Child abuse: When silence becomes criminal

March 16, 2017 - 09:00

A 13-year-old girl in Cà Mau Province and her family reported to local police that she was abused by a neighbour eight times and petitioned that the perpetrator be taken to court. The answer they got from the police last November was a decision not to investigate further because “there was not enough evidence”.

By Thu Vân

I cannot breathe. (So forgive the shrillness of this piece)

Suffocating doesn’t begin to describe the way my heart constricts these days as news about sexual abuse of children breaks out, one after another.

And as heartbreaking as the cases are, the brain explodes in the deafening silence from those we believe are there to uphold the law, protect our children.

A 13-year-old girl in Cà Mau Province and her family reported to local police that she was abused by a neighbour eight times and petitioned that the perpetrator be taken to court. The answer they got from the police last November was a decision not to investigate further because “there was not enough evidence”.

Last month, on February 10, the girl killed herself.

And it seems that February 10 was also the day that the poor little girl’s story was killed, with no authority even trying to look at the case again. Dead and buried.

But this case and others were dug up out of their official graves recently when victims’ families opened up to the media after a series of other child abuse cases were reported.

Horror stories

First case: A year ago, a mother in Vũng Tàu Province reported to the police that her daughter and seven other children in her apartment building were abused by an elderly man living nearby. Her lawyer had also collected sufficient evidence needed to prosecute. But the local prosecutor’s office has remained silent after being handled the case. And the culprit, of course, remains at large. He is reported to have held a high-ranking position in a local state agency.

The mother and daughter had to leave Việt Nam to find some sort of peace.

Second case: An 8-year-old in Hoàng Mai District, Hà Nội was reported to have been abused many times by a 34-year-old neighbour. The culprit was let go after being interviewed at the police and left the area. Two months have passed, and it seems the girl’s family will never get any form of justice.

Third case: A 7-year-old girl in Thủ Đức District, HCM City, was abused at school and seriously injured on February 14. The mother took her child to the doctors in the night and was shocked when doctors said her child had been abused. The mother filed a complaint. The child said she was attacked by a man in her school, which is located in the same district.

The school and Thủ Đức District Education and Training Division together denied that any sexual assault had taken place, despite one of the CCTV cameras in the school being suspiciously switched off for about an hour on the day of the incident; and despite the medical condition of the little girl attested to by doctors.

The girl in Cà Mau who committed suicide said she could not live any longer because she was a shame for the family.

I am screaming. I can’t stop screaming.

Has this world turned upside down? Who is that should bear the shame? The bastard (no offence meant to children born out of wedlock) who abused her! And those who are supposed to uphold the law but deliver injustice instead with their silence and inaction. They have to be shamed of themselves. Don’t they have their own families, wives and children? How can they sleep at night?

In the case of the little girl in Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu, the mother said that initially, the local investigation unit tried to persuade her to accept reconciliation offers. Why on earth would they do this? Can anything compensate for what the child and her family has suffered, is suffering? The punishment cannot undo the suffering, but notions of justice lose their meaning and purpose if perpetrators are granted impunity. And the lack of justice facilitates, instead of deterring crime.

The Penal Code clearly states that all acts of child abuse must be subject to criminal proceedings. So the least a person or persons in authority can do is to enforce the law and save another child from harm. That the opposite has happened is unacceptable. The anguished, painful screams of the victims and their families seem to be disappearing into a dark void.

 The mother of the girl in Bà Rịa – Vũng Tàu Province has almost lost hope. The case of her child expires in another month.

The last thread of a hope for justice was used when her lawyer sent a letter to the President, and social network users started sharing the cases – famous bloggers spoke up and the traditional media also joined the chorus. The waves of intense public pressure got things moving.

Action, finally

On Monday, President Trần Đại Quang ordered the Ministry of Public Security to urgently examine the sexual assault case in Vũng Tàu Province that has been under investigation for half a year.

Later the same day, Deputy Prime Minister Trương Hòa Bình ordered the Hà Nội People’s Committee to urgently look into the case involving the eight-year-old girl in Hoàng Mai District and report to Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc.

The Hà Nội police have decided to initiate criminal proceedings in the case.

But why has it taken so long? Why does it have to go to Presidents and Prime Ministers getting involved to get proper steps taken in such serious cases? The cases should have been taken seriously right at the outset. What’s wrong? How can there be such indifference to child abuse? More than the cases themselves have to be investigated here. Sociologists, psychologists, other experts et al have to study this.

Those who didn’t care to respond with gravity to calls of the victims and their families should also be punished. Their silence and inaction make them culpable, because it allows more such crimes to take place.

Illustration by Nguyễn Minh Châu, student of Nguyễn Huệ Gifted School.

We’re not ok

I believe the number provided by the public security ministry on child sex abuse, at 1,000 children each year, is just the tip of the iceberg. But the tip itself is a scary mountain. Every day, three children are abused.  These are children who may commit suicide later or live entire lives of pain, shame and suffering.

Vietnamese people tend to keep silent on things they consider embarrassing, something that is a loss of face. Apparently, the abuse of a child, as also someone committing that abuse, falls within this category. This pushes the matter under the carpet, and we think we’re doing ok, but we’re not.

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Institute for Social Development (ISDS), ActionAid and other partners in three provinces, up to 20 per cent of students said they’d been sexually abused in different forms.  Nearly 16 per cent said they were abused for a long time, since they were small.  Some 21 per cent of boys said they’ve been abused. But, when asked, teachers said child sex abuse rarely happens in their schools.

Another survey by Plan International in 2015 covered 30 high schools in Hà Nội. Eleven per cent of the students said they were sexually abused.

Shockingly, 70 per cent of sexual abuse of children are conducted by an acquaintance of the family, and 10 per cent by the father or the stepfather.

We can’t stay silent anymore. Parents need to talk to their children as early as possible about the threats and about how they can seek help when needed. Schools need to teach their students properly about sex, sensitize them to issues of concern. Teach them about respecting others. The times when we told our children that they came from our armpits are long gone. If we don’t educate them well, we cannot be sure what form of learning will happen.

Some schools have introduced sex education, but the education ministry doesn’t have an official textbook or document kit for this. This can’t be postponed any longer.

Enough, already

The indifference that has been shown so far not only puts more children at risk, child abusers will think they can use money and “contacts” to buy or worm their way out.

This has to stop. We cannot afford even one more death like that of the girl in Cà Mau. Not one. — VNS