Domestic violence is society's shame, not a private family affair

December 31, 2021 | 04:15 pm PT
Ngo Tu Ngan Lawyer
It's been some kind of "tradition" that domestic violence is treated as a family's private affair. Therefore, there's no intervention when the violence happens – interventions that would save lives.

I could not bear to read the details about the death of the eight-year-old girl in Saigon who was repeatedly beaten by her father’s lover over many months and eventually died before getting to the hospital.

The 111 hotline for children’s protection has said they receive around 30,000 calls a month. But this year, when lockdowns and social distancing orders were being implemented across the country and children began to spend more time at home with their families, the number of calls rose to 40,000-50,000 a month.

However, only around 2,000 cases of child abuse were reported in 2020, according to data from the Ministry of Public Security. It’s safe to assume that many cases are going unreported or not officially recorded. Be that as it may, a very worrying fact is that 97 percent of the perpetrators of child abuse are people that the kids were close to and knew well.

In the southern Bac Lieu, my hometown, there was a boy named Tai I befriended when he was 14. When he was just a fetus, the father beat his wife so much she gave birth prematurely. While his deadbeat father drank and gambled, Tai’s mother had to carry bags of shrimp feed for a living. When she became unemployed, neighbors often chipped in with rice for the kids so they could make a meal of it with fish sauce.

His entire childhood, Tai grew up hearing his father’s curses and getting beaten. When he was 12, his father made Tai drop out of school so he could collect scrap on the streets. If he did not manage to earn money any day, he was beaten particularly badly.

One noon, I saw him walking on the road under the scorching sun, oversized rags draped over his little figure and his feet clad in torn slippers offering scant protection from the searing hot asphalt.

Sitting on my motorbike, Tai said the family’s only bicycle had been sold off by his father, who then spent that money on a cockfight. So he had to walk 4-5 km every day and spend all his time collecting and sorting trash. What he earned was barely enough to cover a meal for the family.

"What do you want to do when you grow up?" I asked.

"I want to have enough money to take my mother and sibling away," he said. He wished his father would just leave home one day and never come back.

The neighbors knew Tai was getting beaten practically every day. He would often take refuge in my grandma’s banana garden. But people would say that it was a family business, that we should not interfere.

"What if we get involved and get into trouble?" "We can help him today, but what about tomorrow?" the arguments went.

I know many other kids who also suffered abuse at home – Ti who could only go to school for half a day and had to spend the other half watching the house because his mother goes out to gamble; Thuy, whose parents were divorced, was forced to do chores and beaten often by her father and stepmother for not doing them well enough. We know that there many children suffering from cruel and inhumane treatment, mostly in the name of "discipline" and "education."

Vietnam has a law to protect children and a 24/7 national hotline to report their abuse. But a survey of 9,000 respondents in April 2020 revealed that around 10 percent of adults were not aware of the law, and 45 percent said they'd heard of it, but did not know what it said.

A December 2020 VnExpress survey of over 1,800 readers found two thirds did not know of any hotline or organization to report child abuse to. Several dozens faintly remembered one or two, and only a handful believed they were effective.

Interestingly, around half of the calls to the hotlines come from children themselves, mostly in the 11-18 age group. What would happen if even younger children knew how to dial a number and ask for help?

If the neighbors of the poor eight-year-old girl in Saigon had decided to step in at the time they heard the girl cry out and run off to call security, I wonder if the child could have been saved.

One day, our neighborhood decided enough was enough. Some people reported to the local leadership that the father frequently beats the children. Authorities visited the house, and the local leader told the father she would "put him in jail if he ever hurt the kids again." We each donated some rice and cash for the family and bought Tai a bicycle to go to work. I managed to get some friends to help him with the tuition so he could return to school, though we couldn't be sure if he wouldn't be forced to drop out again.

Hopefully, the situation has improved since then, with neighbors keeping their eyes on the family. The father knows that any sign of beating would be reported to the police. Tai eventually returned to school with our help, though the road to this happening was not an easy one. However, the most important impact of our actions was that kids and their mother knew they were not alone.

If we choose to look away from domestic violence and abuse as someone else's private affair, we are playing a part in allowing the problem to fester and get worse, allowing avoidable injury and deaths.

There is another aspect to our reaction that we should pay attention to. Instead of directing our righteous fury against abusers, perhaps we can take more concrete actions to prevent the next child from suffering. This means lawmakers and child protection authorities also need to step in and do more, not just wait for information from a few hotlines.

Over the past two years, we've shown our altruism and sense of community in fighting a pandemic that threatens all of us. It's time we do the same for our unlucky children, understanding that domestic violence is also a disease that threatens all of us.

*Ngo Tu Ngan is a lawyer based in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are her own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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