Vietnam’s legal impotence on sexual harassment arouses outrage

By Ngoc Dinh   March 25, 2019 | 07:34 pm PT
Legal loopholes are blamed for sexual harassers in Vietnam getting away with slaps on the wrist.

"If the punishment is just a VND200,000 fine, I would like to deposit VND1 million right away, so next time I won’t have to pay," an angry reader wrote to VnExpress.

The reader’s caustic comment was made in response to the fine slapped on a man who molested a woman in an elevator.

On March 4, camera footage showed a man forcibly kissing a woman in an elevator. It showed the man trying to grab the woman as she tried to escape from the elevator when its door opened.

The public anger provoked by the footage turned into outraged disbelief at the punishment meted out to the harasser. After the police concluded that man had molested and forcibly kissed her in an apartment elevator, they fined him a paltry VND200,000 ($8.57) and let him go. 

Social media erupted in a storm of criticism.

"Many other harassers may even be ‘inspired’ to commit similar or even worse actions," Hoang Bach, a singer, wrote. "How can I feel secure about letting my wife and kids use the elevators many times a day?"

Others commented that the punishment was an insult to the victim and revealed the powerlessness of the current legal system against sexual harassment.

"For all the pain and mental breakdown I have suffered, the VND200,000 fine is completely inappropriate," Lan, the victim, said after waiting for two weeks for justice.

Since the incident, Lan's work and study has been disrupted as she focused on demanding a public apology and appropriate punishment for the offender. The harasser has not bothered to respond.

Lan is sadly not the only victim to see her abuser receive such lenient punishment. Last August, a man who molested and kissed a female colleague also got away with a VND200,000 fine.

‘A joke’

"I think this sentence is a joke. It is like mocking the victim," Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS), told VnExpress International, referring to the fine.

"It is absolutely useless in terms of defending the victim’s honor, and in terms of protecting her and women in general against such harassment."

Hong said such lenient punishments are futile in deterring offenders and would discourage victims and potential victims from revealing the truth.

Research has shown that Vietnamese women are generally unsafe from sexual harassment. A 2014 report by Action Aid, an international NGO, found 87 percent of interviewed women and girls had faced sexual harassment in public places.

Sexual harassment is still prevalent in Vietnamese society, and one of its causes is the loophole in current regulations regarding this wrongdoing.

Dang Van Cuong of the Hanoi Bar Association said that Vietnamese law currently lacks sanctions for sexual harassment. The 2015 Criminal Code addresses the act of rape, but has no specific provisions for sexual harassment, he said.

Actions similar to what Lan suffered are usually linked with an administrative violation of offending someone’s honor, which entails a maximum fine of 300,000 ($4.29-12.89).

Meanwhile, describing the harasser’s action as "forcibly kissing" does not reflect the danger and true nature of the man’s action, said Cuong, adding that acts of sexual harassment should be criminalized.

Blaming the victim

The legal weakness impedes authorities from delivering justice and hinders the fledgling #MeToo movement in Vietnam, which is already facing obstacles from the victim blaming culture.

The Vietnam Women's Union has also stated that the fine could not be a deterrent to the harasser and that it has set a bad precedent. The union has called on authorities assess the damage to the victim’s mental health and honor. "There needs to be a guide to identify specific signs of crime in cases of abuse and harassment of women and children," it said.

Several lawmakers have also said that the current regulations fail to deal with real situations of sexual abuse.

"This fact shows that some current regulations do not fully reflect the reality of life and they are not sufficient to deter violators," said Pham Tat Thang, Vice Chairman of the Committee for Culture, Education, Youth, Adolescents and Children.

The lenient sanction has attributed to the social insecurity and causes women to feel unsafe.

Le Thi Nguyet, Vice Chairwoman of the National Assembly Social Affairs Committee, said: "I have learnt that since the incident, many girls are hesitant to take the elevator alone, or warn each other whenever a man walks in.

"The incident has distressed and destabilizes society."

Following the public outcry, Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh has asked the Ministry of Public Security and Hanoi People’s Committee to review the harassment case.

He has also asked the Ministry of Public Security to quickly propose amendments to the law if current provisions are not strict enough to deter and prevent similar actions.

Whatever changes these actions bring in the future, it might be too late for Lan.

Despite all the public support she has received, there has been neither an apology from her abuser nor steps taken to mete out more severe punishment.

Today, she is afraid every time she steps into an elevator, but she has given up on demanding redress for the trauma that she has suffered, and is suffering.

"If the law is like this, I have no choice."

*Name of the victim has been changed.

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