Vo­ca­tional tur­moil

Outlook - - FRONT PAGE - By Hoàng Thuùy

Com­mer­cial sex work­ers try­ing to turn over a new leaf find it dif­fi­cult to ful­fill their fa­mil­ial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with al­ter­nate pro­fes­sions that of­fer mea­gre, un­sta­ble in­comes.

V uõ 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 Soùng Bieån (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 ñoàng 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 Soùng Bieån 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 Phaïm Thò 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 Soùng Bieån 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 Khaùnh Hoøa cen­tral coastal prov­ince, seek­ing the grad­ual elim­i­na­tion of pros­titu- tion through the sup­port of new ca­reers for sex work­ers.

Khaùnh Hoøa is a tourist des­ti­na­tion that brings to­gether many ser­vices that cater to vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing pros­ti­tu­tion, says Nguyeãn Quoác Thoâng, act­ing head of the Khaùnh Hoøa'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, Thoâng adds.

It is in the same year that the Soùng Bieån Club was given VNÑ10 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 VNÑ1.5 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 Khaùnh Hoøa's Anti-So­cial Evils Agency, showed there were about 500 women sus­pected of be­ing in­volved in sex work in Khaùnh Hoøa. About 33 sex work­ers have been put on file an­nu­ally, though ac­tual fig­ures for sex work­ers could be higher, Thoâng says.

Women sus­pected of be­ing sex work­ers mainly come from other cities and prov­inces across the coun­try and have come to Soùng Bieån 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 Khaùnh Hoøa 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, Thoâng 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 (Khaùnh Hoøa is not in­cluded) are granted a max­i­mum of VNÑ20 mil­lion ($952) for an in­di­vid­ual or VNÑ30 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 An­tiSo­cial Evils Depart­ment Leâ Ñöùc Hieàn 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 Khaùnh Hoøa bor­row money to help them give up sex work, Thoâng 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, Thoâng 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.

Al­ter­na­tives: Tai­lor­ing is taught to in­mates of the Labour Re-Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre .2 in Haø Noäi, home to nearly 300 for­mer drug ad­dicts and sex work­ers. VNA/VNS Photo Phuøng Trieäu

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