In Vietnam an alarming number of women are victims of domestic violence although initiatives are taking place to tackle the ugly epidemic. By Claudia Davaar Lambie. Photo by Vinh Dao.

“He beat me daily,” says Tran, a survivor of domestic violence whose real identity we have protected. “Once he broke my fingers. It just became a habit when he was drunk or didn’t feel good about himself.”

Unfortunately, Tran’s story is not unique. As recently as November 2015, Thanh Nien News reported that a staggering 58 percent of married women have been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives. Echoing a similar report in 2010, these findings were announced at a conference marking the launch of an Australian campaign in Vietnam called White Ribbon that aims to raise awareness about the troubling gender-based violence issue and, most importantly, help prevent it.

Tran was beaten up daily for three insufferable years. She said she wanted to conduct the interview via email because she was ashamed about what had happened to her. “I couldn’t tell my children but they knew [it] was happening,” she says. “I tried to hide it from everyone.”

Gabriel Levitt is founder of the social enterprise Dependable Progress. Levitt helps secure stable employment for disadvantaged women, offering them a level of empowerment that would have been unobtainable in their pasts. Although most of the women he works with are in living relationships, there have been exceptions.

He recalls the story of one woman who was suffering at the hands of her husband. “I was called to the hospital one day and Vy (a pseudonym) told me that she’d had another argument with him which resulted in him stamping on her chest with his feet.”

Vy, who had previously undergone heart surgery, was in extreme pain and needed an x-ray to reveal the extent of her injuries. When Levitt asked Vy what the argument had been about she replied that it was because she wanted to spend some of her salary on getting her hair cut.

Cultural attitudes and perceptions
Vietnam has come a long way in recognising that domestic violence is a real issue, affecting thousands if not millions of women nationwide. A raft of legislation has been enacted nationally while the country has also become a signatory to various international conventions. From 2006, two specific legislative frameworks have been invoked, the Law on Gender Equality and, crucially, the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention. This milestone provides explicit protection from violence and covers a wide range of acts of domestic violence.

The developments that have taken place are a necessary step in safeguarding women although providing victims with the right support is still a challenge. There are deeply entrenched cultural attitudes that permeate into its society that seem resilient to change.

Dr Tani Nguyen, chair of the Department of Sociology at the Open University says that women, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, accept that it’s their destiny if they are beaten.

“Some women think that it is karma and they are suffering for something they did in their past life,” says Dr Nguyen.

Traditionally, newly wedded wives move in with their husband’s family. Levitt says this dynamic affects how the marriage develops.

He says some men “never had to grow up” which leaves them with a lack of maturity and a perpetual dependence on their parents, resulting in relationship difficulties. Women, too ashamed to leave, learn to accept the behaviour of their husbands and partners regardless of the dangers.

Levitt remembers how destroyed Vy was upon hearing that it was ‘her fault’ when she sought help. She had nowhere to go but back home to endure life as a human punching bag.

Domestic violence has mostly been a private issue in Vietnam yet some believe that this view is changing for the better, with society now stepping in to help. A social experiment conducted by WowTV last September revealed there is still a long way to go. The video shows a man hitting his girlfriend as a crowd gathers to watch. Only two people – a Vietnamese male and a female foreigner – come to her aid.

A growing distance between policy and practice

There is help available for victims in the form of shelters, charities and NGOs although accessing these services can be problematic, especially when women do not know that they exist. There is also an entanglement of bureaucratic issues such as different service providers residing in defined geographical locations, decentralisation of offices and a weak enforcement of the law.

Vy had endured a year of violence, and the hospital visit was the final straw; it was time to leave. The situation turned even worse when she appealed for help. Levitt remembers the agonising toing and froing between local departments, social workers and NGOs.

Eventually Vy filed for divorce and rented a small room for herself with the help of Dependable Progress. There were sacrifices: her possessions and, more heartbreakingly, her toddler stayed with her husband. There’s little hope for custody.

Mother-of-four, Tran, eventually left her husband whose actions were met with impunity after he broke her fingers. “He stalked and threatened me many times when I left,” she says.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that a mere 13 percent of women who are abused by their partners seek help from the justice system. A 2013 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime points to shortcomings in investigating and prosecuting domestic violence. This, coupled with patriarchal norms and a lack of help, deters women from reporting the violence. There is a tendency for women to search for a solution within the family home, prolonging the pain.

“There needs to be a straightforward ‘A to Z’ plan in place once the woman leaves the relationship,” says Dr Nguyen,  “otherwise she will return to the violence.”

Education is key
Despite these problems, efforts are being made to raise awareness of the issue in Vietnam. The White Ribbon event which took place in November 2015 brought together over 100 participants, policymakers, men and government officials to discuss and share experiences on how to respond to violence against women.

The Vietnam’s Women’s Union (VWU) supported the event, setting up a Facebook page ‘Gia dinh khong bao luc’ – translated as ‘Families without violence’ – that informs women of available help and delivers programs more efficiently.

In September 2015, the World Bank in Vietnam and Tuoi Tre newspaper hosted a writing competition which encouraged local youths to write about how Vietnam will change in twenty years. Its young winner, Khanh Hung, envisioned that Vietnam would be free from domestic violence in the next 20 years. Shocking statistics would be replaced with tales of domestic bliss. He hopes that the new generation will say ‘no’ to domestic violence in any of its guises. Let’s hope it doesn’t take twenty years for his dream to come true.