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Associated Press
Vietnam Takes Tougher Line On AIDS, Prostitution, Drugs

January 9, 2002
BA VI, Vietnam (AP)--It's the second time Dang Thuy Quynh has been sent to this government rehabilitation camp for prostitutes and drug users. This time she says she will ask to stay longer when her one-year term ends.

"I was a drug addict, and I'm afraid if I go back to the city it will be very easy to become addicted again," she said.

The last time she was released, Quynh, 20, had no job and went back to work in a brothel, despite knowing she was infected with the AIDS virus. She says she's happy now in Ba Vi, away from her former life in Hanoi, 65 kilometers away.

"I don't want to spread this disease to other people," she said.

But Quynh's chances of staying at the camp are slim because Vietnam's government has decided to send each of the country's 130,000 known drug addicts to mandatory rehabilitation programs over the next five years. That will crowd the country's 51 existing camps and require large amounts of money to build and run new centers.

Local officials have been given the power to send suspected prostitutes and drug users to rehabilitation centers without any legal process.

The decision to impose compulsory treatment was made despite extremely high relapse rates at Vietnam's current rehabilitation centers. Ninety-seven percent of addicts in Hanoi are back on drugs within five years of treatment, officials say. High failure rates are common in other Asian countries as well.

The move signals that a fierce debate within the Communist government over how to battle AIDS and drug addiction has been won for now - as in several other Southeast Asian countries - by those who favor a tough stance against prostitution and drugs.

Some Say Raids, Imprisonment Don't Work

Experts had argued that harsh crackdowns drive drug use and prostitution further underground, making it difficult to educate people at high risk for AIDS and to conduct "harm reduction" programs such as needle exchanges and condom distribution.

That could threaten progress achieved in the region in battling AIDS in recent years, U.N. experts say.

"'Social evils' is all the rage now in Southeast Asia," said Jamie Uhrig, an AIDS consultant based in Vietnam. "The problem is, it doesn't work. Imprisoning people with addictions or those involved in sex work does not seem to help public health."

Vietnam's government has conducted well-publicized raids on discos and karaoke bars suspected of allowing drug use and prostitution.

It also plans to send prostitutes' clients to "education courses" and notify their families and bosses of their misdeeds. An estimated 70% of prostitutes' customers are government officials.

In Cambodia, where education and condom-promotion programs have sharply reduced the region's highest HIV infection rate, Prime Minister Hun Sen recently ordered the closure of all bars and nightclubs, saying they encouraged violence and drug use.

In Thailand, which also brought down its HIV infection rate with AIDS education and condom distribution programs in brothels, the government has reversed a permissive policy toward the sex industry and is shutting down bars that stay open late or employ nude dancers.

Inmates Undergo Re-education and Job Training

Officials at the Ba Vi camp, which is treating 232 female prostitutes and drug addicts, say simply penalizing drug use and prostitution isn't enough. They have watched the number of inmates testing positive for HIV climb from just one in 1996 to 103 now.

The women's camp - considerably less severe than a program for male addicts at an adjacent walled-in portion of what was once a state farm - emphasizes detoxification, re-education, AIDS understanding and physical labor. Women inmates can choose from farming, sewing, incense making, silkworm raising and hairdressing, with their income supplementing the center's meager monthly budget of 250,000 dong ($1=VND15,096) per inmate.

"We are attempting to change their behavior and attitude toward society to make it more correct. Most do not have any job skills," said Nguyen Vi Hung, director of Hanoi's Department for Social Evils Prevention.

"If they are not given any job training or treatment they would be very dangerous to society," he said.

Officials and others say most Vietnamese women in the sex industry are forced into the work by poverty and lack of jobs.

"When everyone is able to find a good job, that will reduce the number of people in the sex trade," said Le Ngoc Anh, 24, another HIV-positive inmate. "If I go home and can find a job, then I won't re-enter the sex trade. But if I don't, I'm not sure."

Critics say the job skills taught at the camp are too low-paying and more should be done to help women after they leave. They say scarce resources should be used to support former inmates become AIDS educators among their friends instead of for a high-failure nationwide compulsory rehabilitation program.

With a national budget of just VND50 billion a year for AIDS prevention, the government has too little money to pay even VND150,000 a month to released inmates who want to become AIDS educators, Hung said.

"I would like to be an AIDS communicator if I could be one, because it would help me and help society," said Quynh. "I hope I can help others in the sex industry so they don't get this disease."

Web sites:

U.N. site on AIDS in Asia:

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