The strength women need to leave abusive partners

March 8, 2024 | 05:51 am PT
Bui Vo Investigator
The bricks on the kitchen wall of Hien's house were covered with slash marks. Every time her husband beat her severely, she would mark the wall with a knife. There were over 70 marks in 30 years of marriage.

After turning 50, when her children had grown up, she decided to divorce him. She came to me for advice on the procedures to quickly escape the hell she was in. Her divorce application was stalled for months because her husband threatened her and made everything difficult.

At the reconciliation center, the staff advised her to "keep it within the family" because a divorce would bring shame to the family.

In times of despair, she said if she couldn't divorce, she would commit suicide. In 30 years of perseverance, withstanding kicks, punches, broom handles, tobacco pipes, rice bowls... she had suffered enough. But once she made the decision, even a day inside that house felt unbearably long. She said the waiting period for the divorce was the most stressful, where a single word or a misplaced glance could lead to a beating.

In 2018, I started giving free legal advice online. One person led to another coming for my help, and one day I was added to a group consisting of women in similar situations of domestic abuse. They wanted me to give advice to more women on how to escape the violence committed by their husbands.

A post in the group asking "Has anyone been beaten by their husband like me?" received hundreds of comments, detailing the number of times they were abused. Some responded with a teary smiley emoji followed by "like daily meals."

After many years of giving advice to the disadvantaged, I realized that abusive husbands spare no one: from uneducated women to teachers and government employees.

My friend, a prosecutor, was also abused by her husband. After enduring more than 5 years, she decided to divorce and won custody of her child.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, between 2009-2019, 297,498 cases of abuse had been reported, with nearly 25,000 victims seeking medical treatment. 76% of divorces were due to domestic violence.

However, the hidden part of the issue is that 90% of women who were abused physically and/or sexually by their husbands did not seek help.

There are two main barriers preventing these wives from escaping abusive homes, that have to do with psychology and awareness.

The mindset of "keeping a complete home for the children" shackled them, turning wives into "sandbags for anger" of their husbands anywhere: in bed, in the kitchen, in the corner of a room, on the streets, even at work.

For those who endure for their kids, I had to cite how the children would benefit from the divorce in order to persuade them. The home they tried to keep was never "complete": lacking love and filled with hatred and violence. What good would that bring to the child's future?

Some women wanted to save face for themselves and their parents. But cover-ups don't last. How can one keep saving faces when every so often, they appear bruised and battered, limping in and out of their homes?

My consultations were persistent conversations like that. As society moves towards a more open attitude regarding divorce, psychological barriers are gradually being removed as well, albeit slowly. Many women have realized that having no husband is better than living with abusive, authoritarian and gambling ones.

But even after overcoming psychological obstacles, wives, like Hien, face another barrier: awareness and the ability to utilize legal help.

Most women do not know how to use the law to protect themselves. They consider spousal abuse as "discipline", not as a criminal act between citizens in a law-abiding society.

The marriage registration certificate is actually a state document recognizing the marital relationship based on principles protected by law. The state strictly prohibits any form of enslavement or physical and mental harm.

The 2015 Penal Code is progressive in creating maximum protection for women. Article 185 on the crime of abuse stipulates that if a husband's behavior regularly causes his wife physical and mental pain, or if he has been administratively punished for this behavior and reoffends, he could be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, or even 5 years if the wife is pregnant.

Cases causing injuries are dealt with under the "intentional infliction of injury" category with a heavier penalty.

This is a strong tool that the law gives to women. That is, even without causing injury or health damage, abuse can still be criminally charged.

Minor cases are administratively fined, but repeat offenses, even just a slap, will be criminally prosecuted and unlikely to be suspended, due to prior offenses. Similarly, destroying family property worth VND4 million ($162) or more could lead to prosecution for "property destruction."

The law is relentless in preventing the recurrence of violence. But not only women, many men probably do not realize that they could easily face criminal charges if they beat their wives.

Why don't they know such basic and minimum regulations? I believe that when one registers for marriage, judicial officials should require both parties to "learn by heart" these regulations and consider this a mandatory condition for issuing a marriage certificate. Knowing the law and reporting abuse early will help women be protected better.

For severe abuse cases, I advise them to discreetly record the incident with their phone. Images or sounds of violence, combined with injury marks on the victim's body, are not only a basis for authorities to deter the abuser by law, but also compelling evidence for the wife to claim legitimate rights in case of divorce.

After the divorce, Hien went to live with her daughter's family. Her days are now peacefully spent in the vegetable garden with her two grandchildren. Sometimes, the old beatings still torment her in her sleep.

*Bui Vo is an investigator at the Supreme People's Procuracy of Vietnam.

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