Vietnam debates sex work

Out in the open: A prostitue looking for customers during the day at a public park in downtown Hanoi. — AFP

Out in the open: A prostitue looking for customers during the day at a public park in downtown Hanoi. — AFP

HANOI: For Vietnamese sex workers like Do Thi Oanh, being caught touting for business used to carry a long stint in forced “rehabilitation”, but as fines replace detention, many detect a shifting attitude towards the world’s oldest profession.

In 2008, Oanh was sent to one of Vietnam’s notorious rehabilitation camps on the outskirts of Hanoi, joining hundreds of prostitutes and drug addicts detained without conviction for taking part in a “social evil”.

The 32-year-old was held for 18 months in the centre where detainees worked for free raising poultry, gardening or making handicrafts.

Last year Vietnam suddenly replaced compulsory rehab for sex workers with fines of between US$25 to US$100 (between RM81 to RM324), releasing hundreds of people from centres across the country.

Oanh, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said the legal move points to a wider liberalising attitude towards sex work in the communist nation.

“I think that society today is much more tolerant with people like me,” said Oanh, who has herself given up prostitution but remains in sex work, running a massage parlour in the capital.

Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam, but hundreds of thousands of sex workers ply their trade in a deeply conservative society which is still dominated by Confucian social mores.

Prostitution is considered a social evil, along with drug addiction and homosexuality.

Drug addicts continue to be sent to compulsory rehab.

But in recent months a fierce debate over whether to legalise and regulate the sex industry has sprung up online and in the official press, airing views that were long considered taboo.

Even the National Assembly is due to address the issue at its next session in October.               

Despite decades of official suppression, Vietnam’s sex industry has flourished in parallel with the economy since market reforms of the late 1980s opened up the socialist system to international trade and investment.

Researchers estimate there are around 200,000 sex workers in Vietnam, full-time or occasional, of whom up to 40% are believed to be HIV-positive.

In the southern business hub of Ho Chi Minh City, police statistics show there are at least 30,000 establishments linked to the sex trade – from massage parlours and karaoke lounges to actual brothels.

Many popular Vietnamese beach towns even have open brothels operating under the protection of criminal gangs, sometimes with the complicity of corrupt local officials.

“As we are not able to eradicate prostitution, we will have to manage it,” said Trinh Thi Khiet, a Hanoi-based parliamentarian.

“We shouldn’t encourage the sex trade but we have to look at this issue in the face. We need to save women from mafia networks.”

The debate over how to tackle prostitution, however, remains sharply polarised.

And despite high-profile “clean-up” campaigns, prostitutes operate openly on major roads in the city. — AFP