Sexual abuse of underage school kids a legal, cultural failure

By Sen    July 22, 2019 | 05:06 pm PT
Sexual abuse of underage school kids a legal, cultural failure
Teenage girl shows the inscription "stop" on the palm and closes her mouth with her hand. Photo by Shutterstock/Ermolaev Alexander.
A spate of molestation cases has exposed glaring gaps in ensuring the security of underage children in Vietnamese schools.

When 14-year-old H.T.H brought home a cell phone from school, her family was puzzled. She said her IT teacher had given it to her so she could report class attendance to him.

The family was unconvinced. They had been noticing some unusual behavior by H.T.H of late. They kept pushing the boarding school girl for the truth. Finally, the girl admitted that her teacher had been having sex with her. He gave her the phone so he could contact her and tell her where to meet privately at school.

The girl was 12-weeks pregnant when the truth came out. The teacher, Nguyen Viet Anh was arrested in April after the family lodged a complaint. He has reportedly confessed to having sex with her on multiple occasions at their school since late 2017, when the girl was in 7th grade.

Unfortunately, H.T.H is just one among hundreds, if not thousands of children suffering sexual abuse at the hands of teachers and other figures of authority.

The country was shaken when at least 10 boys of a boarding school in northern Phu Tho Province disclosed that their principal sexually assaulted them for a long period of time.

The principal, middle-aged Dinh Bang My, called them to his office purportedly to talk and sexually assaulted them there, including forcing them to perform oral sex. Such "sessions" would end with him giving them candy or a few dozen thousand dong (VND23,300=$1).

Some of the male student victims who have accused their school principal Dinh Bang My of sexual abuse last year decide to speak up after repeated offenses in Phu Tho Province. Photo courtesy of VTV24

Some of the boys in Phu Tho Province who accused their school principal Dinh Bang My of sexual abuse last year. Photo courtesy of VTV24.

The available data on sexually abused children in Vietnam says there were 325 of cases in the first quarter of 2019, but the actual numbers are likely to be significantly higher, experts say.

Last year, Vietnam recorded 1,547 child sex abuse cases in 2018, down 2.8 percent from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Public Security. In most cases, children are victimized by people who are not strangers, like relatives, neighbors, teachers and school security officials.

Data available from the Vietnam People’s Police department at the time of writing shows that among 735 cases of sexual abuse of children in the first five months of 2018, teachers were perpetrators in 6.2 percent.

Administrators of S.O.S - Share Our Stories, an anonymous Facebook forum where survivors of sexual violence can share their stories and get emotional support, told VnExpress International they have been receiving 4-5 confessions a day since 2016 when it was first established by a group of Hanoi University students. The forum has nearly 190,000 followers now.

In total, they have received more than 5000 confessions. Some accounts of sexual harassment and abuse posted on on S.O.S take place in schools, and teachers are not rare perpetrators.

Legal lacunae

A stumbling block to tackling the problem of child abuse are legislative shortcomings that allow perpetrators to get off.

The Penal Code dictates punishment for molesting children under 16 but does not outline clearly what constitutes the act of child molestation, while some legal documents that do so have expired, according to a report of People’s Court Magazine in May.

This was most evident in the recent case where an ex-prosecutor who molested a child in an elevator could not be punished for lack of evidence, despite explicit video footage.

The report suggests a revision of the out-of-dated definition of child molestation. It also highlights a confusion between child molestation and having sexual intercourse with a minor among lawmakers and legal experts.

It said the misunderstanding will allow criminals to slip through the loopholes and go free or lead to the levying of false charges.

In 2017, the government issued a decree on fostering a safe, healthy, and friendly education environment. However, the 3,000-word document does not mention anything related to sexual abuse, lawyer Nguyen Van Tu said in a public talk in Hanoi organized by Center for Studies and Applied Sciences of Gender - Family - Women - Adolescents (CSAGA) last month.

Colonel Pham Manh Thuong, deputy director of the Public Security Ministry's Criminal Police Department, said at a recent conference that the ministry and other agencies were looking at amending regulations to match the real situation regarding child abuse.

Despite the priority being given now to preventing violence against and sexual abuse of children by the authorities, the fact remains that much more needs to be done, said Simone Vis, UNICEF Vietnam Chief of Education. She said Vietnam lacks both a strong legal framework to protect children from all forms of violence as well as care and support services for victims.

Compounding the legal lacunae are outdated social mores that persist in this country to date.

In Vietnam, a child will not easily confess she or he has been abused, partly because open talk of sex is taboo. In addition, the culture of setting great store by how "obedient" a child is, while not exclusive to Vietnamese culture, is very strong here. Children instinctively fear disapproval or retribution if they expose misbehavior by adults.

"We know that a lot of victims of sexual abuse don’t report it to the police for fear of stigmatization or retaliation, especially when the perpetrator is in situation of authority over the victim, like a teacher and a student," said Vis of UNICEF.

Dr Vu Thu Huong, a lecturer and researcher at the Hanoi National University of Education, said some students don't talk about a teacher's abuse, be it violence or sexual molestation, because it is ingrained into them that "talking back" to teachers is disrespectful. 

What can be done

In May, the Ministry of Education and Training made teaching prevention of sexual abuse mandatory in elementary schools across the country starting this year. Illustrated manuals were added to the list of basic teaching equipment for the first grade.

Vietnam has made teaching prevention of sexual abuse mandatory in elementary schools across the country starting this year. Photo by VnExpress.

Vietnam has made teaching prevention of sexual abuse mandatory in elementary schools across the country starting this year. Photo by VnExpress.

Vis of UNICEF said schools should consider creating an accessible and confidential mechanism where students can report any act of violence and bullying at school. They can also raise awareness about the National Child Protection Helpline, which can be used by anyone to confidentially report any case of child abuse, she added.

Huong and several other academics have been campaigning to counter child sexual abuse, which is worsened by a lack of education as well as research on the topic, by speaking on various media platforms for almost a decade. She herself has held many sex abuse prevention workshops for students, mainly in northern Vietnam.

"When I told some students I've worked with that it is not disrespectful to talk about what teachers do, they opened up about being sexually abused," Huong said.

At least in one case, there is heartening news. Instead of ostracizing, shaming or condemning, the parents of H.T.H, the 14-year-old student from Lao Cai mentioned earlier in the article, have decided not to force the girl to have an abortion because the fetus is too big.

The latest media reports say that DNA tests show that the baby belongs to the IT teacher who raped her.

The family has not only decided against an abortion, but also rejected help from Lao Cai Social Protection Center because the victim’s mother wants her close.

Her sister-in-law told the press: "We don't know what to do yet, but no matter what, we’ll do our best to care for her and the baby."

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