China and Vietnam have a similar culture and political system, which is why sex workers experience similar challenges. The conference ‘Women and HIV in the Context of Commercial Sex’, taking place last November in Beijing, offered an opportunity to exchange knowledge. An interview with Lanlan, one of the attendees who became inspired by our colleague Thuy, from Vietnam.

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Lanlan and I live in Tainjin, China. I began to work as a sex worker in 2000. During my volunteer work for an AIDS organisation, I became aware of the health risks that female sex workers run, and so in 2008 I established my own organisation, the Tianjin Xin’Ai Center for Female Sex Workers. The organisation provides HIV and STD prevention services for female sex workers in Tianjin as well as legal training and policy advocacy. I was happy that Nguyen Thi Thuy from Vietnam participated in the conference in Beijing, because Vietnam’s response to sex worker issues helps us to think about how to solve the issues in China. <Read more>

What was the importance of the conference?

The conference aimed to identify key barriers in laws and policies and their implementation that increase sex workers’ vulnerability to HIV and AIDS in China. In addition, we wanted to develop recommendations to address and remove those barriers. This was the first time that legal issues regarding sex workers and ways in which law enforcement increases sex workers’ HIV vulnerability were discussed at the national level. About 60 people attended the conference, including representatives of the government, UN agencies and civil society organisations, sex workers, lawyers, and scholars. The conference was co-organised by the Red Ribbon Forum, UNAIDS, UNFPA, and UNDP.

What were the main outcomes?

We talked about how law enforcement in China hampers HIV response among sex workers, through suppression of sex work, using condoms as evidence of prostitution, and the Custody and Education system for female sex workers and clients. We learned from experiences on HIV, sex work and the law in the Asia Pacific region, and heard from representatives from New Zealand, Switzerland and Vietnam about health and rights protection of sex workers. A draft policy recommendation on the role of community-based organisations and law enforcement, compiled by an expert group, was presented during the conference. Participants discussed it and provided valuable feedback. After the conference, the expert group will continue to work on the policy recommendation based on the feedback, and use various channels to submit it to the government.

In what way was the contribution of Ms Thuy from Vietnam so inspiring?

Vietnam closed down the ‘05 centers’, the detention centers for drug users and sex workers. Ms Thuy and her sex worker colleagues were involved in the process. In China, we have similar centers for sex workers, the Custody and Education centers, and we are advocating to end this system. It was great to hear from the Vietnamese representatives why they decided to close down the centers and how they accomplished this.

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