“Love us just like you love your family members.”
Vietnam Network of Sex Workers (VNSW) has representatives from 21 cities and provinces across the north, the south and the middle of Vietnam. We have 32 community-based organisations from these 21 provinces and cities that are members of VNSW.
What are the priority areas that VNSW works in? What is VNSW’s area of work specifically?
Our biggest priority area is in building the capacity of our member organisations. This has been our primary focus for the past two years as VNSW has only been established since 2012.
Before 2012 we also had a lot of activities, even before the network was officially established, just as community organisations working together. For example, we worked together to close down the Detention Centre Number 05 in Vietnam. We did advocacy on this issue since around 2008, right through until 2013 when the detention centre was officially closed. It is one of the biggest activities we have worked on and our biggest achievement.
As the national network we are more focussed on advocacy around laws and policies, and supporting and strengthening our member organisations. VNSW member organisations are the ones who provide local level support to individual sex workers.
Our overall aim as a network is to represent the voices and act for the legitimate interests of sex workers in Vietnam, in order to improve quality of life and decrease stigma and discrimination against sex workers.
Building the capacity of our member CBOs is top priority now because the network is still quite young and the capacity of the members is still low compared to the other the networks who are active in Vietnam. We need to improve knowledge of the laws, and of harm reduction principles, and build organizational development skills.
VNSW is not specifically focussed on decriminalisation of sex work just now, but it is included in all of the activities we carry out, whether with small CBOs or large-scale network activities.
How did VNSW start up?
In the past we saw there were several networks such as the network for PLHIV and network for PWUD, and we realised we should do the same thing for sex workers because all these networks had been very successful and had made lots of positive changes for their communities.
There is a forum for civil society organisations called the Vietnam Civil Society Partnership platform on AIDS (VCSPA), and they hold annual meetings for all the key populations to gather together. In 2012, at this meeting, we realised there was a very big demand for all the sex workers to get together to create a network in order to have a bigger voice and do bigger things together. So we contacted all the community group leaders by email and by telephone, and the network was officially established in 2012.
We established a board/coordinating committee consisting of five people that were voted for by the member CBOs.
When we started out, there were just 11 CBOs representing 7 provinces and cities. Now we have grown much larger and have 32 groups/CBOs representing 21 provinces and cities in our membership.
What were the biggest events or challenges VNSW has worked on in the past?
We can definitely say that closing down Detention Centre Number 05 is our biggest achievement. In the past there were still a lot of traditional values that society would put on women, and back then we never even imagined there would come a day when the centre was closed down.
Detention Centre Number 05 was the detention centre where they put drug users and sex workers. After you were arrested you would be put in there for at least 3 months, or even up to 2 years depending on the severity of your ‘crime’ – as they called it.
It was not officially a ‘prison’. On the paperwork it was called “Vocational Centre” or “Educational centre” – and after you committed a ‘crime’, such as using drugs or doing sex work, you would be sent there as a ‘merciful’ alternative to a jail sentence.
When we were put in there we had to work all day and night, we could not eat properly and could not rest properly. For example, each person might have to put 60 mosquito nets together by hand each day, but there were people with disabilities, and sick people, and they were not given medicine.
In the centre they would teach the way to do another job so that after you get out you will be able to earn money by doing something else, not by doing sex work.
On the paperwork, it says you still have human rights in there, but in reality when you were put there you have no human rights at all and sometimes it is even worse than in prison.
If you were assigned to sewing classes, we used to say it was inevitable that you got sick or injured at some point. This was because you were required to make a certain number of things per day and sometimes people had to work so hard that they would just collapse right there on the job.
Overall, just imagine a place where you have no rights and you have to work like slaves.
Making change started when we began forming community based organisations. Then we started to get help from the established NGOs; they invited us to conferences in order to talk to stakeholders including ‘experts’ and the government. We shared our stories. We demonstrated that even after six or seven times of being arrested and put in the detention centre, we still did not (or were not able) to give up drugs or sex work. It was not an effective program.
We got a lot of people on our side, a huge number of allies. We received lots of supports from big NGOs and even some of the government agencies also agreed with our point and helped us like talk a little bit about it at those forums and conferences.
We did surveys and collected data on the experiences of people who had already come back from the detention centres who said the jobs they were forced to learn in the centres were not even helpful when they got out.
The effectiveness was not there, and we could show it. And each day we said something new about this and the lack of human rights, till it reached a point one day where it finally got shut down.
What we learned out of this whole process was that the government is not against sex workers specifically. The idea, their idea, about the detention centres was that they want us to have a good purpose, they want us to learn new things in order for us to earn money with new jobs, not by doing sex work. But the implementation was bad, was terrible, and it hurt the community.
And out of this process the government also learned about the role of the community. From that point onward, when the Vietnamese government wanted to come up with some new polices, they invite the community representatives like us to the table to talk and listen to our opinions. They ask us what do you really want, and how can we help you do it, and to what extent.
For example, just a few months ago the government invited us to talk about thee “strategy against prostitution” for the 2016-2020 period. Sex workers from 15 provinces were invited there to share their experiences and their voice, and this is a very big move.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for VNSW and sex workers in Vietnam in the future?
Actually we are very optimistic about the future of sex workers in Vietnam right now because at this time we see a lot of big moves and positive changes from the Government.
We are now able to sit at the same table with them and they listen to us. They ask us questions, ask our opinions, and they listen to us with a lot of respect and take in our opinions. In the past that never happened and whenever we raise our voice they will say no, stop.
So now they start to listen to our voices and recognise our efforts, and that is what gives us our optimistic view into the future.
One of our biggest concerns, however, is when sponsors [donors] leave Vietnam. Like Global Fund, for example, at some point they will stop funding Vietnam. We know this will happen one day; so how can we build capacity to be strong enough and equip ourselves with the right skills to find donors and funds in order to have sufficient income to carry out our activities? That is our challenge.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement?
From Ms. Thuy: “Forever proud to be a sex worker!”
This is because by being sex a worker I am able to understand the experiences of other sex workers and I can work with them to raise our voices and change things.
Do you have one message for people outside of the movement?
The message from us both, Ms Thuy and Ms My, is:
“Love us just like you love your family members.” 🙂