Vietnamese sex workers eye protection, respect from red-light district plan

By Nhu Lich, Thanh Nien News

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Women work at a bar in Ho Chi Minh City. Many clubs and bars in Vietnam illegally offer sex services. Photo: Nguyen Bao Women work at a bar in Ho Chi Minh City. Many clubs and bars in Vietnam illegally offer sex services. Photo: Nguyen Bao


K. helps her mother with a newspaper stand on a sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City.
Sometimes she does sex work to earn extra.
“Few people truly want to get into sex work. No one can really understand how much pity we may feel for ourselves,” the 22-year-old said about her part-time job of several years.
“We are unfairly considered evils, disgraces of society.”
Not surprisingly, she was very happy to hear about a recent proposal by officials to set up red-light areas in the city and other popular destinations around the country.
“I’m totally on board. It shows that society still cares about us.”
Most of the sex workers interviewed by Thanh Nien and those providing so-called "sensitive services" around the city supported the proposal, which was made at a meeting held by the social affairs ministry Friday.
Officials said the ministry estimates the number of sex workers in the country to exceed 11,240.
They said the current laws, under which sex workers are fined and those procuring the services can go to jail, have created thousands of clandestine businesses that mainly offer sex services.
They suggested moving all such businesses, including bars, night clubs and massage parlors, to one single area.
Le Van Quy, a senior official from HCMC’s social affairs department, raised the idea and he was supported by some other officials.
Sociologists interviewed by Thanh Nien also support the plan, which they believe will help the government control the activity better and protect sex workers from human trafficking, sexual abuse, and diseases.
K. hoped now there would be regular medical checks and some dignity for her and her colleagues.
“People will stop prying into our private lives once they know us and respect us as who we are.”
T., a sex worker in Go Vap District, said she would not have been infected with HIV if the proposal had come sooner.
She said besides the risks of infection, sex workers like her also have to deal with exploitation by pimps and brothel keepers.
“I make around VND200,000 (less than US$10) a time and they would take nearly half. If I refuse, they would beat me and prevent me from finding new clients.”
She said a legal red-light district would protect sex workers from such exploitation, and save them from fleeing at the sight of authorities.
Truong Thi Hong Tam, author of “Tam Si Da” (Tam with AIDS), a memoir about her life as a former sex worker, said she is willing to step up and raise her voice in support of the proposal, if the government is willing to listen. 
“You won’t be able to ban prostitution. It’s just basic supply and demand. If you keep trying to suppress it, someone will end up raping children.”
But several other workers are not very excited about the plan since they do not want to come out about their job.
“I've told very few people about my job. I won't feel comfortable working in a prostitution area,” a 20-year-old worker at a massage parlor in the city said.
“But I still want to have someone tell me how to protect myself from STDs,” she said. 

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