|Evidence of violence: Nguyen Thi Lan's husband tore her pyjamas when he raped her. The pyjama is exhibited at the CSAGA center as a depiction of domestic violence. — Photo courtesy of CSAGA
Half of the married women in Viet Nam experience domestic violence and sexual abuse at some point of their lives. Nguyen Minh Huong finds that most cases of violence against women are not investigated, let alone effectively prosecuted.
It is 9 am. The sun is shining over Ha Noi's Obstetrics and Gynaecology hospital. In one corner of the hospital, a woman is sitting alone, crying. Her long and uncombed hair covers her face. Her voice and trembling body betray her misery. On the floor next to her feet is a pair of torn pyjamas.
"It has been ruined like me. My husband abuses me," Nguyen Thi Lan, 30, whispered as she told her story.
Lan married her husband, whose name she does not dare to mention, for love five years ago. At the time she had no idea that her husband would badly treat her and even force her to have sex.
Lan disliked her husband and his hunger for obsessive sex. When she refused to have sex, her husband would tear off her clothes and rape her. Even as he felt pleasure, he slapped and cuffed her.
Following several such episodes, Lan was admitted to hospital with a swollen face and injuries on her breasts. The doctor said her intimate organs were also inflamed and would need months to heal. Three days ago, Lan was admitted for her fifth abortion. She is also seeking treatment for multiple injuries.
Consultant Nguyen Thi Phuong, who has more than two decades of experience in helping women with psychological problems related to sexual abuse, told of another horrifying case.
Phuong spoke about a beautiful and cultured woman married to a rich and famous man. Although her marriage was seen as beautiful, in reality it was very tragic. In public, she would appear healthy, confident and joyful. At home she was treated badly by her husband.
To protect family honour, she never revealed how badly her husband was treating her; forcing her every night to have sex, abusing her and at times beating her ruthlessly.
Despite being badly treated, she kept quiet. It was only when she finally sought help from someone to end her nightmare that people came to know about her ordeal.
Phuong said that at one point the woman had even tried to kill herself to escape her fate.
She said that once her husband had forced her to have intercourse, even though she was menstruating. When she refused, he dragged her to the bedroom, pulled her by hair, tore her dress and had sex with her. Her cries for mercy went unanswered.
But suddenly the door opened and to her horror she saw her only child, her 14-year-old son, standing at the door and looking at her in shock. She was without clothes, bleeding and being beaten by her husband.
Following that incident, the victim stayed away from home for several months and could not bear to face her son. Phuong and her team had to do their utmost to prevent her from committing suicide. Finally, she came to terms with her situation and filed for divorce.
A 2010 national report on domestic violence released by the General Statistics Office in collaboration with the Centre for Health Initiatives and Population and the World Health Organisation, surveyed more than 5,000 women in different localities around Viet Nam. The report showed that one out of every 10 married women had suffered from sexual violence at least once in her lifetime.
In 2011, more research conducted by the National Assembly on the same topic showed that 30 per cent of Vietnamese women had experienced forced sex. Since then, no more studies or surveys on the subject have been announced.
If half the population of 90 million is made up of women, the victims of sexual violence are estimated to be 4.5 million and the victims of forced intercourse during marriage comes to about 13.5 million. As a consultant, Phuong said most women suffered dramatic and severe side effects after being treated badly. Instead of being cared and loved, they were raped and beaten.
"The injuries to their bodies can heal, but the pain caused to their souls might never stop," she added.
Doctor Phuong Hoa, from the Ha Noi Obstetrics and Gynaecology Hospital, said most of the victims reported pain and soreness in their vaginal and anal areas. Some even had torn muscles, suffered from fatigue, broken bones, injuries caused by weapons, and had undergone miscarriages or still births. Some had even contracted sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
The doctor said the psychological consequences of marital rape could be much worse than being raped by a stranger because victims raped by a stranger might never see them again. But if raped by their own husband, they realised it might last forever.
