Vietnam's social mores make it more difficult to fight domestic violence

By Linh Do   September 20, 2019 | 10:28 am GMT+7
Vietnam's social mores make it more difficult to fight domestic violence
Screenshot of a video shared online shows a woman sitting on the floor, holding her two-month-old baby, after being beaten by her husband (R) in front of their son and housekeeper in their apartment in Long Bien District, Hanoi, August 26, 2019.
A major problem with fighting domestic violence in Vietnam is that it’s not seen as a major problem.   

Last month, there was an outpouring of outrage as two very similar video clips went viral. 

Shown within days of each other, both clips were taken from security cameras installed at home to monitor housekeepers.

It turned out that housekeepers weren’t the ones who had to be monitored, but the men of the house, grossly abusing the power vested in them by a Confucian, patriarchal society at the expense of the women, who are devalued and subjected to permanent subordination in the family. 

In both viral clips, the husbands repeatedly beat wives who are carrying small children. An older son witnesses the violence meted out to his mother, inflicting both mental trauma and, possibly, the seeds of violence in them.

These clips are just two of many cases of domestic violence reported by Vietnamese media in recent years.

It is still accepted that women have to be responsible for housework and procreation, and meet their husbands’ sexual demands, while men handle community and decision-making.

According to the National Study on Domestic Violence carried out by the General Statistics Office in 2010, which is one of two studies of its kind that have been done so far, in Vietnamese culture, it is considered that men are naturally prone to anger and unable to control themselves, so violence to "correct" women’s behavior is acceptable.  

These cultural beliefs are reflected in age-old proverbs like: "Teach children in their childhood, teach wives when they first arrive."

"Wife beating is still believed to be a normal part of family life," Dr. Khuat Thu Hong, Director of the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) told Vnexpress International.  

Last Saturday, a clip went viral on social media, showing a man beat, choke and drown a woman. The man has been identified as Pham Chi Linh who lives in southern Tay Ninh Province, and the woman is Linh’s wife, Tran Thi Tuyet Mai.

Tran Thi Tuyet Mai is taken to Tay Ninh General Hospital after being physically abused by her husband. Photo by Vietnam News Agency/Le Duc Hoanh.

Tran Thi Tuyet Mai is taken to Tay Ninh General Hospital after being physically abused by her husband. Photo by Vietnam News Agency/Le Duc Hoanh.

It’s pervasive 

At two conferences held by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism at the end of last year to review 10 years of implementing the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control, speakers said the phenomenon is being hidden behind the door of each and every Vietnamese household.

Domestic violence has been increasing in both number and severity in recent years, occurring in both rural and urban areas, with most victims being women and children, the conferences heard. 

At least 100,000 cases of domestic violence happen every year, speakers said, though the recorded figure is much lower at about 37,000.

From 2008 to 2018, local courts at all levels processed roughly 1.4 million divorce cases. Of these, a million cases, or about 77 percent, involved domestic violence.   

According to the oft-cited 2010 National Study on Domestic Violence, 58 percent of ever-partnered women in Vietnam have suffered physical, sexual, or emotional violence in their lifetime.

Dr. Hong said though the second study carried out last year showed an improvement in this category - from 58 percent to 47 percent - there were reasons to doubt its accuracy as well as that of general data collection in Vietnam. 

Local authorities may not report real numbers to save face, and many victims of domestic violence don’t want to share their stories, she said.

In Vietnam, the majority of women who suffer from domestic violence either don’t tell anyone, or don’t seek help from public services. The most common reasons are to save face, protect whole families for the sake of children, and to avoid sexist, there-is-no-smoke-without-fire social judgments which blame women for "provoking" violence and failing to maintaining family harmony.

The lack of trust in the justice system is another factor in under-reporting of these crimes.

According to a study carried out by the UN in Vietnam in 2012 to assess the situation of women within the criminal justice system, violence against women is considered "normal" and women are encouraged to deal with it outside the criminal justice system.

