Women join fight against HIV/AIDS with successful peer group

Seven young women, who have formed a dong dang, or peer group, to both prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and help those already infected in Thanh Hoa Province on the central coast, are linked by a common fate.

All have themselves experienced the misery caused by the virus.

Aged between 25 and 31, they have focused their effort in Sam Son, both the town and its beach as well as neighbouring communes, since they began work last October.

Their major task is to persuade sex workers and drug addicts of the need for precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

They worked unofficially at first but when physicians and health staff saw the positive result of their effort, the Thanh Hoa Health Department joined with them in establishing contact with potential carriers and having them tested.

Initially, many could not understand why such young women could dedicate their lives to such a dangerous task but they changed when they heard the story of their lives and their motives for doing the work.

The family of Nguyen Thuy Phuong (not her real name) was poor, but she and her four siblings were educated.

Her eldest brother, a truck driver, was addicted to drugs and her family was traumatised when they found that he was infected with the deadly virus.

Grief-stricken, and encouraged by a thoughtless friend, Phuong became a prostitute.

She stopped when o­ne night she realised that she was alone and without virtue and began work as a vendor.

It was not easy to forget the easy money but she did well. Today, she has a husband and is the mother of three children.

The other six tell similar stories: They worked either as prostitutes; had addicted siblings or abusive husbands.

They joined together to atone for past actions and help others to avoid the virus.

Building a rapport with those they want to help is their most difficult task.

Some of these are solitary while others work in hotels and restaurants so the seven divide into what they call the street group and the entertainment group.

Hanh, 31, says her first task is to contact with a girl famous for her youth and beauty and working in Sam Son named Mai (not her real name) who is infected with the virus.

She knew such an attractive girl was unlikely to practise safe sex.

But it took ten visits to the karaoke where the youngster works and a recounting of her own story before Hanh was able to persuade Mai about the danger of infecting others.

Another of the seven, Van, 25, says: "I always see addicts inject themselves with the same needle."

Once, seeing five doing so and understanding that this was a way of spreading the virus, she waited until the effects of the drug had worn off and told them about the dangers of using the same needle and gave them money to buy their own.

Sam Son has an estimated 200 addicts and 100 prostitutes.

The rate of HIV/AIDS infection is not known although 51 incidents have been reported.

The seven young women have persuaded three prostitutes to quit their work and two now have their own families.

The Sam Son Health Centre’s Dr Nguyen Thanh Hai, who manages the group, says about 15,000 condoms and thousands of leaflets providing information about the virus were distributed last year.

by VNS