Speech of Ms Astrid Bant, UNFPA Representative at the workshop on Sharing experiences on Decriminalization of Sex Work in New Zealand

22 September 2016

Mr. Nguyen Trong Dam, Vice Minister of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA);
Mr. Dang Thuan Phong, Vice Chairman of the Parliament Committee for Social Affairs  of National Assembly (PCSA);
Leaders and representatives from line ministries and central organizations and provinces;
Representatives and colleagues from civil society and community based organizations, UN agencies and development partners;
Honored guests from New Zealand;
Very good morning, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honored to be here today at the opening of the international conference to share experiences related to  the transition from criminalization to decriminalization of sex work in New Zealand. In the conference today, we will discuss lessons learned from the development, approval and implementation of New Zealand Prostitution Act 2003. Our special international guest speakers are key players who made the decriminalization of sex work happen in New Zealand:  Ms. Jan Logie (NZ Parliamentarian of Green Party), Ms. Catherine Healy (from NZ Prostitution Collective), Inspector Jason Hewett (from NZ Police) and Dr Annette Nesdale (from NZ Ministry of Health). I would like to give special thanks to these guest speakers who have traveled a long way to share their experience and wisdom with us.  

I would also like to congratulate the MOLISA and PCSA/NA for bringing law makers from line ministries and PCSA, leaders and officials from selected provinces, representatives of civil society organizations, national sex worker network and media together today, to discuss the lessons learned from New Zealand and its implication in the Vietnamese context. You may know that this is a follow-up of a visit of an inter-sectoral delegation to New Zealand to learn about the decriminalization of sex work in New Zealand, in December 2015.

Throughout the ages, and across the globe, sex work has been part of many societies and responses have been varied and diverse according to the historical and cultural context. At present, three main categories of national legal frameworks address sex work: criminalization, legalization and decriminalization. Under the criminalization approach, all or some aspects of sex work is illegal. This is currently the situation in Vietnam. Legalization of sex work often refers to any system that involves introduction of laws that aim to impose state regulation and control of sex work. Legalization can take the form of designated areas for sex work, like in The Netherlands. On the other hand, decriminalization of sex work means the absence or removal of laws that criminalize buying, selling and associated activities of sex work, as well as laws and policies that impose mandatory HIV/STI testing or the compulsory detention of sex workers. In decriminalized contexts, the sex industry can be subject to the same general laws regarding workplace health and safety and anti-discrimination protections as other industries.  This is the situation in New Zealand. Global evidence shows that decriminalization is the most effective approach from the human rights and public health perspectives. It is critical to understand the differences between these approaches.

Regarding the Vietnamese legal framework, the Ordinance on Prevention and Control of Sex Work in 2003, rules  take the buying and selling of sex as well as accompanied activities are illegal, and  “prevention and control” are the official approaches to deal with sex work. Evidence from recent studies indicated that a majority of female sex workers in Viet Nam are rural women who entered sex work as a last resort after migrating to urban areas to earn a living and help their families. These women are economically and socially vulnerable to violence, rape, exploitation, unwanted pregnancies and HIV/ sexually transmitted infections. They certainly want to protect themselves from violence, HIV/STIs and unwanted pregnancies, but they are afraid to seek the help of the police and the public health system. Furthermore, sex workers face great barriers in accessing legal services when their rights are violated.

I would like to acknowledge that there has been some progress on the policy and legal environment that supports the reform of sex work related laws in Vietnam.  In 2012, a step forward was made through the passage of the revised Law on the Handling of Administrative Violations, which abolished detention for sex workers, leading to the closure of the so called 05 centers. Furthermore, in November 2013,  a new Constitution was passed guaranteeing  basic human rights of all people in Viet Nam. However, sex work is still criminalized in Vietnam,  putting  sex workers at risk.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Solid evidence shows that criminalization of sex work can make it difficult for sex workers to protect themselves from HIV, violence and/or exploitation. Criminalization forces sex workers into hiding and into dangerous situations, where they may experience abuse by clients, pimps or brothel keepers, guards and police. On the other hand, experiences from New Zealand indicate that decriminalization of sex work does not result in a  boom of the sex work industry or an increase of the number of sex workers. In addition, there is no evidence of a notable change  in  social and moral  norms due to the decriminalization of sex work.  Moreover, according to the Lancet  in 2014, decriminalization could avert up to 46 percent of new HIV infections among female sex workers over the next decade.

UNFPA has been supporting the government’s efforts to revise the Sex Work Ordinance in line with the human rights centered Constitution and other international agreements and treaties, which Viet Nam committed to. In late 2015, UNFPA supported a study tour for senior government officials to New Zealand after it implemented the positive change in the legal framework on sex work, from criminalization to decriminalization. As a follow up of the study visit, the international conference is organized today to share New Zealand’s experiences with a broader group of law makers and advocates who will participate in the sex work law reform in the country.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we begin our work today, I would like to raise three key points to be considered in future policy and programme responses to sex work:

Firstly, human rights should be considered at the center of the policy discussion and decisions related to sex work. Experience from many countries shows that a “social evil” approach increases exploitation, violence, abuse, stigma and discrimination against sex workers.  Stigma and discrimination are one of the key barriers for sex workers to access social services and seek protection from violence. The new legal system needs to ensure that rights of sex workers’, who are not just sex workers, but also friends, partners, parents, community members and citizens,  be protected and promoted, in line with the 2013 Constitution of Viet Nam.

Secondly, I would like to emphasize the vital role of civil society and community-based organizations, including sex workers-led groups in developing, implementing and monitoring the policies that affect their lives. Making sure that sex workers and their organizations have their say in policy development and implementation makes policies and programmes more effective. There is a clear need to create environments and mechanisms for sex workers and CSOs to meaningfully participate in a policy dialogue at different levels. Taking this opportunity, I would like to warmly welcome 15 representatives of Viet Nam Network for Sex Workers for their participation and sharing experience at this conference.

Finally, strengthened collaboration among police, health, education, judicial and social affairs sectors, as well as close partnership between  the affected communities and decision makers, continue to be critical for the effective implementation of policies and programmes on sex work. In particular, to ensure the translation of a national policy into positive social change at the local level, we need a strong commitment of the provincial authorities.

On behalf of UNFPA in Viet Nam, once again, I would like to express our sincere thanks to Vice Minister Dam, Vice Chair Phong, representatives from MOLISA, MOH, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Justice, sub-national authorities, civil society and community based organizations, development partners and media. UNFPA, together with other development partners, remains committed to providing policy advice and technical assistance for the establishment of a more enabling environment for human rights centered laws and policies for Viet Nam to ensure “no one is left behind”.

Xin cảm ơn và chúc sức khỏe, hạnh phuc và thành công!!!