Rocky road to normalcy for trafficking victims
Duong was 18 and looking forward to seeing a new place and meeting new people when she set out with her aunt Mai and Mai's boyfriend Lap to see his parents in Vinh Phuc Province.
For a Dao minority girl from the rural district of Yen Binh in Yen Bai Province, it was like traveling into another country, and she was excited.
Little she did know that she was in fact traveling to another country. It was July 2010. Instead of Vinh Phuc Province, Duong and Mai were taken to China. Duong was sold to a brothel and Mai was sold to a Chinese man who forced her to be his wife.
More than a year later, Duong managed to flee and return home, but she'd been traumatised by the sexual exploitation she'd been subjected to in China. She had no job and no money. She was very sad, and did not know how to reintegrate into the community. She thought of getting some kind of vocational training, but she had no money and her parents would not let her go away anywhere far away from them.
Almost two years after she returned from China, in May, 2013, the staff of international NGO World Vision and the Yen Bai Women's Union called on Duong and her family. After learning that Duong desired to become a hairdresser, World Vision referred her to Hagar International, a non-profit organisation, and she was supported to attend a vocational training course in Ha Noi for a year.
World Vision is funding a five-year (2011-2016) special programme called End Trafficking in Persons (ETIP) that is being implemented in six Greater Mekong Sub-region countries. In Viet Nam, it covers the provinces of Quang Tri, Quang Nam and Yen Bai.
Hagar International "is committed to the recovery, economic empowerment and reintegration into society of women and children affected by human trafficking, sexual exploitation and domestic violence."
After receiving her hair-dressing certificate, Duong returned home and opened her own shop in August 2014 with World Vision's support. Since then, she has seen her business grow steadily, with more male and female customers visiting her shop every day.
"Everything is okay now. It's so great! My parents are so happy that I can earn money on my own. I am getting more customers throughout the day from 8am to 9pm. During the traditional New Year holiday, I had no time to care for my own hair."
Duong got married at the end of last year. She has received support and encouragement from her family and her husband in doing her business.
Duong's story had a happy ending, but N cannot say the same thing.
N, 19, has had a stormy past. She was 12 when she saw her father have an extramarital relationship with another woman. She was abused by her brother for a long time and then raped by a stranger. She was sent to live with her mother's younger sister who owns a massage parlour. There, she was ordered to satisfy elderly customers.
N was later sold to China as a prostitute. She escaped and returned to Viet Nam, but was forced by her mother to marry a drug addict. Betrayed and mistreated by her husband, she took to heavy smoking and drinking. She had nightmares often, got angry easily, and was obsessed with images of the room where she was sexually abused every night in China.
Things are looking up slightly now. With help from the Peace House Shelter for Women and Children survivors of human trafficking in Ha Noi, N has finished two vocational training courses in waitressing and returned home in central Viet Nam in March. She is now looking for a job.
The Peace House Shelter is managed and operated by the Center of Women and Development under the Viet Nam Women's Union.
Sadly, even N's case is an exception.
A 2008 study conducted by Action Aid Viet Nam in the four provinces of Dien Bien, Cao Bang, Hai Phong and Vinh Long showed that only 20.4 per cent of trafficked persons were able to stabilize their lives and re-integrate into the community. Most other victims end up jobless and homeless, suffer from poor health and live highly unstable lives.
Vietnamese authorities have launched several programmes and activities to assist trafficked victims reintegrate into the community. These include receiving the victims (verifying their identity), providing shelter, arranging for vocational training, providing loans, improving awareness of their own rights to ask and receive several forms of assistance as well as teaching various life skills.
The Peace House Shelter has provided such assistance to many victims. Funded for its first seven years by the Spanish Government and other organisations, it now receives funding from the State Budget.
The shelter provides minimum comprehensive support package including safe accommodation, healthcare, psychological care, legal aid, life skill enhancement, career orientation and further follow-up support to ensure that victims will integrate into community safely and stably.
From 2007 until now, the shelter had counselled 536 trafficked women and children. About half of them belonged to ethnic minorities, said Pham Thi Huong Giang, director of the Centre for Women and Development.
She said 60 per cent of the shelter's residents were trafficked for sexual exploitation and the rest forced to become wives or bonded labourers.
Many victims have said that domestic violence, failure in love, using stimulants and lack of parental care are to blame for their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. Poverty and a desire to improve their living standards also landed them in trouble.
Ha Minh Ngoc, a social worker with the Peace House Shelter, said she faced a lot of difficulties in dealing with trafficked persons.
It is difficult for a counselor not to get emotional in interacting with a victim who suffers from psychological trauma and has a shocking story, according to her experience.
On the other hand, the victims themselves are very sensitive, fearful and suspicious, and might not co-operate. They could be hesitant initially about confiding details of their situation to the counselors.
Most of returning victims suffer from inferiority complexes. They feel disgust for themselves and consider themselves not worth living, and many put themselves in very risky situations.
Counselors have to deal with all this in accordance with professional ethics and principles. They should have a sensitivity for the job, constantly improve their own awareness and be flexible in the ways they try to help people with trauma.
"We work in a group as we know that a single counselor can't assist a victim as effectively as collective one," Ngoc said.
"We are ready to support each other in complicated cases and periodically carry out case analyses and reviews as it will help us counsel trafficking victims better."
Vu Thi Du, programme manager of End Trafficking in Persons programme, said that many of the victims who return home on their own had not been verified adequately by competent agencies like the police, the justice department, the labour and social affairs department and the women's union.
She explained that to be identified as a trafficked victim and not an illegal migrant worker, the onus was on the former to provide evidence. "This task becomes easier if traffickers are arrested, but if not, it takes a long time to gather enough evidence to identify and support the victims," she said.
This problem is exacerbated by a lack of co-ordination between agencies and service providers in localities in receiving, identifying and assisting victims, according to Du.
A study "After Trafficking: Experiences and challenges in the (re)integration of trafficked persons in the Greater Mekong sub-region" conducted by UNIAP, COMMIT and Nexus Institute found that a large number of trafficked persons in the GMS weren't assisted following their trafficking experience.
In the study sample of 252 trafficked persons about their experiences of reintegration, 113 were unassisted in the country of destination; 45 were unassisted in the country of origin, and 39 received no assistance either at home or abroad.
While recognizing the differences in models of national referral in each GMS country, the study found that overall, there were inadequate referrals and insufficient co-ordination and co-operation between agencies and institutions, as well as between countries.
The study also found that victims were poorly informed about their status, rights and available assistance.
Tran Thi Hong, a social worker from Hagar International, said trafficking victims typically had very little education and their low awareness was compounded by a hesitancy to seek assistance for fear of discrimination.
Many victims who have received assistance from organizations, including counseling and vocational training, still faced problems reintegrating, she said.
The choice of post-trafficking careers could also be problematic. For instance, the hospitality industry might not be the best place for a person who has been sexually abused, Hong said, adding that psychological assessments and career orientation services should take this into account.
Pham Thi Huong Giang, director of Centre for Women and Development, suggested that the government extend shelter stays for trafficking victims from two months to between six and 18 months now.
She also emphasised the need to raise community's awareness to reduce discrimination because ostracisation would further marginalise them and make them unwilling to receive assistance.
Caption: Duong, a former human-trafficking, now runs her own hair-dressing shop in northern Viet Nam. Most victims are not as lucky and end up suffering a lifetime of abuse, studies show. Photo courtesy of World Vision
*Copyright: Viet Nam News/Asia News Network