Violence by an intimate partner: a public matter

By Elisa Fernandez Saenz   September 18, 2020 | 03:58 pm PT
The moment the man stood up, grabbed a plastic stool and moved quickly to hit the woman, I also stood up and shouted.
Elisa Fernandez Saenz

Elisa Fernandez Saenz

I shouted "Stop" and "Khong" ("No" in Vietnamese), while I crossed my arms making the "No" sign.

That was on September 2, as I ventured with some friends for lunch at a little restaurant in Hanoi to eat some noodles and celebrate Vietnam’s National Day, a holiday commemorating freedom and independence in Vietnam, I witnessed a situation of intimate partner violence which happened in front of all our eyes.

The man, sitting next to us, first shouted very loudly to his wife or girlfriend in what was unmistakably verbal aggression, to the point that she left the table and sat in an empty table behind him.

Her face and body language showed that she was clearly affected by the situation as she kept looking down in sadness and silence. Her rather unresisting attitude made me think it was not the first time that she had been treated this way. They looked young, like in their late 20s, and appeared educated, wearing fashionable clothes. The man kept on talking loudly with apparent signs of being increasingly angry, while a couple seating with him remained silent.

By standing up and shouting at him, I probably reduced the intensity of the violence but unfortunately, he still hit her once. The violence happened in front of all of us, but no one in the restaurant except me acted. I evidently made the situation "uncomfortable"; thus, the man paid and quickly left the restaurant with his partner and the other couple.

The whole situation has left me deeply sadden and angry, wondering how we can bring a change so that violence against women stops once and for all. One woman battered is one too many!!!

I can still not take the image of this man hitting his partner with the blue stool out of my mind. In my head, there are too many questions unanswered: Why did that man feel so entitled that he could insult and hit the women in public without any fear of repercussion? Why did she feel so disempowered to act, to protect herself, to demand for help from all of us around her? Why did the people in the restaurant felt so removed from the situation that they did not feel compelled to help another human being in distress, like we would normally do?

What happened in that restaurant was not OK! The verbal and physical violence this woman experienced is unacceptable. It is not a private problem of that couple. It is a public matter. It touches all of us, and we should react! No matter the nature of the conflict, that women did not deserve the aggression she was receiving. Differences and conflicts happen within couples and families. They can be resolved with respectful, non-violent communication.

This woman could be me, or my colleague, or the female politician, the businesswoman, the street worker, or the student. The statistics of gender-based violence in Vietnam are just too high and not improving. Unless we recognized the damage this makes to the core fabric of our society, things will not change. And men need to be part of this realization.

In the past years, there has been a lot of efforts to improve legislation and services to prevent and protect women from gender-based violence in private and public spaces, but unless we change our mindsets it would just take too long before we see a significant difference in the way we related to each other. Too many women will get hurt in the process.

To the young woman in the restaurant and the thousands of women who suffer violence by a partner every day, I would like you to know that you do not deserve that violence and that help is available. If you constantly feel unhappy, undermined, in fear and unsafe around your partner, there is something wrong. Do not blame yourself. Instead, seek to protect yourself (and your children) by talking to a trusted friend or relative, and reach out for help at available hotlines and services (Center for women and development, Peace House, Center for studies and applied sciences in gender, family, women and adolescents (CSAGA). Leaving a situation of violence is possible. Violence is not your fate.

To the witnesses or bystanders of situations of gender-based violence, you (we) have a role to play. Do not remain silent. If you find yourself witnessing a person is being harassed, threatened or hit, you can distract the perpetrator to allow the targeted person to get out of the situation. Very importantly, do not risk your own safety. Try to not act alone. Call on others around you to help and interrupt the situation to send the message that the behavior is not acceptable in the community. You and others can talk to the perpetrator telling him in a respectful, direct and honest way that his words and actions are not okay, for example, by saying "you need to stop," "what you are doing is inappropriate," "we need to talk about what you just said/did." If you do not feel safe taking any action above, consider contacting the police.

It is the responsibility of all of us to react when violence happens - say something, stop the action, call the police, secure the safety of the victim and offer some help, and refer her to the hotlines and shelters available.

As we go back into our routines, let’s reflect on the fact that a true free, peaceful and prosperous society is not possible until we end the violence within our homes and our hearts!

*Elisa Fernandez Saenz is the Country Representative of UN Women in Vietnam.

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