious circle of being a sex worker.”

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