October 11



In many circles it is said that respect is earned not given.  I have kind of always agreed with that.  But at the same time where does respect intersect with kindness, compassion and judgement?  Do we respect people that only share our values, morals or outlook on life?  Or do we respect those that live differently than us?  Can respect be given vs. being earned?


I will apologize upfront that there will be no pictures on this blog.  That is out of respect for the people that I am writing about.  I just returned from my visa trip out of Vietnam (which will be another blog).  The two days prior to my departure I had the opportunity of meeting with a new key population that we focus on.  When it comes to HIV related goods and services we focus on MSM (gay), TG (transgender), SW (sex workers) and PWID (people who inject drugs).  My experience has been that the MSM and TG communities garner the most focus and support.  I have blogged about how proud I am to work within my community here in Vietnam.  But in everything we do here we list all these other key populations.

So I started asking questions about sex workers and specifically female sex workers.  Are we showing them the same support?  Do they  need the same support?  How do they meet clients?  Can we find new ways to communicate with them?  All of this led to an idea of doing safe sex advertising on heterosexual dating apps and Facebook, which is similar to what I have started here for the gay community.  This has become an extremely successful strategy and it will continue long after I am gone.  I took the idea to my director, Kim.  She said: “Why don’t you do a focus group?”  Huh?  What? She encouraged me to work with my team to go to the two cities where it is prevalent and where we work with community business organizations that sell our commodities to them.  I will admit I was taken a bit off guard.  You want me to actually go meet with them?  What would I ask?  How would I act?

I spoke with my two team members (Yen who is in the picture and Tuan).  They both were in agreement and Tuan started making phone calls and setting up meetings.  We agreed to do two days.  One in a small beach city called Do Son and the other a bigger city near the coast called Hai Phong.  These are known as havens for sex workers.

I started asking some other colleges about this.  There was definitely an undertone of  disrespect when conversing about sex workers.  It is not legal in Vietnam.  However in the past it was a felony and they would send them to special “rehabilitation” centers to “fix” them.  Someone tried to put me in “conversion” therapy one time, so I had an idea what they were getting at.  They have changed the laws.  There are no more centers like that and it is now a misdemeanor and a fine.  They are looking to legalize it and regulate it but not sure if that will ever happen.

So after some planning we had 3 CBO’s to meet with and each had set up a focus groups for us to discuss.  We had a lot on the agenda.  One of course was how do they meet their clients and is there potential to advertise to them on a new medium.  We also wanted feedback on how much they spend and where they get their commodities (condoms, lubricants…).

We arrive in Do Son.  We go directly to the office where two of the CBO’s share.  We sat down with the leaders of the CBO, who are or formerly were sex workers.  Do you know what my first reaction was?  These are intelligent people that know what they are doing.  They carried themselves with pride.  They had ideas and feedback for us.  The ideas and feedback were vital and outstanding.  I don’t live in that world.  How could I trust my ideas if I don’t understand them and what their barriers are?  GEMBA 🙂

After meeting with them then we met with the first group of sex workers.  Gulp!  It was heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time.  (I do apologize here.  Some of this may be hard to read.  I have edited to keep it basic and not detailed).  The average age was around 15.  The average clients per day was 25.  They are employed by guesthouses and hotels mainly.  When they reach a certain maturity they are allowed to go mobile and book their own clients.  Their largest expenditure was on condoms that they use 80% of the time.

I am looking at young ladies that are my niece’s age.  What I learned quickly is that they will act normal if you act normal.  They will laugh if you laugh.  They will answer questions if you are coming from a genuine place.  They are in a world that is not mine.  They did not seem ashamed of what they do.  They were not embarrassed.  They were just themselves.  That is when I learned that respect does not have to be earned.  I gave it freely.  My entire team did.  Do people cast shame on them because they feel threatened or that they do not feel it is moral?  I do not know.  I was there to learn.  All learning starts with respect to the the teachers.  These were my teachers.

We were not there to learn backstories or why they were doing what as a job.  We were there to gain data and input.  I would love to know more because all you want to do is help any way you can once you start interacting with them.

After meeting a second group, which gave us similar feedback, we moved to Hai Phong to meet with another group.  Well they threw us a curve ball!  Instead of female sex workers, it was a large group of male sex workers.  And how different my own thoughts were.  With females I automatically felt sorry for them and felt this protective instinct.  With the men it was like they chose to do this so I automatically respected them because they could “take care” of themselves.  What a bunch of chauvinistic thinking on my part!  I could have almost hit myself.

This group was very vocal and we learned a lot about a group that is not talked about a lot.  The male sex worker is not really mentioned because they are automatically segmented into the gay group.  I learned that they have some different needs than the non-sex worker.  It was so eye opening.

This work is always teaching me things and expanding my thinking.  I will always be grateful to these groups for speaking with us.  We cannot understand if we do not seek to learn.  We cannot learn if we do not respect.  I will bring this back to GSK and more importantly in my life.  Respect is to be given.  It will only be taken away if you earn it to be taken away.