Breaking Taboos About Abuse

Women in Vietnam are raising the traditionally forbidden topic of domestic violence.
2011-03-22
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Women sell bread on a street in downtown Hanoi, March 10, 2010.
AFP

Women's groups in Vietnam are deploying a new strategy to highlight the growing problem of wife battering—exhibiting to the public objects used by the abusers.

Among the objects shown at a recent domestic violence exhibition were a vicious-looking hammer, a long dog chain, and what appeared to be a harmless baby toilet-training bowl.

The exhibition of these “weapons” used to batter women gripped the nation, evoking a newfound sympathy for the country’s largely silent victims, according to social groups helping to address the domestic violence problem in Vietnam.

“He came home late and drunk … He went straight to the pigsty where I was feeding the pigs and beat me badly,” said a battered woman from the suburbs, pointing to a hammer at the recent exhibition in Hanoi sponsored by the Center for the Research on Scientific Applications to Women and Adolescents (CSAGA).

“He grabbed this hammer to hit my head. Luckily, my parents-in-law came in time for my rescue. I shouldn’t have been alive now to make these confessions.”

Another woman spoke about the dog chain her husband used to lock her up at home because she had threatened to leave him.

“He used a dog chain to chain me. He was afraid other people would find out, so he chained me up on the second floor and then he left. I didn’t know where he went,” the woman said.

“On my third day of imprisonment, I was able to lean forward out of a window to shout for help from my neighbors. They called the police to rescue me.”

One young woman, who used the name Thu, brought to the exhibition a baby toilet-training bowl as evidence of the mental violence her husband had subjected her to.

Her husband put the bowl filled with baby excrement at one end of her bed and told her to “smell this bowl of waste until you die.”

She said her husband held a comfortable job with an office for the ruling Communist Party in the city but forced her to work harder to support the entire family.

“While I was breastfeeding [my baby daughter], he gave me a bad blow on my face, which became swollen. My injury took over two months to heal,” Thu said.

Thu finally divorced her husband after 25 years of marriage when her youngest son was at the age of applying to university. She said that she, like many other battered women, had waited because she didn’t want to deprive her children of a father during their formative years.

Domestic violence is a topic rarely discussed in Vietnam because women who speak out about the suffering they endure at home are often scorned by society, where men are seen as the undisputed heads of the household.

But according to a report jointly released at last year’s end by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations, and the Bureau of Census, one in three married Vietnamese women had been a victim of abuse at home in 2010.

National study

Vietnam approved a law against domestic violence in 2007 and also maintains a law promoting equality of the sexes which was passed in 2006. But despite government efforts, the problem of domestic violence has continued to spread.

The first national study into domestic violence against women, jointly announced by the General Statistics Office and the United Nations in Hanoi on Nov. 25 last year, said 58 percent of married women report experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional domestic violence at least once in their lifetime.

The study said as few as 1.7 percent of them seek help at different agencies and organizations, because they fear the reactions of family members or of society in general.

Twenty-six percent of women who were physically or sexually abused by their husbands reported suffering physical injuries, and 17 percent reported being injured multiple times.

Each year on average there are up to 8,000 divorces in Vietnam as a result of domestic violence, according to statistics provided by Vietnam’s Supreme People's Court.

But many women are unable to separate themselves from a violent situation at home, and according to statistics by Vietnam’s central police department, one woman is killed every two to three days due to domestic abuse.

The police department reported that an extremely high number of women are hospitalized each year due to domestic abuse, and that more than 10 percent of them have required intensive medical treatment.

Changing gender roles

The Committee on Social Issues for Vietnam’s National Assembly says the underlying cause of domestic violence in Vietnam is a long-held view of the country as a patriarchal society.

Vietnam's communist government stresses equality for women, who fought alongside men during the war, but men have traditionally acted as the breadwinners of the family.

The recent shift to a market economy has financially empowered women, while some men have come to doubt their role in the home and to resent their spouses because of it.

Meanwhile, women tend to put up with the violence because they place their children, parents, and other family members ahead of themselves.

Last year’s WHO report surveyed 4,838 women from north, central, and south Vietnam, who ranged in age from 18 to 60.

According to Henrica Jansen, the lead investigator of the survey, one of every 10 participants had been a victim of physical or sexual violence in the 12 months leading up to their interview.

“These are only the women who willingly share their confessions with us. We don’t know the number of other victims whom we cannot contact and whom we don’t know because they don’t want to share,” she said.

“Furthermore, we need to include serious cases in which we cannot interview victims who may have been murdered or may have died due to fatal injuries, as well as victims who may be hospitalized, homeless, or forbidden to speak with strangers.”

Reported and translated by Viet Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Additional reporting by Minh-ha Le. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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