The New York Times has an article today on the efforts of one Vietnamese woman to end the stigma and ostracism associated with sex work in her small and impoverished village. In Vang Thi Mai’s village, women have been systematically abducted and trafficked across the border into China to do sex work, and when they return to the village, they are shamed and shunned. Mai takes them in and trains them in textile work, thereby enabling them to earn a living:
“When I began working with the victims, the town ostracized and criticized me for being associated with the women,” Mrs. Mai, 49, recounted in an interview. “They said the women were unpure and I should not befriend such unpure women. I told them what happened was not their fault, as they were the victims of others’ wrongdoings.”
Mrs. Mai, who had worked as a nurse and had been president of the district’s Women’s Association, told the women who had returned to ignore the village’s scorn. “I said to them that when they would be able to earn money, to live on their own and to care for others with their earned money, the town would have to change their thinking,” she said.
Indeed, one by one, other village women began noticing the co-op’s profits and grew eager to join. Today the co-op is 110 women strong, and working there can increase a household’s income fourfold. Even some men have begun helping with heavy lifting and more labor-intensive chores. Over the years, Mrs. Mai said, she has also brought victims of domestic violence into the co-op.
What is most fascinating about this story is how it demonstrates the complex relationship between economics and culture. These women were stigmatized and shamed for their unwilling involvement in sex work – until they started earning a good living at something else.
Attitudes in this small village changed because Mai was able to demonstrate that these women were of economic value, however their cultural value might have been previously lowered by sexual “impurity.” When their economic value rose, their cultural value was in turn rehabilitated. In other words, this is The Girl Effect in action: when women are given a chance to earn money (as long as it’s in a culturally acceptable way, I should point out), they also earn respect of the community.
You can read the whole thing here.