First of all, could you please introduce briefly yourself?
I am Le Thi Hong Yen. I was born in 1980. My hometown is Binh Dinh province; however, for living conditions, I have moved to Vung Tau and have been living there for 12 years now.
You are a senior peer educator in Ba Ria Vung Tau. Could you please tell me how you have become a peer educator?
When I first moved to Vung Tau, I rented a room next to a karaoke restaurant. In my free time at home after work, I often talked to some women who worked there. One day, by accident, there was some female peer- educators who used to work there came and talked about HIV/AIDS. I listened to them from the beginning until the end. I felt something very interesting, there were many things that I did not know about. I felt excited to learn about them so I approached them and asked them how I could join them as I found it so interesting. And thanks to their introduction, I joined the program in such an accidental way.
You started the peer educating activities by chance, so what’s your most rememberable memory during the time you work as a peer educator?
Yes, when we started working as a peer educator, the Law on HIV/AIDS prevention and control was not available, so we faced with a lot of difficulties. The people that we approached were not cooperative and they were strongly against our activities because their jobs are quite sensitive. I would like to tell you one rememberable story. One day, as of our plan, one of my friends and I went by bike to a location about 7km far away from our residential place. When we arrived, the owner of the restaurant was strongly against us. They did it this way. After I came into, said hello and introduced myself, the owner said: “No, go away, there’s nothing to do with you here. There’s nothing here. You are barking at the wrong trees”. I was still hesitant to leave, thinking that it’s no use communicating this way; it’s better to send them some relevant documents and leaflets for them to read in advance. While I was standing, opening my bag to take some leaflets out, they let a big dog out. It was like a buffalo calf not a dog. That was the biggest dog that I had seen during my 30 years. My colleague screamed out and turned pale. I was so scared. Then a man who seemed to be the owner’s husband came home. Seeing that we were so scared, he left his vehicle nearby and shouted at the dog. Then he asked and we introduced ourselves to him briefly. I was thinking that it was not the right time to talk as they were in anger and annoy. I asked for his approval to leave some information packages there as that was our job. We explained him that we just came there in the spirit of sharing and disseminating the information. I gave him the information packages and told that the information were just for him and his staff for their reference. I also told him if it was possible, we would come back again. That was an unforgettable story that I will remember forever. I still remember about the dog. It was such a big dog, much bigger than I could imagine.
So while you are on duty, have you ever felt that you are hesitant and afraid of approaching those people? And what is your feeling when you first worked on this?
When I first joined the program, I was also trained; more or less I was mentally prepared by the management board about the reactions of those people, and even their unacceptable words. In general, we must be mentally prepared. I was also ready, but many times, I was still shocked. Because, some people are discontented with their lives, so they do not care about what they say. I have met some cases like that.
Could you please tell about a case that you found it difficult to approach and what did you do then?
There was a case that I did not plan to approach, but happened when I was working for my brother’s café. There was a girl, who came to the café everyday. But with my observations, the way she dressed and behaved, I could tell 70% exactly what her job is. She came for a coffee quite often. At the beginning, I just behaved like a staff with a customer and in a good manner. Then when I tried to approach and explain a bit about my job, she strongly reacted. She was annoyed when knowing that I knew her job. In general, those people often have strong reactions. They asked me why I kept thinking that way, which meant to offend them, etc. Initially, I did not say a word about the communication materials that I had planned to deliver to her. I was just pretending that I knew some girls of also doing that kind of job. Then she wanted to learn from me some information to protect herself. After that we were closer, she shared all about what she had been thinking and afraid of. That was the most difficult client of mine, also the most successful case that I have handled.
Have you ever felt that your work is so difficult that you do not want to be a peer educator anymore?
Yes, as I told you about the dog. After that meeting, my friend and I were just walking with our bicycles nearly 2 km, saying nothing to each other. She might think about giving up as I was. I felt tired of it. I then met with my team leader and the management board. They also guided us how to deal with such situations. That was the only time that I thought I would give up. For all other cases later, I was fine. I am used to it.
You might have approached many cases, targeted groups and people. Which one you see as a success story and you are proud of yourself?
My targeted groups are female sex workers. At the beginning, the knowledge of these groups about HIV is very blur, many of them understood nothing about this, and even about condoms, when I delivered to them they asked me what they were. There were cases that were at the age of 15 or 16, as young as my younger sisters, when they saw condoms they felt embarrassed. Since then I have always tried my best to do this job. Now many “sisters” understand the importance of having knowledge of HIV prevention and control measures to protect themselves.
Could you please tell me a specific case?
Many, but for a specific case, that is the women in the café I shared earlier. In general, when we pay a visit to a restaurant, a karaoke or a massage facility, we often talk to a group. Some restaurants have some dozen of women joining the talk. For the first times, there were difficulties, but later they treated us as their sisters. They joined the talk comfortably and joyfully. They are more courage to share their own stories such as: “what wrong if I am already infected, or what should I do now”? I am very glad to know that they have understood and self studied how to protect them.
When approaching those clients, what is the most important thing to gain their trust?
I think it is intimacy, it means that I come to them as a sister and a friend, not a person who bring them knowledge, more as a sister and a friend. Therefore, in first meetings, I often do not talk about that issue, I ask “when did you come here or how are you”… in general, I ask questions as friends. For some first meetings, we just had such simple conversations and arranged for the following appointments.
After a long period of time working as a peer educator, have you ever thought about your job that is meaningful to yourself and to the society?
First of all, thinking about myself, I would say I have a better luck than other sisters, it means that I have been trained. In general, “my professional” is better than the others’. Before, I did not understand any thing about HIV, I was very scared when hearing about it, but now I am no longer scared because I understand it. I understand and know how to protect myself first. That is the first benefit. Then it is also beneficial to my family, communities, friends and society. For the society, I do not dare to say something like about my responsibility to the society, but I want to contribute a small part of my effort to reducing the prevalence rate in my community, not for the whole country or the province. I do not dare to say that, I just mean the reduction of HIV cases in the community where I am living in.
When doing the job of a peer educator, what have your family or neighbors said or if they are against your activities?
For this question, I would like to tell you a bit about my own story. When I first came here, I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law. At the beginning, when my brother-in-law knew that I was joining the programme, he was working for a joint-venture, his knowledge was limited and he strongly disagreed with my job: “if you do that job, I will not allow you to visit us and stay here any more”, my brother-in-law said. After that I still visited my sister when he was not at home. For each visit, I pretended forgetting some leaflets about HIV in his house. I am sure that my brother had read to see what was written in there. After some times, I left there some leaflets with different contents, he read, for the following visits, I came when he was at home and he did not have any reaction to my job, and I know he allowed me to do this job.
Recently you must have thought about your activities with the community. What do you think about your activities could contribute to the community?
The first contribution is what the programme has delivered, that is knowledge for all people, for those who have not accessed to the knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Second, the harm reduction interventions conducted by the programme for example provision of condoms or cylinders in my community has been implemented.
Do you think that you have to come over your own difficulties to continue doing this job?
I have already decided. From the first days of difficulties I was helped by other experienced brothers and sisters, the project management unit also paid close attention and share a lot, and I have decided to do this job as long as the programme exists. I hope that the programme will not be completed soon because there are still many people having not accessed to this knowledge, for example new migrants from rural areas, I am afraid that they do not understand and it is not good.
If there is an advice or a message to your clients, what would you like to say?
I would like them to learn about HIV at anytime and in anywhere, learn to understand, to know and to protect themselves and try to cooperate with me (us), help us better approach other new targeted groups who have not had opportunities of reading or watching or listening to HIV/AIDS information.
Thank you very much.