It was past midnight and Ngo Thi Mong Linh had already gone to sleep when her cellphone suddenly rang. Linh knew all too well what to anticipate from the other end.
“A sex worker was urging me to come to rescue her,” Linh recalled in an interview. “Her client robbed her of all her money after severely beating her up. When I was there, all she could do was embrace me and burst into tears.”
Linh’s routine work offered a small glimpse into what has happened countless times to tens of thousands of Vietnamese sex workers who fall prey to physical violence, rape, and HIV. According to a recent survey by the Vietnamese government-run Institute of Labor Science and Social Affairs, nearly 44 percent of all sex workers have suffered from physical violence by their clients. Nearly 46 percent of them did not report the assaults to authorities because they neither knew the laws and nor trusted the authorities, according to the survey of 150 sex workers.
In a country where prostitution remains illegal, sex workers have found their own ways to defend themselves from sexual violence.
“We’ve provided them with self-defense skills and encouraged them to stand united with one another to deal with unscrupulous clients by naming and shaming them in our circle,” said Linh, a former prostitute who is now an active member of the Vietnam Network of Sex Workers. There have been cases in which a group of sex workers coalesced to beat up clients who stole money from other prostitutes. “We’ve kept saying that if the sex workers don’t stand up for one another, no one will bother to do so. I’m so glad to see that they now care for their counterparts much more than before,” Linh said.
The attitude of Vietnamese sex workers toward one another is changing. So is that of the authorities in a country that is still dominated by Confucian social mores and where prostitution is categorized as a social evil.
In 2013, Vietnam abolished compulsory rehabilitation for sex workers, slapping fines of the equivalent of $25 to $100 on them instead. The move has since sparked fierce debates among researchers, officials, and lawmakers on whether the country should legalize sex work.
Proponents of legalizing prostitution in Vietnam say the move is critical because it could significantly reduce the transmission of HIV among sex workers. Advocates cite studies that indicate that in places where prostitution is illegal, sex workers are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases. They also say even though Vietnam has declared its “war on prostitution,” sex work has continued to thrive anyway. The intent is not to stem prostitution, but to better manage it.
“Legalizing prostitution would also reduce violence and sex crimes such as rape and sexual violence,” said Kimberly Kay Hoang, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Chicago who authored a 2011 study about sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City. “[S]ex workers would feel safe calling the police to report instances of violence and abuse by clients, traffickers, and pimps to law enforcement officials.”
But those in the opposing camp are adamant that prostitution is an emblem of moral decadence and is strongly associated with organized crimes such as drug trafficking, human smuggling, and money laundering. Le Duc Hien, deputy director of a government department tasked with fighting social evils under the labor ministry, crystallized this by telling the local media: “It would be a strategic mistake to tap prostitution as an industry to boost tourism revenues. What would happen if we recognize sex work as a profession but fail to manage it later on?”
Some 70 countries on five continents have legalized prostitution, including Brazil, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Singapore, and Australia. According to a report by the United Nations Development Program, it is partly legal in nearly half of 11 Southeast Asian countries; that means that selling sex in those countries is legal, but soliciting prostitution, operating a brothel, or other forms of pimping are not.
According to the UNAIDS, the AIDS-fighting agency of the United Nations, violence against sex workers is perpetrated not only by their clients, but also by venue managers, other sex workers, intimate partners, police officers, uniformed men, and other agents of the state.
And this is a global problem. The UN agency has acknowledged that sex workers face significant, unique challenges that amplify HIV risk and exacerbate exclusion from essential health services. Criminalization leaves sex workers vulnerable to pressure for unprotected sex, condom confiscation by police as evidence of sex work, and sexual violence with impunity.
“We cannot end AIDS without ending sexual violence against marginalized women,” Angela Trenton-Mbonde, UNAIDS senior advisor, said at a side event of the Commission on the Status of Women, an annual functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council, which took place in March at the UN Headquarters in New York.
Still, changes are in the offing in Vietnam. Authorities in economic hubs like Ho Chi Minh City have proposed to set up “red zones” like those in Singapore on a trial basis, providing areas where prostitution would be regulated. In March, the government said vaguely in a document that it would allow several localities to pilot regulating prostitution-prone establishments to ensure the rights of employees at those places and better support them.
There are currently over 33,000 sex workers in Vietnam, official figures show, and about 2.6 percent of them have HIV, according to a survey in 41 provinces in 2013. But researchers say the actual number could be as high as 200,000; 40 percent of them are said to be HIV-positive. The reasons for HIV infection are varied, but it’s chiefly because a majority of sex workers have multiple partners with inconsistent condom use. In some cases, they have to defer to their client’s demand not to use condoms. There are also sex workers who inject drugs and share needles, which would increase the risk of HIV infection.
“Vietnam is still short of the highest political will to legalize prostitution,” said Khuat Thi Hai Oanh, who founded and directs the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives, an advocacy group that seeks to improve the quality of life for the most marginalized populations in the country. “Perhaps because such a move implies too many political risks which would dwarf any possible gains for the authorities,” Oanh said.
“But to be fair, Vietnam’s relevant policies on prostitution have made some significant headway,” she said. “There are reasons and indicators to hope for an even better change in the future.”
But Linh, the former sex worker, may not be able to live to see the change she has been fighting for.
After testing HIV-positive in 2007, Linh had anticipated that she would die five years later. Since quitting prostitution, she has become a social worker. She joined the Vietnam Network of Sex Workers in 2013, and has dedicated the rest of her life to support sex workers across the country.
“I have a dream,” she said, “that one day my peers would no longer suffer sexual violence or contract HIV because of that. There will be not social stigma against us. There will be no sex worker who has to receive up to 35 clients a day,” she said, referring to a 23-year-old sex worker she interviewed last year in Do Son, a prostitution hotspot in the northern port city of Hai Phong.
The problem could get much worse since more than 90 percent of the country’s funding for the fight against HIV/AIDS comes from international donors, who have been withdrawing funding since 2015 as a result of Vietnam’s new middle-income status categorized by the World Bank.
In this context, Linh says she believes that legalizing prostitution would be the best avenue to protect people like her. By lobbying for it, Linh is well aware she and other advocates are facing an uphill battle.
“Imagine one day we would be insured, have regular health checkups, and are protected from permanent threats of sexual violence by clients, pimps, and others,” she said. “It’s a rocky road ahead. But we will keep fighting until we can.”
Dien Luong is a master’s candidate at Columbia Journalism School, New York.