Vietnam’s acceptance of parents’ right to exercise disciplinary violence has swept under the carpet the trauma many children suffer.
The pictures were shocking, but what followed was worse.
For badly beating up his 8-year-old daughter, a man got punished with a slap on the wrist.
Nhung started living with her father after her parents divorced in 2017.
In February, her mother Le Thi Huong reported to the police in the north central province of Thanh Hoa that her ex-husband Le Dinh Hai was tying up and brutally beating their daughter for “not doing as well as her brother at school.”
Nhung had massive bruises on her face, arms, back, and buttocks. Doctors said her body had suffered 7 percent damage.
Nhung carries bruises on her hand and buttocks, from her father’s beating. Photos by VnExpress/Lam Son.
Despite physical scars from the beating, all the father had to do was pay a VND2.5 million fine ($107) fine, after Huong withdrew her petition for a criminal probe against him.
Authorities have given Huong custody of the daughter. As of going to press, there was no information on her brother.
Also last month, local media reported the case of a 33-year-old father who was arrested in the Mekong Delta province of Hau Giang for badly beating up his 9-year-old son for being slow in catching up at school. The beating went on for hours, it was reported. Finally, the boy fled to his grandmother’s house and passed out. Tests later showed he had suffered 14 percent damage.
Parents beating their children is not a new or rare phenomenon in Vietnam.
Lesley Miller, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Vietnam, said around 68 percent of children aged 1-14 experience some form of violence at home at the hands of their parents or caregivers in Vietnam.
Public reaction to cases like these are muted compared to the uproar on sexual assaults that have recently come to light, particularly the $8 fine handed out for sexual harassment of a young woman in an elevator in Hanoi in March or an ex-prosecutor caught molesting an underage girl in an elevator in HCMC in April.
The relatively muted response follows from the widespread acceptance and belief in Vietnam that parents can and should exercise some disciplinary violence on their children, to make them behave better, study better and, most importantly, be obedient, according to a research by Dam Hang of the University of Massachusetts and Claudia Cappa of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2014.
The research was based on data collected from 2010 to 2011 through the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS4) — a household survey program supported by the UNICEF that focuses on women and children in low- and middle-income countries. The sample in Vietnam, which involved 6,424 respondents, the majority of whom were female (75.3 percent) and lived in rural areas (59.8 percent), was designed to provide representative estimates at the national level, for urban and rural areas.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, 39, a mother of three in Hanoi, said she does not view the use of violence by parents as problematic, but emphasized that it should be a negotiation between parents and children.
“I make it very clear to my kids that if they misbehave, there will be consequences. But every kid is different. While my 8 year-old reacts better to gentle chiding, my 11-year-old and 4-year-old only listen when I scold them sternly or remind them of the bamboo cane I’d use if they don’t stop misbehaving,” she said.
Thuy said she strongly disagrees with random beating of children out of anger and only applies her own punishment after her kids have failed to behave as agreed to.
Hanoi resident Nguyen Quang Cuong, 32, also endorsed physical punishment as part of parenting. “But even when I do physically punish my kid, I don’t overdo it and only do it for the purpose of educating her, not to satisfy my anger or disappointment with her behavior,” the father of a 7-year-old daughter said.
In Vietnam, great importance is given to having obedient children.
All these factors add up in preventing children from seeking help, and a lot of the time, they accept the abuse they are subjected to in silence.
Pham Minh Triet, a doctor who worked for seven years in the Psychology Department of Children Hospital No.1 in Ho Chi Minh City, said he was troubled by the high number of children who suffer such extreme violence and abuse at the hands of their parents.
“We would only find out what actually happened when the children would come to trust and confide in us after we worked with them for quite some time,” Triet wrote in an essay he sent to VnExpress in April.
One case that is seared in his memory is that of a 12-year-old girl whose body was badly burnt by her mother who doused her with petrol and set her on fire. The mother never showed up at the hospital and the girl was sent to live with her aunt after her hospital discharge.
Details of any follow up action against the mother were not immediately available.
Poverty, gender inequality
The long standing problem of gender inequality has also raised its ugly head in child abuse.
“Gender inequality also often lays behind the violence experienced by girls, whether from male or female caregivers,” wrote Vu Thi Thanh Huong, Senior Researcher at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS), in a 2016 research report on children’s experience of violence in Vietnam. Her findings suggest that the cultural preference for boys often result in emotional and psychological violence against girls in families.
