Migrants and HIV: “Far Away From Home” club

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Feature story

Migrants and HIV: “Far Away From Home” club

05 January 2009

Viet Nam’s rapid economic development and growth over the last decade has resulted in increased levels of mobility both within the country and across its borders.

Viet Nam’s rapid economic development and growth over the last decade has resulted in increased levels of mobility both within the country and across its borders. Large infrastructure and development projects coupled with industrial growth have encouraged young people and workers from all over the country to move to major cities and provinces.

However, in areas of rapid economic development and increasing internal migration, factors such as separation from family and communities and harsh working conditions contribute to an increased vulnerability of migrants and mobile populations to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections as they engage in unsafe behaviours such as unprotected sex and injecting drug use.

Additionally, as HIV prevention and health care services are not specifically targeted towards migrants and mobile populations these groups tend to have poorer access to such services. This is especially true for migrants and mobile people who are often not registered as residents in the area where they work.

The migrant population includes female sex workers, migrant workers on construction sites, industrial and exporting zones and workers at river ports and bus stations.

Since its designation as an Industrial and Processing Zone in 2002, Can Tho province, in the south western region of the country, has stood out as a magnet destination for migrant workers as it is the largest city in the Mekong River Delta. The number of HIV cases in Can Tho has also increased at least ten fold, from 73 in 1997 to 733 in 2006.

In 2004, the Canada South East Asia Regional HIV/AIDS Programme initiated a project with the Can Tho Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs and the Can Tho Trade Union to undertake HIV prevention activities with migrants working as casual labourers, truck drivers and sex workers. The project established the Far Away From Home Club, which aims to provide a supportive and empowering environment for sex workers and other migrant workers in Can Tho City.

It is estimated that there are 1100–1600 female sex workers in Can Tho province, of whom 400–500 are street-based sex workers; the same authorities place the number of people who inject drugs between 2200–2500.

Peer education

The Club empowers members of mobile populations such as sex workers and internal migrants by providing life-skills training focusing on HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, on AIDS, public speaking skills, gender and sexuality, stigma and discrimination.

A core team of 10 peer educators (five sex workers and five migrant workers) have supported over 60 Far Away From Home Club members; they have received and shared information and skills that reduce their likelihood of exposure to HIV. These members return to their social networks and informally share their knowledge with their peers.

One of the main achievements of the project has been to ensure the confidentiality of all of those who seek help and support from the group. The assurance of complete anonymity and confidentiality has encouraged more sex workers and migrant workers to access health services through the referral of the Club members and peer educators. In particular, referrals were made to a variety of clinics that provide confidential and accessible services for mobile populations, including treatment of sexually transmitted infections voluntary counselling and testing, and general health check-ups.

The club touches the lives of hundreds of migrants and mobile people every month through their engagement of the private sector in workplace interventions or its outreach activities at hotspots for direct and indirect sex workers.

Involving migrants and mobile populations and empowering them to advocate for access to HIV services for their peers has been crucial to the success of the programme. Furthermore, its ethical soundness, relevance and effectiveness have made the project a successful component of the HIV prevention strategies and a reference work targeting migrants and mobile populations.