Keeping silent is dying: Talking about domestic violence in Vietnam. Text by Beth Young and Brett Davis. Photos by Fred Wissink.

“I think women who suffered from violence should raise their voice and ask for help or counselling. It can vary case by case, but we should not keep silent. Keeping silent is dying.”

Racism in Vietnam Ingrained prejudices and stereotypes proliferate in both local and expat populations in Vietnam, but where do they come from?This from a Hanoi woman interviewed as part of last year’s National Study on Domestic Violence Against Women in Vietnam. One in three women reported they had suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husband some time in their life. This number rose to 58 percent when taking into account psychological abuse.

The research team interviewed almost 5,000 women between 18 and 60 years of age. The study was conducted by Vietnam’s General Statistics Office and the World Health Organisation.

WHO Health System Team Leader Dr Graham Harrison said Vietnam was not alone amongst nations grappling with the issue of domestic violence.

“While there are cultural elements that make addressing the issue a challenge, steps are being taken.

“Domestic violence is a problem but it is basically a silent problem. Because of community attitudes it can be difficult for victims to speak up or get the help they need,” he said.

Harrison said the survey would help formally address the issue of domestic violence, raise awareness in the public consciousness and determine what services were needed.

“A lot of the women interviewed provided an opening, some light, into a hidden aspect of their lives. Often they had never spoken of these things before they were interviewed.”

In the north much is being done to raise awareness of domestic violence. For example, in Ninh Binh Province the Swiss Cooperation Office is working with the local People’s Committee and Women’s Union to conduct focus groups with both victims and their abusers.

The goal is to facilitate discussion about the root cause of the violence and to educate both men and women on what their rights are. The first phase began in 2003, and the second, which started in 2007 will finish this summer. So far, these sessions have proved successful.

Hanoi also has an official shelter for battered women. The whereabouts of the Peace House is kept secret to ensure the residents’ safety. It has a kindergarten for young children and the women are taught skills to help them find employment and become self-sufficient in the future.

Racism in Vietnam Ingrained prejudices and stereotypes proliferate in both local and expat populations in Vietnam, but where do they come from?Rather than just providing respite from an abusive environment, the Peace House gives women options. They can decide if they want to return to their husbands or build a life on their own.

According to the HCM City Women’s Union, Peace Houses will be built around the city sometime this year. For the time being, Buddhist pagodas like Tin Cay Cong Dong in Tan Phu District provide women and their children with shelter.

These are rather ad hoc setups. Head nun Tung Tinh said when a victim seeks help from the pagoda the police aren’t called and they aren’t taken to a doctor or hospital. The women generally stay until the husband decides he’s ready to apologise for his actions. Tinh will question him and if she deems his apology to be sincere she will allow the wife to return home.

Tinh downplayed the severity of the violence that these women are subjected to, saying she had never seen any injuries worse than a bruise. However, a group of elderly nuns who live behind the pagoda were more forthcoming. One revealed they had recently cared for a woman whose husband had broken both her legs. He apparently beat her after finding out she was having an affair.

The Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control that was enacted in 2007 has forced local government to seriously address the issue.

Duong Thi Nguyet is vice president of the Ward 14 Women’s Union in District 11. She is in charge of the ward’s efforts to address domestic violence. She said that each ward’s People’s Committee has a similar department to address women’s issues.

Currently, Nguyet provides victims with shelter in her own home, however she said this was only a temporary measure. The People’s Committee have purchased a block of land where a proper shelter will be built, but more money is needed to complete the project. In the meantime, she does what she can, providing financial help to women who’ve left their husbands until they can get back on their feet.

Le Trang is also a passionate advocate for domestic violence prevention. She is behind the Soul Nation Project—an initiative that seeks to change behaviour in young people through music, dance and other art forms.

Popular Vietnamese celebrities act as the project’s spokespeople at concerts like the one hosted at Thu Duc University at the end of last year. The message is simple: men and women are equal and gender-based violence is wrong.

Racism in Vietnam Ingrained prejudices and stereotypes proliferate in both local and expat populations in Vietnam, but where do they come from?“Education plays an important role and this is where Soul Nation comes into the picture,” Trang said.

An advertising campaign was also developed by the Grey Group, for a consortium of partners including UN agencies, Vietnamese Government departments and NGOs, aimed at the perpetrators of domestic violence. The television spot featured a woman removing the doors and window shutters from her house so neighbours could see what was happening inside.

Grey Group Associate Creative Director Rajib Gupta said they tried to communicate the message that if it was not alright to engage in this behaviour in public, then why think it is OK at home.

“We tried to find something different, and a big issue in Asian countries particularly is loss of face. People may not see you but if a woman goes out in public with bruises on her face, people know where they came from. It is not her that is losing face, it is you.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime also conducts awareness raising campaigns in the community. These efforts include assisting to produce a national TV series on domestic violence called Breaking the Silence, and holding a writing competition for members of the news media to encourage more reporting on the issue.

“The review committee judging the competition was overwhelmed by the response with over 1000 entries received,” UNODC Country Manager Zhuldyz Akisheva said.

The UNODC has also been working on training local law enforcement officers to better equip them to respond to domestic violence cases. Akisheva said the agency had worked with 186 police officers since 2008 in ‘Train the Trainer’ sessions.

“The aim is to create a pool of trained, competent law enforcement officers who can in turn train their peers,” she said.

“Our experience is they don’t know how to apply the law, identify if it is an administrative or criminal offence, gather evidence or talk to the victims.”

Akisheva said the general mindset of police was that domestic violence was not a public issue but rather a family issue.

Nguyet of the Women’s Union was of a different opinion. “If you are suffering violence, you need to fight against it, not keep quiet like the old days.

“We need to show the men that they can’t beat their wives. It’s not their right.”

Domestic Violence in VietnamA Victim’s Account:

I got married when I was 28, now I’m 53. The happy times ended quickly, when my husband began to drink heavily. We would fight a lot when he was drunk. Sometimes he would hit me. He would beat our five children, too. Other times he chased me with a knife and once he threw a knife at me. Luckily it missed.

Things got really bad in 2004. He would beat me every day, again and again. One day I was boiling water at the stove. He was drunk and he picked up the pot and threw the water over me. My eldest son was standing nearby and the water also burnt his leg. My husband tried to run away and even though my son was hurt he held him back with the help of our neighbours.

I was taken to hospital and my husband was sent to the police station where he was given an official warning. They also made him sign a document promising that he wouldn’t hurt me anymore. Because my injuries were so severe, he had to go to court. While he was waiting to go on trial we still lived together but he continued to beat me.

When the case went to trial in 2005, I was granted a divorce and my husband was sentenced to nine months in jail. I haven’t seen him since and he has nothing to do with our children.

It was a tough decision to divorce, but I had to. I couldn’t stand him anymore and I had to think of my children. My family stood behind me, especially my mother. My neighbours were really supportive, too, as they’d seen how badly my husband treated me for so many years.

More can be done to prevent domestic violence in HCM City but the government tries its best. My ward’s People’s Committee helped to raise about 18 million VND to help me buy a new house after I left my husband.