Not long ago, an openly gay couple in Vietnam could expect jeering whispers, rude comments—or worse—when they walked down a city street together.
Their walk might have taken them past government posters featuring images of skulls and warnings about the dangers of promiscuity and the certain death of being infected with HIV. Their jobs, friendships, and family relationships could be threatened by the mere hint of their sexual identity.
In Vietnam’s cities, that reality is giving way to growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and a new government commitment to HIV elimination by 2030.
This fall, that same couple could have walked into a downtown ballroom in Ho Chi Minh City to join more than 200 people in sleek suits and sequin-studded heels for the launch of an HIV prevention campaign that harnesses the power of social media to reach people in this emerging community.
Flocking to Facebook
The hip, high-octane launch of the “My Future. My Choice” campaign drew national media attention and the participation of well-known Vietnamese rap and pop stars, actors, and other celebrities. The rainbow-themed ballroom burst with confidence, community spirit, and a sense of optimism.
The campaign is part of the PATH-led Healthy Markets initiative, funded by the US Agency for International Development and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The project is creating a modern marketplace for HIV-related goods and services in Vietnam, in collaboration with public- and private-sector partners and community-based organizations.
At the launch event, MTV Vietnam conducted live interviews with a transgender model and Vietnam’s representative to the Miss World beauty pageant. Speakers urged participants to “stand up and talk about HIV…to live with pride, to protect ourselves, to have a positive future.”
The campaign’s Xom Cau Vong (“Rainbow Village”) Facebook page has attracted more than 40,000 followers in the two months since it was launched as a hub for sharing experiences and discussing the importance of HIV prevention.
Vietnam’s changing marketplace
As a lower-middle-income country, Vietnam has seen a dramatic drop in international donor funding to support its HIV/AIDS response. Now the country is exploring innovative new approaches to reach people with goods and services that were once provided for free or heavily subsidized.
The Healthy Markets project builds on the market-based strategy PATH pioneered in Vietnam to expand access to goods and services related to family planning and tuberculosis. The approach segments the market based on need and ability to pay, with the public sector focusing its resources on the lowest-income populations and the private sector providing commodities for those willing and able to pay.
The goal: to build desire among those most at risk to protect themselves from HIV and increase demand for and access to high-quality products and services, including condoms, lubricants, sterile syringes and needles, and HIV testing and counseling.
A sustainable way to beat HIV
Vietnam’s LGBT community continues to face high risks for HIV infection.
In urban areas, HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men and transgender women is estimated to be as high as 18 percent. Nationwide, there are more than 250,000 people living with HIV, but fewer than half are on treatment, and an estimated one-third do not know they are HIV positive.
Nearly 130 million condoms were sold in Vietnam in 2014, but about one-quarter of them were found to be low quality, according to a United Nations study that year.
“The growing popularity of social media gives us powerful new ways to reach people at risk of HIV with the tools and information they need to protect themselves,” said Kimberly Green, PATH’s chief of party for the Healthy Markets project.
Together with our partners across sectors, PATH is helping Vietnam build a sustainable strategy for beating HIV.
The Healthy Markets project is funded by USAID and implemented by PATH.
- Jolayne Houtz was formerly the content manager at PATH.