By Dung Phan
It was the holidays, but Luong Thi Oanh did not hang out with friends that much. Oanh lives in a small poor ethnic town in Moc Chau, a rural district in northern Vietnam where most locals’ substantial livelihood is reliable on self-supplied agriculture. As an extroverted girl who wishes to become a tour guide when she grows up, there must be a hidden reason behind this.
“Lots of my friends are now working as sex workers even though they’re 12 years old,” Oanh said. “They earn lots of money by hanging out with investors and businessmen from nearby provinces. They often didn’t go to school but their parents seemed not to care.”
Oanh’s story offered a representative glimpse of prostitution in Vietnam. Despite being strictly illegal, as is typically the law in Communist states, it is so ubiquitous. “Sex work exists in every corner and alley. Even in the most distant villages which picks up Laos’s mobile phone signal, sex work is overwhelming,” said Nguyen Xuan Anh, municipal party committee secretary of Da Nang.
A struggle for solutions
Many officials admit that the sex work situation in Vietnam is complicated and they have been struggling for years in attempt to address prostitution.
In 2013, Vietnam abolished compulsory rehabilitation and started to impose fines on both customers and sex workers, which vary from $14 to $225. Since then, the government has regularly ordered crackdowns, prompting hundreds of arrests every year. However, “the more severe fines are, the more sex workers would work,” said Phung Quang Thuc, head of the Hanoi Social Evil Prevention Bureau.
Despite fierce control, sex work still exists in disguise of massages, bars, karaoke and hairdresser’s. “As for tourist destinations, I think it’s impossible [for them to develop] without sex work,” noted Anh.
Last year, authorities in Ho Chi Minh City have thought to set up red light districts like those in Thailand and Singapore, on a trial basis, for better management of sex workers. Many other suggestions including increasing the fines or naming sex workers have been proposed, but there seems no radical change in the sex work situation for years.
Debates about legalisation are a distraction
Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, said in countries like India, Vietnam or Cambodia where the human trafficking rate has been increasing, “if you validate the red light districts, then the new entrants will continue to be trafficked into it”. And controversies about legalisation are more like a distraction.
While the trafficking of women to China for sex work or forced marriage continues to expand across Vietnam, many experts predict that more Vietnamese women will be trafficked across Southeast Asia, as the region moves toward freer trade.
According to Mimi Vu of the Pacific Links Foundation, 70% of trafficking victims in Vietnam are women and girls. Many of them are sent to China as brides, sex workers or factory workers, while others are forced into sex work or marriage in Malaysia, or into brothels in Cambodia.
The human trafficking issue has also come down to the point of woman rights. “Female sex workers face many risks such as coercion, exploitation and confiscation of property. Rather than reporting them to the police, they chose to share with each other and don’t dare to get any help,” said Nguyen Thi Thuy, a community member of Vietnam Network of Sex Workers (VNSW). “They accept all of them as risk work.”
Of the estimated 250,000 Vietnamese suffering from HIV/AIDS, female sex workers are among the three most vulnerable groups, according to reports in 2014.
Ritsu Nacken, representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Vietnam said that sex workers are afraid of being arrested ; they are afraid of being beaten or raped by their customers ; and they fear rejection if they seek to leave prostitution and social reintegration.
More importantly, such fears are normally bigger than the fear of HIV and thus limit sex workers to get access to HIV prevention services. This partly explains why HIV prevalence among sex workers is very high in some cities.
Official figures show there are currently over 33,000 sex workers in Vietnam. About 2.6% of them have HIV, according to a survey in 41 provinces in 2013. However, the actual number could be as high as 200,000; 40 percent of them are said to be HIV-positive.
In need of better strategies
Yet, understanding is slowly growing that this is not about policing morals, but about protecting human rights.
In March, the government said in a document that it would allow several localities to regulate prostitution-prone programmes to protect the rights of sex workers at those places, and better support them. It somehow shows the move in strategies from control and fines to cooperation.
Still, there has been an immense distrust and much less cooperation between the officials and sex workers. But the one thing everybody should be able to agree on is that whether or not prostitution should be legal. It is alarming for 12 year-olds to make their way to brothels, and be forced to sleep with customers. And that is what is going on in countries, like Vietnam.