'Women are meant to be teased': Vietnam survey uncovers toxic culture of sexual harassment

By Trang Bui   December 3, 2016 | 12:20 am PT
A new ActionAid survey has found a slew of misconceptions about what should be viewed as harassment and what masculinity means.

A majority of women in Vietnam did not feel safe "being a women" in public places as misogynistic attacks ranging from catcalling to groping have not been taken seriously, a new survey has found.

The ActionAid survey, which interviewed more than 2,000 people in five cities, found that due to dangerous misconceptions about sexual harrassment, only 48 percent of women and girls feel concerned about the issue. A number of participants thought sexual harassment only means rape.

"Initially many misinterpreted the term 'sexual harassment'," Hoang Phuong Thao. the country director of ActionAid Vietnam, said. "They thought we were only asking about rape cases." 

Thao said that many men in Vietnam think teasing girls and women is normal and that even female respondents see catcalling or flirting as normal behavior, although they feel uncomfortable and sometimes scared.

A participant from Hanoi was quoted in the report as saying: “Taking the bus for a long time, I got used to these kinds of behavior.”

ActionAid defines sexual harassment as any act of harassment or assault, including acts such as staring, touching, groping, catcalling and whistling that can make the victim feel uncomfortable.

Nguyen Huu Minh, director of Institute for Family and Gender, agreed with the definition but urged researchers to adapt the concept to Vietnam's culture.

Minh said the current cultural context hindered him from conducting a similar survey 15 years ago: “Sexual harassment is a very broad term that could falsely condemn friendly teasing between males and females," he said. "This is an international term that should be addressed carefully when brought into Vietnam’s cultural context.”

Sexual harassment in Vietnam is often linked to cultural norms. A gender-based violence paper prepared by the U.N. in 2010 said: “Vietnamese culture is rooted in Confucianism, which is characterized by patrilineal descent, patrilocal residence, male privilege and hierarchical relationships that support gender inequality.”

A recent national study reported that between 30 and 60 percent of the female respondents, including young women, believe their husbands' violence could be justified under certain circumstances.

ActionAid's Thao said Vietnamese sayings such as “As a flower is meant to be nipped, a woman is meant to be teased” reflect misconceptions and a lack of awareness that can hinder efforts to fight sexual harassment.

“Among the male participants in the survey, many believe sexual harassment is not dangerous and it shows their masculine nature,” she said.

The new survey also highlighted the issue of victim blaming in sexual harassment cases. The report quoted a victim as saying: "I called a hotline but the operator asked what I wore, and why I was dressed like that in public places."

In a report in 2014, ActionAid said 87 percent of women in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were sexually harassed at least once. After the report, the NGO confirmed that there has been a lack of strong policy to address the issue.

Thao said even though there are hotlines and cameras to protect female passengers in HCMC, bus operators have not received any report of sexual harassment so far.

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