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Sex workers struggle to give up prostitution

Update: December, 22/2014 - 11:27

Alternatives: Tailoring is taught to inmates of the Labour Re-Education Centre .2 in Ha Noi, home to nearly 300 former drug addicts and sex workers. — VNA/VNSPhoto Phung Trieu

by Hong Thuy

Vu Mai Hoa (not her real name) does not know what the rest of her life is going to be like. But there is one thing she knows for sure: She no longer wants to resort to prostitution to make a living.

A turning point, which made her wish come true, was when Hoa was introduced to the Song Bien (Sea Wave) Club. It is here she was provided with not only HIV education and health services but was also taught how to sew woolen handbags to provide her a livelihood and reduce the need for her to engage in prostitution.

Yet, the choice of staying free from working as a sex worker is not easy for the 29 year-old woman.

Though Hoa is diligent and enthusiastic about making woolen purses to earn a living, the income she receives from the craft is meager and she is not able to pay for housing, food, and day care for her two children.

"It is not easy to find customers to sell my handbags to, even when I have to count on club members to sell them," she says.

Hoa is still struggling to not return to prostitution, as she works for a barbershop where men come to have their hair cut and often have sex with the staff. She generally does not return home until 9pm, when it is time to begin her duties of house chores and being a mother.

As a sex worker, she earns millions of dong every month, which is barely enough to pay for her rent and food. Her four year old daughter often has to stay home alone because she does not have enough money to pay for her school fees.

Can they give it up?

Similar to Hoa, each member at the Song Bien Club has her own story to tell. What they have in common is that they have all engaged in sexual relations in exchange for money.

There are 40 regular members in the club, and about half of them are still working in the field, says Pham Thi Mai Thanh, head of the club.

"Many club members want to abandon prostitution. But they find it impossible as long as they have to earn money to support themselves and their families. Compounding the problem is that it is easier for them to earn money from being a sex worker than from doing manual work. And some want to be prostitutes because they hope they will meet good guys to help them out of their difficulties," Thanh says.

Understanding this, the Song Bien Club - a self-funded organization - was founded in 2009, underpinning its mission with the need for inclusion of support for livelihoods through micro credit, vocational training, legal support, reproductive health services, and HIV education.

It is one of the first clubs established in response to a movement directed by authorities in Khanh Hoa central coastal province, seeking the gradual elimination of prostitution through the support of new careers for sex workers.

Khanh Hoa is a tourist destination that brings together many services that cater to visitors, including prostitution, says Nguyen Quoc Thong, acting head of the Khanh Hoa's Anti-Social Evils Agency.

To minimize this form of "service", the province has, since 2009, been providing credit to former sex workers to help them learn to make a living performing work other than prostitution, and it has become a pioneer in the movement against prostitution, Thong adds.

It is in the same year that the Song Bien Club was given VND10 million (US$50) to buy a sewing machine, tools, and materials for making wool handbags. Accordingly, any member who wishes to learn the craft is provided balls of wool and a crochet-hook.

As time went by, many club members have become proficient in making wool handbags. But sales of the products have been stagnant, putting the club in a situation where it can do nothing but encourage its members to find customers on their own.

Hoa is among the majority of members, who make handbags only when they receive orders from customers. Very few are able to earn up to a maximum of VND1.5 million ($71) per month from making wool handbags.

"All we can do is to teach them a craft from which they may find it possible to reduce the need to engage in sex work. We don't know how to help them lead a stable life and give up sex work," Thanh says.

Low demand for loans

Last year's statistics, released by the Khanh Hoa's Anti-Social Evils Agency, showed there were about 500 women suspected of being involved in sex work in Khanh Hoa. About 33 sex workers have been put on file annually, though actual figures for sex workers could be higher, Thong says.

Women suspected of being sex workers mainly come from other cities and provinces across the country and have come to Song Bien and other clubs in the province to receive HIV education and reproductive health services.

Due to this, they are not entitled to borrow money. Under the province's lending policy, only sex workers who have permanent residences in the province and are certified by authorities in precincts or communes as having stopped engaging in sex work are eligible for loans.

With this policy in place, many sex workers have been prevented from gaining access to bank loans, though Khanh Hoa authorities are keen on supporting them to improve their living standards.

Further, only 21 former sex workers have borrowed money, allowing them to create new livelihoods. Others are unlikely to seek money or they might have had access to the national Poverty Alleviation Fund, Thong says.

'It is an unresolved problem, and the province has been struggling to come up with a solution," he adds.

Aware of the need for supporting new jobs for former sex workers when they are living in the community, the Government issued a decision on this matter in mid-June, this year.

Accordingly, former sex workers in 15 pilot provinces (Khanh Hoa is not included) are granted a maximum of VND20 million ($952) for an individual or VND30 million ($1,428) for a household to adopt new livelihoods.

Of note, qualified lenders are not required to seek the women's properties as security for loans, according to the decision.

Yet, deputy head of Anti-Social Evils Department Le Duc Hien says it is only sex workers who are determined to give up sex work and be brave and confident that they can cope with the stigma that might be associated with borrowing money.

"This decision will become easier after five or ten years, because people in society will stop stigmatising sex workers. Instead, society will look at them as a vulnerable group that deserves to be assisted," he says.

In an attempt to help more sex workers living and working in Khanh Hoa borrow money to help them give up sex work, Thong says his agency will propose to the Government to amend a regulation on support for new jobs for former sex workers.

Preparatory work is underway to help former sex workers integrate into the community through taking part in peer groups to make handicrafts to generate income.

By doing this, society will look at them as normal citizens, other than as sex workers, Thong says.

"I'm happier in a regular job than in sex work. This motivates me to learn the craft, so I can hopefully sustain myself with the income from it when I get older," Hoa says. — VNS

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