As a result, the rate of reporting cases to authorities is low and victims are often referred to reconciliation facilitators in their communities rather than the criminal justice system.

And in cases that do enter the criminal justice system, the police and prosecutors have limited guidance or training on how to implement relevant laws. Once a case comes to trial, women are often unable to access legal aid services and the courts don’t have any procedure to appropriately deal with their specific needs. For these and other reasons, conviction rates are extremely low and perpetrators are rarely punished.

According to a policy recommendation paper released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Vietnam in 2016, of all the cases of domestic violence that have been discovered, only 43 percent were reported to the police. Of the reported cases, only 12 percent faced criminal charges. Only 1 percent of the criminal charges led to convictions.

Gender inequality a fundamental cause

In their policy recommendation paper, the UNFPA and the Vietnamese culture ministry emphasize that  domestic violence should be understood through a gendered lens.

Gender-based violence has a wider scope than domestic violence and encompasses numerous manifestations like sex selective abortion, child marriage, human trafficking, forced sex work, sexual harassment, and child sexual abuse.

While men and boys can be victims, the dominant form of gender-based violence is violence against women and girls, which manifests often as domestic violence.   

The root cause of gender-based violence is gender inequality.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Index, Vietnam ranked 77th out of 149 countries in 2018 in terms of progress toward gender equality. 

This index measures four categories: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment.

Vietnam has done best in narrowing the gender gaps in education and health, and worst in political empowerment.

Dr. Hong also pointed out three areas that Vietnam needs to pay attention to: men still occupy most leadership positions; women are still paid less for similar work; and women still have to shoulder all housework.

One key aspect highlighted by the UNFPA and the culture ministry is that without a thorough gendered lens, the current law on domestic violence cannot address some serious forms of violence like marital rape, incest and child marriage.

In general, the law has been faulted for treating domestic violence more lightly than violence outside the family, emphasizing reconciliation, and focusing on administrative or financial rather than criminal punishment.

The importance Vietnamese culture places on the family makes domestic violence very difficult to eliminate, because protecting women has to be done at the cost of jeopardizing family and communal ties.

"In foreign countries, you are free to choose whether to get married or not," Hong said. "In Vietnam, no matter how successful you are, if you don’t get married and have a family, you aren’t considered complete."

This is why Vietnamese people want to keep their families whole and intact, resolve and keep family conflicts within the four walls. There is nothing to be proud about washing the family’s dirty laundry in public, she noted.  

If a woman reports domestic violence to the police, her husband may be fined a few million dong ($1=VND23,300), but even the fine may be taken out of their shared family budget. This is especially true in rural households where husbands and wives share their finances.

If the man is imprisoned for domestic violence, it is she again who is likely to visit him and bring him food. And if she files for a divorce, she risks losing many things, such as shared properties which may be registered under his name. Most of all, she also risks losing custody of her child.

Vietnamese social policies also revolve around the family, Dr. Hong said. "Why? Because if the family is in peace, the burden on the state will be lighter," she said. 

For now, one can only hope that every woman who suffers from domestic violence gets the justice she deserves. 

In the case of the two videos that went viral, one of the husbands, Nguyen Viet Luong of Bac Kan Province has acknowledged publicly that he was wrong in beating his wife and said that he and his wife have reconciled.

However, according to the Bac Kan municipal police, Luong’s wife has reported him. She has been sent to the Ministry of Police’s Institute of Criminal Sciences for a medical examination, as initial investigations showed that her right ear-drum was damaged. The police are waiting for the medical result. 

In the later and more serious case in which the wife was instantly hospitalized, the woman has withdrawn the charge against her husband because she doesn’t want to "push him too far", because it may affect her two children.

However, she will file for divorce after years of being mistreated.

Her husband, a former wushu instructor named Nguyen Xuan Vinh from Hanoi, beat her for almost one hour because she moved the TV from his bedroom into the living room without asking for his permission.

The woman withdrew the charge partly because Vinh has given a written statement to the police pledging not to misbehave anymore and agreeing to a smooth divorce.

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