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Strengthening legal frameworks to protect child victims of commercial sexual exploitation

by Thanh Huong and Anita Dodds

Children are now entering prostitution at a younger age, compared to five years ago. While the most commonly observed age for children entering prostitution in Viet Nam is 14-15 years old, the youngest observed age of entry into prostitution was eight years old. This photo is for illustration purpose only! 
© UN Viet Nam\shutterstock48041263\Jose AS Reyes

Traps lurking in big cities

Linh (*) was born into a poor family in Chau Doc, a small town in the Mekong Delta region of Viet Nam. She did not enjoy school and dropped out without completing lower secondary level. Despite her parents’ concerns, Linh followed the path of many young people from her region and headed to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to look for a job. She was only 16 years old and knew very little about Viet Nam’s biggest city.

She first got a job in a ball point pen factory near HCMC, but soon moved to work at a coffee shop where she was told she could earn more money. However, it was there Linh started her days as a sex worker. She met an elderly man at the coffee shop and later sold her virginity to him for VND3 million ($150). The man returned numerous times and she saved enough money to buy a cell phone and sent the rest to her mother. “My parents called me many times to warn me about the risks of living alone in HCMC. They didn’t want me to give them money, but I knew they needed it.  I promised them that I wouldn’t do any dirty job,” Linh said.

But, Linh could not keep her promise. A woman in the coffee shop convinced Linh to continue selling sex as she was no longer a virgin and had nothing to lose. She then moved to a massage place to sell sex.  She worked there for six months and as the youngest girl, she had the most customers. “Some customers were very aggressive.  They hurt me during sex.  I got more money if I didn’t use a condom. Sometimes I had no choice and sometimes I didn’t care much about the future. Many times I didn’t use a condom," Linh recalled.

After the massage shop, Linh did sex work in a hotel, where she was put under the control of a pimp.  “I had to work every day and night and I was closely watched and locked in a house except when I went with a client.  I had no choice because I wanted to help my parents,” she said.

Similar to Linh, Hung1 was also 16 when he left his hometown in Ha Noi for HCMC. He wanted to earn money to build a grave for his father, who had died several months earlier. However, he ended up doing sex work in a park. “I don’t know how many boys were working in this park, I saw many.  Often customers didn’t want to use a condom.  How could we be strong and refuse when we needed the money,” said Hung. But, Hung did not earn enough to get by. “My life was worse than I expected.  All I wanted to do was help my mother and respect my father by getting enough money to build his grave,” Hung said.

Child prostitution in Viet Nam

Although child prostitution is the most prevalent form of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Viet Nam, information and reliable data about the issue are rare. A recent study conducted by UNICEF and Viet Nam’s Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) revealed that while girls’ involvement in prostitution was more visible, boys were also involved in sex work. Children are now entering prostitution at a younger age, compared to five years ago. While the most commonly observed age for children entering prostitution in Viet Nam is 14-15 years old, the youngest observed age of entry into prostitution was eight years old. 

According to the study, while most children enter prostitution after being victims of force and deception, only a few made ‘decisions’ to enter prostitution. However, these children reported that their ‘decisions’ were intertwined with difficult personal circumstances. Once engaged in prostitution many girls were not forced to stay, but did so because they had lost all hope of pursuing other employment options.  Demand is a key driver of the commercial sex industry and the buyers of child prostitution include Vietnamese and foreign citizens, men and women, and people from varying age groups and occupations. 

Strengthening the legal framework to protect child victims

Linh and Hung were caught by the police for doing sex work and put into the rehabilitation centres when they were 17 years old. However, they did not receive the help they needed as counselling and rehabilitation services are limited. “Vietnamese law is focused on prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators of child prostitution. However, there are key gaps in the provision of support for child victims of prostitution,” said Le Hong Loan, Chief of UNICEF Viet Nam’s Child Protection Section. “The absence of professional services designed specifically for children’s care and recovery means that reintegration is challenging and children face a high risk of recidivism due to their stigmatisation and lack of options,” she added.

To help Viet Nam strengthen its child protection system, UNICEF is supporting the Government to create a strong legal framework that complies with international legal standards, policies and programmes to protect vulnerable children, especially child victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. 
UNICEF also supports the Government to provide comprehensive services to child victims through capacity building for Government staff, promoting community-based care for vulnerable children, establishment of social worker networks in communities and piloting models for child-friendly repatriation, recovery and reintegration schemes for child victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“Community and children themselves have important roles to play when it comes to prevention of the commercial sexual exploitation of children. UNICEF is working with communities and organisations to raise awareness about the problem and address attitudes, norms and practices that are harmful to children. We also work directly with children to educate them about the risks and equip them with needed skills to protect themselves from being sexually abused,” said Loan.

(*) Note: Name has been changed to protect children’s identity.

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