Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prostitution and Safe Sex in Ho Chi Minh City

(This article appeared in On the Issues Magazine in Summer 1996)

An Ex-Sex Worker Preaches Safe Sex on the Streets

by Dylan Foley

Business has been slow for the brothel owner in the western end of Ho Chi Minh City. The police are in the middle of a crackdown on prostitution as part of a campaign against "social evils," and the owner's husband recently ran off with one of the girls who worked for her.

"My girls are free to leave the house, not like other girls in the area," boasted the madam, sitting in front of her two room shack, located on a dirt road within the city limits. The young women and girls who work for her range in age from 15 to 25 and earn 70,000 dong per customer—a bit more than $6 dollars. From this, the madam subtracts a hefty amount for rent and food.

Several times a week, the madam and the girls and young women who work for her are visited by Tarn Hong Truong, an outreach worker for Save the Children UK, and a former prostitute herself. Truong distributes free condoms and teaches the women working in the area about safe sex.

Truong is a small, seemingly fearless woman, trained in the harm reduction model of AIDS prevention, in which moral judgments are suspended. Outreach workers make contact with people engaged in risky behavior—such as unsafe commercial sex or sharing needles while injecting drugs—and teach them to protect themselves. The first goal is to stop the spread of AIDS.

I met Truong for the first time in the offices of Save the Children, located in a spacious house near the center of Saigon. She talked frankly about her past. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, Truong's father, an official in the Saigon regime, was sent to prison for what would be an 11 year sentence. Truong's career as a sex worker started at this point—she sold her virginity at the age of 21 and became a prostitute to support her mother and two younger siblings. A few years later, she became addicted to drugs.

In 1992, Truong was still a commercial sex worker when she was approached by volunteers from the Save the Children. "I was skeptical about them," said Truong, but they convinced her to become an outreach worker. At this point, her father became sick and she sought help from her new boss, Van Thanh Pham. "I went to Mr. Van's house at 11 P.M., and borrowed money for medicine. Mr. Van and his wife were so kind... I felt I should change my life." Truong stopped being a sex worker and became a staff member for Save the Children.

"I'd say 70 percent of the women who work as commercial sex workers do it to support their families or themselves. It is because of the poverty," she said.

Truong took me to two brothels. The first was the brothel with the unlucky madam; she is friends with the brothel owner. The outhouse was truly outside: a deck hanging over a stagnant pool. The two rooms were dark and without ventilation. One woman was 25 and had been a sex worker for a year. The second was 17 and had a melancholy and tired expression on her face. A girl came out wearing a Donald Duck Tshirt. She was probably 15 years old. Truong had an easy manner with the madam, her women and her girls, talking about local gossip. She and the madam talked about the girl who ran off with the madam's husband; she'd had a baby and tried to sell the child for $270. The madam complained to Truong about business. The police crack down has shut several other brothels in the area. As a result, there are fewer customers than usual. The madam said that her girls had sex with one to 10 customers a night.

Truong, the translator and I got back on our scooters and went to the second brothel. Four young women sat in front of a shack under an awning, trying to stay cool in the oppressive humidity of the prerainy season. They were heavily made up; several were wearing lingerie. One of them was getting a pedicure from a local woman. All four women had recently come from the countryside, and had been in Saigon for two to six months. Despite the crackdown, a fifth woman emerged from the shack with a soldier in uniform.

At lunch in a vegetarian restaurant, Truong recounts the story of how she saved a 13 year old girl from being sold to a pimp. The girl made her living selling lottery tickets on the street. Two days in a row, her tickets were stolen, a loss of $20 for the lottery company and almost a month's salary for the girl. She was afraid to go back to her grandmother and stayed on the street. A 17 year old hustler and parttime sex worker found out about the girl's plight and befriended her. She was planning to take the girl to a nearby beachfront resort to sell her to a pimp. Truong also got word of the girl's situation and took her out for dinner. "The girl was still very naive and wouldn't even look at me," said Truong. She gained the girl's confidence and returned her to her grandmother, who was so overjoyed, Truong said, she collected the money to pay back the lottery company.

According to the official government figures, there are 3,700 cases of HIV in Vietnam. Estimates by the World Health Organization put the actual figures at 100,000. According to Van Thanh Pham of Save the Children UK, the cases of HIV and AIDS in Vietnam are projected to jump to 500,000 by 1998.

The Vietnamese government observes a contradictory policy on AIDS prevention. They allow smallscale innovative programs to curb the spread of AIDS prevention education for sex workers and hypodermic needle exchanges for intravenous drug users. But in a crackdown on "morals" they arrest prostitutes and drug users, taking them away from the AIDS outreach that might help them.

In the face of such contradictions, Truong continues her outreach to commercial sex workers. On this particular morning, she was at the Save the Children headquarters, scrounging for clean clothes for a client—a sexually abused mute woman. The woman was living in a local park after serving a one year jail sentence for prostitution; again she was doing sex work to survive. The other sex workers on the street intervened with the woman's clients, forcing the men to pay her the right price.

Truong took the woman to the other room, showing her through sign language how to put on a condom. She then scheduled another appointment with the woman, this time to try to find her a place to live. The woman's face wore the pleased, embarrassed expression of someone who is not used to kindness.

The last time I saw Truong, she was in a good mood. "A friend of mine, a wealthy, gay woman is going to give me some money, maybe two million dong, [about $180]" she said, grinning. "If I can, I want to set up a house for women who want to stop working as prostitutes."

DYLAN FOLEY, a freelance writer presently living in New York, has written frequently on internationalissues.

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