That is why many wives give in to feelings of long-term pessimism, depression, anger and fear. Many of them lose sleep and start distrusting others. Some even become violent or try to kill themselves, the doctor said.
Sex is a taboo subject in Viet Nam. Therefore even sexual violence remains a hidden crime. Also given people grow up in a Confucian culture, most victims do not understand that they are suffering from sexual violence. They think the ordeal will eventually be over soon.
But consequences of physical abuse could be deadly, said Phuong, adding that the reasons for most sexual violence cases was jealousy, suspicion, drug overuse and paranoia. "But the biggest reason is gender inequality in the society," said Phuong
Police, health officials and authorities are doing too little to help. Sexual-violence cases can easily qualify as marital rape in many countries. However, in Viet Nam, the term "marital rape" does not exist. The domestic Penal Code does not have any term for it. Article 111 and 112 of the code only defines "rape" and "child rape." The latest law on preventing domestic violence also does not include the term.
Instead, it is called "forced sex" in marriage. In order to enhance the protection of women and to help eliminate domestic violence in the country, Viet Nam passed a law against domestic violence, which has been in effect since 2008. However, seven years after it was passed, violence in the family is still considered "private business" by the people and the authorities.
Apart from legal support, police forces, who hold the key power in assisting victims of domestic violence, also usually fail to help. They, instead, become a barrier that prevents the victims from sharing their tales of abuse in some cases.
In Viet Nam, even talking about sex is rare, even among women. But when it is reported as a crime, the police, who are mostly male, only focus on the evidence.
A victim, who chose to remain anonymous, asked, "Who can dare to recount to a strange man how and where they were sexually abused?" adding that she had gone to the police station once but was asked very detailed and pointed questions. So, she left and never reported the case to the police again. As she failed to get any help, her husband continued to rape and beat her at home.
In a survey carried out in 2013 about police officers' duties, police said domestic violence cases accounted for only a small part of their job, adding that they rarely received reports about sexual abuse.
In 2009, the Ministry of Health issued a circular on guidelines for receiving and caring for such patients and how to maintain statistical reports on victims of domestic violence at all clinics. However, most hospitals said later that they knew nothing about it.
So, instead of being diagnosed and helped the right way for being sexually abused, victims must wait in a long queue at overcrowded public hospitals in another city for results. In many cases, due to the long waiting time, the results fail to show evidence of abuse and as a consequence there is no evidence for the police to take action on.
As a result, the victim's complaint is rendered useless.
Even if a victim provides evidence, according to Nguyen Thi Thuy, vice director of the Centre for Research and Scientific Application on Gender, Family, Women and Adolescents (SCAGA), no one considers the action "rape" because it has taken place between a husband and wife.
After 2,000 years of practising Confucianism, women think they are born to obey men. People also define a good wife as a good and obedient sex slave of her husband. He is her husband so he is her "lord". If the "lord" cannot have sex when he demands, it is his wife's fault.
SCAGA is an NGO set up in 2001 to help women and change society's attitudes towards them. The vice director said her centre had helped about 3,000 cases. Victims can use a hotline and are helped, given consultation, supported on legal issues, and in more dangerous cases, they are rescued and placed in a shelter.
Besides SCAGA, there is also a shelter called Peace House where victims are kept in a secret shelter and given other kinds of support for free.
Phuong said they had helped more than 6,000 victims since 2007. However, both the places are now facing a fund shortage.
SCAGA's Thuy said, "There are a lot of things we want to do, such as running a programme that gives free contraceptive pills to rape victims or conducting special programmes for female migrant workers."
"But money is a real problem."
Thuy said her centre used to run a hotline to serve victims of violence all night because most of the victims called at night when they could hide from their husband and family.
Due to a financial crunch, the centre can now only run a hotline during the day and has set up an answering service for the night, which is not very effective.
"No one wants to expose themselves to a machine which can record," said Thuy. — VNS