Last update 11/13/2010 10:07:00 PM (GMT+7)

Should Vietnam experiment with “red light streets”?

VietNamNet Bridge – Establishing limited areas where prostitution is allowed, under strict rules that protect prostitutes and everyone else, is an idea supported by many officials and experts.

A reporter from Phap Luat HCMC found that three of the five prostitutes he interviewed at the Phu Nghia Rehabilitation Centre in HCM City supported the idea of legalized “red light districts.”

Phan Thi C.Y. said that “I suppose that if I work in such a zone, I will have to wear an ID card and everybody will know what I do, but I think it is better than the current situation when we live in fear of  getting infectious diseases and being beaten or cheated.”

“I don’t know what I will do after I leave this centre, because I don’t even have a primary school diploma,” C.Y. added.  “Perhaps I will go back to the business (prostitution) because I have to take care of my mother and my younger brother.”

Last year the Agency for Social Evil Prevention (Ministry of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs) polled over 4000 officials in five provinces and cities where there are high numbers of prostitutes, asking about the concept and methodology of prostitution control. The agency was surprised to learn that fully half of the officials in Haiphong and HCM City favored gathering prostitutes into designated red light zones. In the other three localities, 20 to 30 percent of the officials supported this idea.

Twenty-nine of the fifty officials polled by the HCM City Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs were in favor. More recently, the National Institute for Administration’s HCMC branch surveyed nearly 500 officials and found that 26 percent consider Vietnam’s current methods of combatting prostitution to have failed.

Those who favored establishing red light streets said that a part of the population is always going to experience outside-of-marriage sexual desire and this initiative can satisfy it. It can protect prostitutes from diseases and violence.  Also, it will make it easier for the authorities to deal with prostitution outside the “red light districts”.

Those who opposed this idea expressed concern that setting up red light streets would be an offence to Vietnamese custom and habits, with bad consequences – open sale of ‘sex’ and offence to women’s dignity.

Experts chime in

Phap Luat HCMC asked some experts what they thought about this idea.

Asst. Prof., Dr. Nguyen Chi Dung of the Sociology Institute, a unit of the Ho Chi Minh City branch of the National Institute for Administration said “In the past we banned prostitution and that policy was successful. Why? Because at that time the political system and social management were tighter, personal freedom was limited, there was greater communal solidarity, the traditional family structure was still in place and traditional notions of  love and marriage prevailed.

“In other words, our social organizations could control the behavior of their members. Significantly, officials set a good example for the people.  However, since we transitioned to the market-oriented economy, everything has become loose so the fight against prostitution has faltered.

“The fight must be prosecuted in three aspects: curbing the source of supply, curbing demand and dealing with the harmful effects of prostitution. Prostitutes are mainly poor, uneducated and unemployed women.  What can we do so they will refuse to sell their bodies?

“There are two kinds of demand. Widowed or divorced people can be thought of as having a legitimate need for sex. Other customers are illegitimate, and that’s the larger number.

“Last, we need more effective measures to deal with sexually transmitted diseases. We have to consider all of these things when we make a decision.

“I personally think combating prostitution must be the top priority, but we still ought to set up red light streets on a trial basis. In such zones, instead of arresting prostitutes, the authorities would establish rules, require them to register and provide health check-ups and advisory services.”

Nguyen Van Minh, deputy director of HCM City Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs, believes a five year experiment is warranted.

“Apart from providing vocational training services and creating other jobs for prostitutes, we should zone a red light area to concentrate the karaoke bars, discotheques, massage centres, etc. Then we can ban these services elsewhere.

“People who feel they require such services need to accept limits on where they can get them, while we apply a ban in other areas to build up social standards.  Local authorities ought to have regulations for prostitutes, for example health checks, social insurance, a minimum working age.

“This result would be more civilized cities, a supply that meets the legitimate demand for commercial sex and a means of controlling social order as well as sexually transmitted diseases. We will achieve the highest goal of protecting the interests of prostitutes. At present prostitutes not only must sell their bodies for a living but they also end up supporting pimps and dealing with their diseases.

“Let’s try this idea for five years. I know its not a panacea. There will be certain associated problems but at least we can control the situation. At present, we just don’t have enough resources to control prostitution.

Le Truong Giang, deputy director of HCM City Department of Health and vice chairman of the HCM City Committee for AIDS Prevention says red light zones will challenge social standards.

“Our national policy is that prostitution is not acceptable. This viewpoint is supported by the law and our social standards. However, it’s a fact that anti-prostitution activities can only slow the development of prostitution, not eliminate it.

“If we set up red light zones, it means that we accept prostitution there and we have to amend our laws.  However, this is incompatible with our social standard. The law must respect and support social morality. Can we educate the people to change their awareness or social standard?  I don’t think so.

“Until now, Vietnamese people have considered prostitution immoral. Will that change when we have red light zones? How many girls will go there to work? How many people will dare to enter that zone to enjoy themselves?

“If we have several red light zones that host, perhaps, only five or ten percent of the total number prostitutes and less than 50 percent of the ‘players,’ these zones will not help deal with social issues. There will still be plenty of prostitutes operating outside these zones – just like now – and the authorities will have to deal with two situations in parallel: both opening red light streets and controlling prostitution outside these zones. Can we do this?

“I don’t protest the notion of opening red light streets but I doubt it will bring much benefit -- and it challenges our standards and morality. So what should we do? Looking at the facts, we see that there are already less actual streetwalkers but that’s just because they disguise themselves under legal jobs like waitresses at restaurants or employees of hairdressing salons.

“The solution I prefer is strengthening management over sensitive services that are indirectly related to prostitution. That doesn’t mean hunting prostitutes but rather controlling this activity according to moral standards, supplying health services for those who do sensitive jobs, delivering condoms, educating them how to prevent infectious diseases, etc.”

Nguyen Ngoc Thach, chief of HCM City Bureau for Combating Social Evils says red light streets should be for foreigners only. “Before we experiment with such zones, we need to consider whether our police are qualified to manage them and whether public opinion will support the experiment.

“In countries where prostitution is legal, illegal prostitution still exists. Why? The illegal ones dodge taxes.  We need also to consider if we should take care of elderly prostitutes.  We have to be very careful. In my view, if we open red light streets on a trial basis, we should permit only foreigners to enter such zones.”