With Vietnamese society still deeply rooted in patriarchy and Confucian norms, girls have much greater pressure to behave and be obedient, not just to adults, but to males in general. This also makes them more vulnerable to abuse.
Huong’s paper also said that poverty and difficult financial circumstances can shape children’s exposure to violence.
Children in all her discussion groups told her that when families’ needs were not met due to a lack of money, “the parents blamed each other, which lead to confrontations, injuries, cursing, and things being broken.” Such agitation affects everyone in the family, particularly children.
Huong also found that unhappy marriages inflicted a lot suffering, including violence, on children as they become the “punching bags” for couples to release the frustrations of their troubled relationship.
Hang, 28, of HCMC, knows this suffering well. She said the trauma she experienced was an accumulation of abusive, vulgar remarks and frustration-fueled physical assault that used any random object within her mother’s reach – a phone, a book, a shoe or a stick.
She said she did not recall when the abuse began, but the memories became vivid from when she was around 11.
Her mother had an extremely short temper and “an inability to compose herself in difficult situations like a shortage of money or quarrels with father.” Hang then had to face her mother’s wrath for the slightest wrong. The abuse left long term emotional scars, while the physical one healed over time.
“I have never sat down and talked to my mother about how I really feel about all that. I don’t know how to, it might trigger bad memories and make her really sad,” she said.
Violence against children in the household is widespread despite legal protection on paper, including Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control, Children’s Law and the Law on Marriage and Family.
To this day, all the old obstacles in implementing and enforcing the laws and regulations persist, preventing children from enjoying the full rights to which they are entitled, Huong’s research found.
Le Ngoc Luan, a lawyer with the Gold Key firm, said that because of the obstacles, very few cases of children abused by parents have come to light.
It is only in serious cases where there are major injuries and impacts that authorities are informed and an investigation follows.
In 2017, it was only when 10-year-old Duy escaped from his house and took shelter at his grandparents that the latter came to know of the physical violence meted to him by his father and stepmother for almost two years.
Huy has suffered brain damage, broken ribs, and visible injuries on his face. He told the police his father and stepmother would beat him for any “mistake” he made. They were respectively sentenced to six and a half years and five years in prison by a Hanoi court in August 2018.
Duy, then 10, suffers injuries on his face following beating by his father in 2017. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.
Child protection laws have not been propagated well in Vietnam, Luan said, adding that local child protection agencies have not been effective, failing to respond promptly when abuse occurred. Consequentially, the abuse remained hidden behind closed curtains. Even after abuse is discovered, it is kept under wraps for a long time and not reported to authorities, Luan said.
Huong said there was need for “broader national sensitization campaigns on domestic violence” with an emphasis on the negative impacts of children’s experiences of violence and their rights.
This could help challenge the use of violence as a means to “discipline” or “educate” children, she wrote in her paper.
UNICEF has worked with the Vietnamese government to design and pilot a holistic parenting education program, which emphasizes positive discipline and prevention of violence and child abuse by improving parents’ understanding of child behaviour.
“The parenting program is currently being piloted in three provinces, with the expectation that it will be scaled-up nationwide,” Miller of UNICEF said. Meanwhile, all stakeholders need to acknowledge that violence continues to take place in houses behind closed doors. Finding out what happens behind closed doors is very difficult, Luan said, adding that Vietnamese people tend to stay away from others’ personal lives and are chary of getting involved in legal matters.
“There are some cases that are not handled thoroughly because of the notion that if parents are dealt with by the authority, it would affect the children psychologically and undermine their future.
“So in many cases, local authorities just issue warnings and light administrative fines,” he said.
Luan said he wasn’t sure that authorities tend to recommend that the victims’ families not to open a criminal probe, but “in cases where parents genuinely realize their mistakes and show remorse, such recommendations are understandable. In such cases levying fines or launching a criminal probe would deeply affect the child and their life from then onwards.”
In her early twenties, Hang recounted blow from her mother recently following an argument. Her mother threw a phone and a tablet at Hang. Then she repeatedly hit Hang with the tablet and pulled her hair violently.
“After a few days, my mother apologized. She had never done that before. It was quite awkward,” Hang said.
“I’m okay now. I don’t live with my mother anymore but I still see her quite often. The memories don’t haunt me like they used to. But I hope one day I can really talk to my mother about what happened.”