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Southeast Asia

Hanoi struggles to turn off the red light
By Nguyen Nam Phuong

HANOI - Duc (not his real name) is the owner of one of Hanoi's largest and most expensive nightclubs.

On a weeknight, the spacious club is quiet. The handful of businessmen and government officials sitting drinking cognac are outnumbered by elegant women who periodically stroll the length of the bar in search of male companions.

Duc's club is an example - albeit an upmarket one - of the kind of establishment the government is targeting in its latest ''social evils'' clampdown. Launched on June 15 to run until July 30, police are to raid establishments harboring prostitution and pornography. Warnings, closures and, in some cases prosecution, are to follow.

Middle-aged Duc is unconcerned, however. ''I have very good relations with the ministry of police,'' he explains. ''If they wanted to inspect the club, they would give me plenty of warning.''

He also makes no pretence about the service his establishment provides. ''The club acts as a broker for prostitutes and their client.'' Duc says. Entrance is free for most customers but not for sex workers. ''They have to pay, but of course we have to pay the police,'' he laughs.

The task of stamping out commercial sex in an emerging economy such as Vietnam is indeed a tough one. As urban incomes have grown over the past decade, so the number of karaoke bars, bars, discos, hair dressers and massage parlors - many offering sex services - have multiplied.

Estimates for the number of commercial sex workers vary wildly. Nguyen Thi Hue from the Social Evils Prevention Department of the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) puts the number of sex workers registered by the police at 10,000. Others put the true figure in the hundreds of thousands.

Merely reaching a definition of ''sex worker'', however, is not easy. Many women who accept money for sex are employed primarily as waitresses, masseuses and hairdressers and would never consider themselves ''prostitutes''. In some cases, cash-strapped women are even known to resort to paying landlords in sex.

Nevertheless, the government's response to the commercial sex trade is as unequivocal as the trade itself is hard to pin down. ''The country is taking sterner action to enforce a government decree on social evils because of the rapid increase in prostitution, pornography and related crimes,'' a social evil inspection official recently announced.

Clampdown campaigns are generally unannounced but often come prior to major national days or festivals. The latest, however, came in response to a directive issued by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in April, saying that ''any individuals or organizations who violate the regulations need to be strictly punished''.

Tan Lai Khieu, chief inspector of the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is spearheading the campaign, told IPS that a desire to be seen to be doing something is part of the government's motivation for the campaign. ''I don't think launching this movement secretively will bring about expected results since we mainly aim to educate people and urge them to act voluntarily,'' he said. ''Propaganda is important . . . We want to tell the people that the government is increasingly challenging social evils and needs people's support and cooperation.''

Previous crackdowns have produced plenty of statistics but no clear evidence that the sex trade is being stamped out. Last year, according the Vietnam Investment Review newspaper, 26,711 establishments, including bars, discos, hairdressers, massage parlors, karaokes, were raided and 10,051 found violating a government decree on prostitution prevention. Of those, 607 were closed and many more received warnings.

''The clampdown and arrests (have failed),'' one MoLISA official was quoted as saying last year. ''We destroy it in one place, but it appears again in another.''

Aside from the ''sophisticated'' nature of the sex trade, official collusion is a hurdle. As in Duc's case, many service establishments are known to have ''protection'' from security forces and many of the hotels that offer massage and karaoke - often fronts for commercial sex - are state-owned. And, in a surprisingly frank revelation, Hue of the Social Evils Prevention Department estimated that as many as 70 percent of the customers of sex workers were state officials or Communist Party cadres. ''Prostitution has developed in an alarming and fairly open manner in Vietnam since 1997 . . . largely due to the lack of firmness shown in punishing prostitutes' customers and particularly those who are party cadres or state officials,'' she said.

As it stands, however, the culture ministry's Khieu said in an interview: ''The level of punishment for party members or state officials and who and how to punish them is a secretive matter. Only the organizations in charge of dealing with party members would know.''

According to MoLISA, an ordinance is being drawn up that would impose stiffer penalties on both sex workers and their customers. Levels of punishment have yet to be announced.

Many observers believe, however, that law enforcement alone has no chance of stemming the trade. What's more, it could be counter-productive. ''The increasing criminalization will undoubtedly make it more difficult to reach these vulnerable women with credible and effective information and skills to protect themselves from HIV,'' says Duncan Earle, country director of DKT, a non-governmental organization involved in subsidizing and marketing condoms.

Another problem is the role of men using sex services. Most women sell sex because they have little choice and, in many cases, have to provide for children or other family members. Nevertheless, in Vietnamese society they are highly stigmatized while it is often considered normal for men to use their services.

Aside from traditional gender roles, economic factors cannot be underestimated. Says Earle: ''One of the principle reasons for the growth in commercial sex is attributable to issues of poverty in an emerging market economy, where cash is much more important to a livelihood than it was a few years ago.''

Hopes of prosperity have driven thousands of people from poor rural areas into the increasingly affluent towns and cities. ''We are seeing women flocking to the cities, where they think they can earn good money working in hotels, bars and restaurants,'' said Nguyen Kim Khuong of the Hanoi Women's Union. ''Initially they never think of selling their bodies, but then they find they can't find a job.''

In other cases, girls who find work in service establishments are pressured by their bosses into accepting propositions from customers. Oanh, a 16-year-old teenager from a rural district of northern Tuyen Quang province, came to Tuyen Quang town on the promise of work as a hairdresser. The job materialized and the $35 a month wage was far more than she could make in her village. But the job came with a condition: ''My boss told me to say 'yes' to anything the customer asked me to do. He told me the customer was always right,'' Oanh says.

Before long, a man asked her to go to drink coffee with him. They ended up at a park where he made a pass at her. ''I didn't know what to do so I gave in,'' she says.

Three months later she enjoys earning the extra income and says she can see nothing wrong with what she does.

(Inter Press Service)



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