“Be Me. Be Happy!” Breaking down barriers to HIV services for transgender women in Vietnam

November 30, 2018 by Louise Cotrel-Gibbons, Parysa Oskouipour, and Tran Thi Tham

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Two transgender women pose for a selfie at the launch of the “Be Me. Be Happy!” campaign. Photo: PATH.

PATH works with community leaders on the first HIV and health campaign by and for transgender women in Vietnam.

During AIDS Awareness Month in December 2017, in Hanoi, a group of young women came together to celebrate a very significant milestone: the launch of “Be Me. Be Happy!”—the first HIV and health campaign to be specifically developed by and for transgender women in Vietnam. Instrumental in bringing this campaign to life was Mai Chau, the brave and articulate leader of the Vietnam Network of Transgender People.

“The ‘Be Me. Be Happy!’ campaign and its butterfly logo represent the metamorphosis that the transgender women's community is going through in Vietnam, with own our gender, our identity, and our promising futures. It is a beautiful platform for transgender women to speak out, take care of ourselves, and be recognized as our true selves.”

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Mai Chau, Head of the Vietnam Network of Transgender People. Photo: PATH.

One year on, and transgender women in Vietnam are continuing to use “Be Me. Be Happy!” to raise their collective and individual voices to call for and seek equitable access to essential health services that meet their needs.

Transgender women in Vietnam have historically been a largely invisible population.

Transgender people have been present in Vietnam throughout history, but the emergence of a transgender community that is advocating for rights and protections under the law is a relatively recent phenomenon. As a result, public health interventions have traditionally conflated transgender women with men who have sex with men. While these two groups do often face similar hurdles in terms of social acceptance and a higher statistical risk of HIV, they have different preferences and needs with regards to HIV, safer sex, and other health issues.

Both globally and in Vietnam, transgender women often face high levels of discrimination, which affect many parts of their lives, including access to housing, employment opportunities, and access to high-quality health care. While data on transgender women populations remain limited in Vietnam, it is widely acknowledged that HIV prevalence among this group has reached alarming levels. Studies conducted in Ho Chi Minh City measured a rate of HIV prevalence of 18 percent among transgender women.

In response, PATH’s Healthy Markets project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), supports trans-competent HIV and health services, including nonjudgmental and confidential community-based HIV testing, hormone use and level counseling, and pre-exposure prophylaxis services, run by transgender women and their allies.

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Healthy Markets works with transgender women–led civil society groups and social enterprises to provide transgender-friendly HIV services, like community-based testing. Photo: PATH/Ian Taylor.

However, studies conducted by Healthy Markets and others found that transgender women tend to underestimate their level of HIV risk, are much less likely to have access to health insurance than other populations affected by HIV, and are less likely to seek professional medical care for fear of stigma and discrimination. A supportive platform that connected transgender women in Vietnam to appropriate HIV and health services was sorely needed.

“Be Me. Be Happy!” supports transgender women to come together to seek and provide health services that meet their needs.

The “Be Me. Be Happy!” campaign, co-developed between Healthy Markets and transgender women leaders like Mai Chau, is a groundbreaking step toward equitable, trans-specific health services in Vietnam.

“‘Be Me. Be Happy!’ is a very meaningful campaign, providing opportunities for access to health care services for the transgender community in Vietnam, [as well as] an important milestone to mark the incredible engagement of the transgender community with organizations [and] media and help them to better understand each other.”

“Be Me. Be Happy!” centers around the Co Nang Goi Cam (Be Me. Be Sexy!) Facebook community. Led by transgender women representatives, this dedicated online space is a living social ecosystem that empowers transgender women to interact with and support each other, while also learning about lifesaving HIV-related information, including the testing, preventive, and treatment service options that are available to them. The online nature of the platform means that time, space, and desire for anonymity do not become barriers to information and support.

“ In just one year, the Co Nang Goi Cam (Be Me. Be Sexy!) Facebook page has gained more than 22,000 followers. ”
— USAID/PATH Healthy Markets Project
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This post on the Be Me. Be Sexy! page is encouraging transgender women to join the 100,000 people already participating in community-based testing in Vietnam.

Healthy Markets continues to work with transgender women community leaders to ensure that Co Nang Goi Cam remains relevant to transgender women. The branding, tone, themes, and conversation topics are routinely updated to align with current trends in technology and culture, and the page not only promotes HIV goods and services but also provides a space for transgender women to discuss other topics related to their health, well-being, and interests—from the benefits of social health insurance to fashion tips and trends. Most importantly, it provides a safe and welcoming space where transgender women can feel comfortable to come together as a community—rather than solely for health information. It is this transgender women–led, holistic, and nuanced approach makes Mai Chau sure that Co Nang Goi Cam will continue to support and serve transgender women in the years to come.

“The feeling of talking, sharing, and understanding each other in a cozy space is the reason why [the page] attracts transgender women. The content is very rich and diverse, covering many topics of interest to transgender women, such as government policy, sex reassignment, international movements, community events, and personal stories. This community empathy makes transgender women comfortable when joining the page … and I’ve received a lot of positive feedback about it.”

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"Be Me. Be Happy!" supports transgender women in Vietnam to come together to share their experiences, talk about their needs, and call for equitable access to health services. PATH/Ian Taylor.

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