HANOI, 20 December 2012 (PlusNews) - Sex workers in Vietnam are struggling to figure out their next steps after the government’s decision earlier this year to release them from compulsory detention centres that have been widely condemned for alleged human rights abuses.
Until recently, women aged 16-55 caught selling sex were sent to these “rehabilitation” centres where they were detained for up to two years without due process, and required to take classes and receive vocational training. But detention has done little to prepare these workers for a life off the streets, they said.
What was the legal change?
In a move to what it calls “voluntary rehabilitation”, the National Assembly passed the Law on Administrative Sanctions in June, which requires authorities to release all women detained on sex work charges by 2 July 2013.
In lieu of detention, any newly arrested sex workers will be fined US$14 at first, and then $240 for a repeat offence, according to local media and sex workers IRIN interviewed, while experts say these figures are speculative.
The government declared sex work a “social evil” by ordinance in 2003.
What’s the background to compulsory detention?
In 2011 there were 113 compulsory detention centres, according to the National Committee for AIDS, Drugs and Prostitution Prevention Control. Both sex workers and drug users have been sent to the same centres, Do Thi Ninh Xuan, deputy director of the Department of Social Evil Prevention, under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), told IRIN. Female detainees - mostly sex workers - are said to be held in “05” centres after the government resolution that criminalized sex work, while drug users are said to be detained in “06” centres, though detention is often within the same compound.
Nearly 25,000 drug users were detained in 2011, according to a presentation by the above committee at a recent UN-convened regional consultation on voluntary treatment, along with some 900 sex workers, according to local media.
Deputy director Xuan said the government is moving away from compulsory rehabilitation for drug users, though progress is not as advanced as with sex workers.
“In Ho Chi Minh City, authorities have moved staff [from some of the rehabilitation centres] to work at commune health stations or moved them into social work. The general direction will be that way,” she said, without giving a time frame or indicating what will happen with the drug users (who greatly outnumber sex workers) currently detained.
What about treatment for those with HIV/AIDS?
According to UNAIDS, in 2011 HIV prevalence among men who inject drugs and sex workers was 13.4 percent and 3 percent nationwide, respectively (with some places like the capital, Hanoi, testing as high as 20 percent), while national HIV prevalence was estimated at 0.53 percent.
While the detention centres test for HIV and tuberculosis, not all provide antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, said one Vietnamese health worker in regular contact with staff working in the centres who declined to be named. ARV is the primary treatment for HIV/AIDS which helps minimize the impact of HIV on the immune system.
“Their loved ones need to bring [ARVs] to them because they [the detainees] are not allowed to go out,” she said. However, the drugs can be confiscated because authorities fear heroin can be smuggled in, she adds. “So some of the patients may stop the [ARV] treatment.”
“In the centres we need good methadone and ARVs. The staff need to be trained and aware of that issue,” the health worker added.
Daily doses of methadone, a pain reliever, have been shown to help wean injecting drug users off heroin by blocking drug-induced euphoria and blunting their withdrawal symptoms, but in some cases, users have simply substituted one addiction for another.
As reported in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published this year, the government is providing antiretroviral treatment (ART) in compulsory detention centres in 35 of the country’s 58 provinces, and voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) as well as information, education and communication (IEC) services in 31 provinces.
Recently released World Health Organization HIV prevention and treatment guidelines call for countries to decriminalize sex work and improve sex workers’ access to health services in order to slash HIV infections among sex workers.
What next for sex workers?
“We are worried that prostitution will increase after the law [Law on Administrative Sanctions] takes effect because prostitutes may not be worried about being detained,” Le Duc Hien, also a deputy director in the Department of Social Evil Prevention, told IRIN, highlighting government divisions over the law’s passage, and calling into question among activists just how it will be enforced.
While MOLISA has discussed what services will be provided to women released on sex work charges, no concrete decisions have been taken, according to one unnamed government official. Xuan said released women will continue to receive the medical care they received while in detention, but did not provide details.
Ha, a sex worker in Hanoi, said released sex workers can apply for an interest-free loan of nearly $1,000 from the quasi-governmental Women’s Union. “There are many standards for women to borrow money. The most important is that they have to give up sex work,” she said.
The government’s National Programme of Action Against Prostitution 2011-2015 aims to reduce the number of “hotspots” for sex work by 40 percent through community-based efforts to help sex workers build alternative livelihoods.
One problem, however, said Ha, is that the Women’s Union - at the provincial level where the women apply - only lends to women who are likely to repay, which often means those who are already well off. “But they are not the ones who need it.”
Provincial Women’s Union officials did not return requests for comment, while an officer at one of the organization’s two national lending programmes, which do not offer no-interest loans, said provincial lending practices vary by site.
This leaves sex workers with few options, said Huong, another sex worker. “So they continue sex work to save the money,” she said. However, it’s difficult to save. “Usually they live with their boyfriends who are drug users, or they go gambling so he takes all the money.”
According to a recent survey of 78 male sex workers and 69 female ones on why they continued their work, nearly 48 percent of the men responded "cushy work with high income" as did half the women. Some 19 percent of men and 22 percent of women said they had not found other work; 27 percent of men and 16 percent of women noted it was to "extend social network". Nearly 11 percent of the women said it was due to the "free and comfortable life". Respondents could give more than one reason.
The average monthly income among the surveyed was $413 dollars, four times the average monthly income in urban areas nationwide.
According to the UN and HRW, at least 80 percent of sex workers and drug users, upon leaving, continue doing what landed them in the centres in the first place.
Huong said 180 women are going to be released from a centre in Ba Vi, where she had been detained, on the outskirts of Hanoi, in 2013. Of these, she said about half, based on her conversations with the women, want to return to their homes so they can start a small shop. “But they need money. The government should lend them money and help them find a job,” she said. The other half want to stay in the city and continue sex work, she added.
“They are afraid of the stigma from neighbours and family,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma. Some people don’t allow their children to go near you if they know you’re a sex worker.”
Even with detention ending, payoffs to avoid arrest are still happening, according to interviews IRIN conducted recently with sex workers in Hanoi. They reported that many workers who were unaware of the end of compulsory detention for sex workers were still being forced to pay bribes to avoid arrest - and, presumably, detention as has been the case until recently.
Getting the word out to sex workers about their rights and the law is hard, said Ha. “They work from 12am to 6am. They don’t have TV or newspapers, so they don’t know about the law.”