Zoe Osborne in Ho Chi Minh
After several high profile cases, the government has launched a campaign to bring the issue into the open
It was morning at a Hanoi school when a teenage student stumbled into class. As she sat at her desk, blood began to pool under her chair; just that morning she had been sexually abused. When her teacher’s response was that she should sit on some tissues until the bleeding stopped, the young girl began to cry.
The incident, recounted by a Huynh Mai, a school psychologist, made headlines in Vietnam last month. Yet it was reflective of a culture of ignorance, indifference and stigma that has surrounded child sex abuse in the country for generations, according to teachers, victims and NGOs.
However, after several high-profile abuse cases, many involving the abuse of pupils by their teachers, the government has launched several initiatives to finally bring the issue out into the open.
The move has included the creation of an “Ending physical violence against children at home and in school” initiative by the ministry of education and introducing mandatory sexual assault-prevention classes for those in first grade, as well as textbooks teaching children how to deal with assault and what parts of their bodies are private.
For victims such as Thao*, schools are crucial starting place for the campaign. She was 13 when her maths teacher began his two years of abuse. Due to the stigma and a damaging culture of secrecy, her abuser has never been named or taken to court. “He used to beat me up … I was so scared but I didn’t dare to tell my parents because he threatened me that he would kill me,” said Thao. “He manipulated me, he made me feel worse about myself.”
The abuse, first violent, became sexual when Thao was 14. Terrified, she eventually went to her mother but they chose not to report it. “We knew the police wouldn’t solve it and my mum didn’t want everyone to hurt me by judging me, saying mean things, spreading rumours,” she said.
It took her years to recover. “I had so many breakdowns that I couldn’t count, I hurt myself and it broke my parents’ hearts … I put up with it for 735 days, I suffered it for 735 days and it felt like 10 years.”
Her experience of sexual abuse at school was not an isolated one. Most of the high profile child abuse cases in Vietnam this year have involved teachers, with an ethics teacher recently jailed for raping young girls and another teacher arrested for impregnating a student.
In Vietnam, the law on child sexual violence is ambiguous, making convictions difficult. Some forms of sexual violence aren’t even considered a criminal offence – sexual assault remains an administrative violation and the maximum fine is just $13.
“In March, a man was fined just 200,000 VND ($10) for assaulting a woman in a Hanoi apartment elevator. The following month, an ex-government official was caught in a similar incident in Saigon, this time molesting a child. The incident caused nationwide uproar and residents of the apartment block started a petition calling for an amendment to the law, and while the people’s supreme court responded, they are still debating whether or not “touches to the neck and belly” can be classified as sexual harassment.”
It is not just teachers being targeted by the government campaign. The police force are also being educated to recognise signs of sexual assault in both women an children that go beyond evidence of victims being “forced”, “tied up”, “beatings” and “torn clothing” to substantiate claims of rape or assault.
Vietnamese police recorded 1,547 child abuse cases in 2018 but due to the culture of secrecy around abuse, the real numbers are suspected to be much higher.
Rana Flowers, Unicef representative in Vietnam, said the figures were likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”.
She welcomed the government’s initiative but said much more needed to be done, especially in the realm of online abuse.
“The fast growth of the internet in Vietnam poses a new risk for children with cases of abuse and exploitation on the internet and social networks also increasing,” she said.
“Vietnam still lacks a strong legal framework to protect children from all forms of violence, especially sexual abuse. This also extends to the lack of care and support services for victims.”
The campaign for awareness is slowly seeping into society, with people beginning to speak out about child abuse, calling for more effective laws and enforcement, spreading awareness over social media and even designing a game to teach children about how to protect themselves. Children as young as six have signed up to charity-run self-defence classes in Ho Chi Minh.
Yet the focus remains mainly on how children can prevent themselves from assault, rather than on preventing the abuse to begin with.
Queenie* is among those who chose to keep her assault private out of fear of being dismissed. As a child she was assaulted twice – first by a family friend and then by her cousin’s boyfriend – but she was nervous that people would tell her “nothing bad happened so just stay away from him and move on”.
“Society has a lack of support for this problem. Everybody keeps quiet – shame and pain.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
This article was first appeared on The Guardian