From abused wife to protector of community, one woman’s amazing transformation

By Thuy Quynh   December 20, 2019 | 12:30 pm GMT+7
From abused wife to protector of community, one woman’s amazing transformation
Life of women like Thanh just consists of three things – working, looking after the children and getting beaten. Photo by Shutterstock/sdecoret
Beaten by her husband and mother-in-law, and living in abject fear, Thanh determined to stand up for herself.

A smile blooms on Thanh’s face as she holds the Knight of Justice award for 2019 in her hands. The 50-year-old ethnic woman was one of five people honored at a recent conference on sex, health and society in Hanoi.

She says: "I used to suffer from domestic violence. And now I have established a community which provides help to women in a similar situation. "I am truly happy and proud."

Many people were surprised when she mentioned "nearly 20 years" of abuse by her husband and mother-in-law. "It was a long and haunting nightmare for me and my children. I still cannot believe what is happening. Everything feels like a dream."

Nguyen Thi Thanh is from northern Hoa Binh Province. After she gave birth to a son in 1991 the abuse started. "At first my mother-in-law hit me."

It was a cold night in her small and dark stilt house, and she was sitting by a boiling pot of fish sauce in the kitchen. Suddenly her mother-in-law ran in, grabbed the pot and poured the sauce all over her body. Then she started cursing her daughter-in-law and hit her with a rake.

Thanh neither defended herself nor run away. All she did was to cover her face with her hands. Then she crawled to a corner of the house and cried her eyes out. Seeing the cruelly, her little child could not help crying. Her husband just sat there and did nothing to stop the abuse.

"She would hit me many times every day. She hated me assuming I was the reason her son did not care much about her."

All she did was apply medicine on the numerous scratches and bruises that would cover her body.

After a while her husband too began to abuse her to satisfy his mother. It went from yelling at first to slapping her in the face and then hitting her with objects like pieces of wood. Again she did not try to defend herself.

Ethnic minority women like Thanh often have no say in family, and have traditional beliefs which consider divorce a taboo. Thus, once a woman gets married, she is expected to spend the rest of her life with her husband and parents-in-law.

Bereft of hope, she tried to commit suicide once and flee twice, but all in vain. "All I wanted was to run far away with my children, even cross the border illegally. I could not continue with my tragic life anymore."

The years of physical and emotional led to depression. "I spent most of my time alone in the kitchen. If I had to go out for farming, I covered my face with a scarf. I felt very shameful and did not want to interact with anyone.

"At that time I blamed myself for not being good enough. Thus, [I thought] I deserved to be treated badly."

Life just consisted of three things – working, looking after the children and getting beaten. "My husband once hit me with a piece of wood. It was so painful that I instantly passed out."

Her parents took her to a hospital and she was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. She was out of danger but had to remain in hospital for two months.

She was not only physically but also sexually abused. "I was too exhausted to satisfy my husband at any given time. But at that time I considered it a wife’s responsibility instead of a form of sexual abuse. Hence, I did not dare to tell anyone."

She would thus usually get up before dawn and do household chores to avoid having to sleep with him.

In 2010 she participated in a training program for women suffering from gender-based violence organized by the Vietnam Women’s Union.

She did not tell her family about this, and pedaled her old bicycle 10 kilometers to the training center every day. There she met and made friends with several women who were facing the same plight as she. "I applied what I learned to real-life situations."

After returning from the training class she would leave the program materials on the table and bed so that other members of the family could read them.

Her husband and mother-in-law gradually changed their behavior toward her. She no longer had to conceal she was attending the program.

When it was over she gathered courage and registered as a candidate for the commune committee of the Women’s Union.

She also founded a group of happy families to support abused women. Its members work as mediators, visiting victims’ houses to offer help and advice. 

Thanks to her efforts, domestic violence has decreased dramatically in her neighborhood.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Health has recorded around 20,000 cases of domestic violence every year, with 97 percent of the victims being women.

Elisa Fernandez, Vietnam head of UN Women, said victims of gender-based violence are physically and emotionally harmed, and killed in the worst cases.

Thanh says: "Now there are many women who come to my house to ask for support. I listen to their stories and give them advice right in front of my mother-in-law. She is aware of her past wrongdoing."

For her huge efforts against domestic violence she was conferred the Knight of Justice award.

*Nguyen Thi Thanh is a pseudonym

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