by Nguyen Thu Hien
CAN THO (VNS)— When a couple enters Nguyen Phuong Dung's hotel, the owner always goes through the same routine. He completes their registration, shows them to their room, and makes sure they have plenty of condoms.
|A volunteer in Can Tho puts syrignes and condoms into a box in an area with a high HIV infection rate. —VNS Photo Thu Hien
"I used to just focus on earning as much profit as possible. The more customers stayed at my hotel, the happier I felt," the hotel owner said. "I used to think what people did in my hotel or whether they engaged in safe sex was none of my business."
But now, Dung's attitude has changed. Thanks to a determined campaign to spread awareness throughout the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, nearly all the hotels in the city and a large number of restaurants and coffee shops provide free condoms for their customers.
This kind of broad movement would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago, said Lai Kim Anh, director of the city's HIV/AIDS Combat and Prevention Centre. When she suggested that changing people's attitudes about condom usage could be the city's main strategy to prevent HIV/AIDS, she was widely condemned.
"Many people, even high-ranking officials, thought I was crazy," Anh recalled.
At that time, she said, condoms were a completely taboo subject. Convincing people not only to think about them, but also to change their attitudes and voluntarily use condoms, represented an uphill battle.
But Anh and her fellow activists were determined to make a difference. They began by sticking big posters with colourful images of condoms and guidance on how to use them on one of the city's main roads. Motorbike drivers (xe om) were also persuaded to wear shirts bearing images of condoms.
"When people saw the condom image publicly for the first time, they felt uncomfortable. But the second time, they felt less uncomfortable. After several years, they became habituated to it," Anh said.
That meant it was time to take the next step: meeting with hotel owners to persuade them to provide condoms for their customers. Because police once assumed that condoms meant prostitution, hotel owners did not dare to be associated with this symbol of social evil. But after Anh convinced policemen to participate in meetings with hotel owners, she says, the owners became more receptive.
"Step by step, as water erodes stone," attitudes changed, she said. After a few months receiving free condoms, hotels started to spend their own money on condoms. Some even chose high-quality condoms that their customers would enjoy.
"Protecting my customers from HIV/AIDS means I am indirectly protecting myself and my family," said Dung.
Although providing condoms costs him a small amount, he writes it off as just another necessary expense.
"Condoms are just like the other basic things we provide in the hotel room such as bath soap, shampoo and toothpaste," the owner said.
Coffee shops, especially those that provide prostitution services, have also started stocking free condoms for their employees. The city currently has 300 such shops. About 1 million condoms are distributed by these shops annually (not taking into account the number of condoms sold in pharmacies) and more than 80 per cent of prostitutes use condoms for their sexual business activities.
According to a recent survey, less than 2 per cent of prostitutes have HIV. And when it comes to STDs in general, less than 3 per cent of men and less than 0.5 per cent of pregnant women have these diseases.
Beside changing attitudes towards condom usage, the city has also made efforts to prevent drug addicts from using unsafe syringes, placing nearly 100 boxes with free syringes in places where addicts gather to use drugs.
Anh has also put forward the idea of using machines to dispense condoms.
"This journey has no ending because when new generations are born, they will need to learn about HIV/AIDS," she said. "Assistance is much better than prohibition." — VNS