by Minh Thi
HA NOI (VNS)— Nguyen Ha Lan*, a resident of HCM City, recalls the incident that made her leave her job as a tour guide, a profession that she was once passionate about.
During a trip to Phan Thiet City in southeastern Binh Thuan Province, she was forced to stay in the same hotel room with a driver and another staff member to save money for the company she was working for at the time.
At night, when the group were lying together, the driver rested his foot on hers and tried to touch her, causing Lan to kick out at him to defend herself.
After the trip, Lan decided to stop working as a tour guide, a job she had been doing for three years and had trained to do at university for four.
"I loved working as a tour guide, but I don't find myself suitable for the job any more," Lan says, adding that sexual harassment is rife in the tourism industry and many of her friends have been harassed by either their male co-workers or tourists while working as guides during trips.
Lan's statement is supported by Nguyen Thi Binh, a veteran tour guide in HCM City who says many female guides decide to leave their jobs after experiencing sexual harassment.
Binh says if a tour guide complained to her company about harassment she may be seen as a worker failing to deal with the normal pressures of work. This means that most of the time tour guides choose only to share their stories among themselves and seek support from co-workers.
For office workers, the situation might seem less common, but it is still happening.
Tran Thuy Linh, who formerly worked for a construction company in Hai Phong City, says that she used to be harassed by her married boss as he constantly attempted to gain her affection.
"He frequently gave gifts to me, tried to seduce me with his sweet talk and one day, when he was drunk, he touched me," Linh says.
She refuses to describe further how she was harassed, but says that the actions of her boss put her under a lot of pressure and negatively affected her work.
To get a better idea of how common the situation is, Viet Nam News contacted counsellors on several support hotlines for women, but all responded by saying that they do not receive any complaints from women about being sexually harassed at work.
A counsellor on the 1900 8088 hotline said this is not because it does not happen, but because women are unwilling to share these sensitive stories.
Sandra Polaski, executive director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 's Social Dialogue Sector says that sometimes a victim of sexual harassment does not report it out of fear that people may misunderstand and criticise her, or gossip about her story.
"Very often the victims don't complain because they feel embarrassed and humiliated," Polaski adds.
Her opinion is shared by Hoang Tu Anh, director of the Ha Noi–based Centre for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population.
She says that if a women claimed she had been sexually harassed, her personality would be questioned and people would say "there is no smoke without fire".
"People will ask: "Why did it happen to her, but not to other women? There must be something about her," and so they will judge her behaviour, her clothes and the ways she talks."
Nguyen Kim Lan, National Programme co-ordinator in Gender and Employment at ILO's Office in Viet Nam says there is a "culture of silence" preventing women from complaining about being harassed.
Lan believes that women harassed at work are often subordinates between the ages of 18 to 35.
"They don't know who to turn to for advice, because the legislation on sexual harassment is not clear enough making it difficult to make a complaint or prosecute someone."
Lan says that in the few past cases where harassers have been publicly accused, they were only punished by their workplace or trade union and not the law.
Only when a victim is sexually abused is the case taken seriously and brought to court.
Tu Anh lays the blame on a culture than is dominated by males, along with the long-rooted
habit of touching people to express affection.
"There is a thin line between caring, teasing and harassing, and in many cases sexual harassment is tolerated in the name of culture," she says, adding that it is common in Vietnamese culture for people to affectionately touch each other even in private places.
"If people do anything that isn't sexual intercourse, it is not considered a big deal; the feelings or mental health of the victim are ignored," she adds, pointing out that in the criminal code, there is an article on rape and forced sex, but not sexual harassment.
Lan from ILO believes that the common understanding in Viet Nam. of what defines harassment needs to change. "Sexual harassment refers to any physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature and other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men, which is unwelcome, unreasonable and offensive to the recipient."
A revised Labour Code including some specific provisions on the issue will come into effect in May next year; a move the ILO have praised as a significant step by authorities towards addressing the problem in Viet Nam.
The revised law specifically features an article prohibiting sexual harassment at work, and making it illegal for companies to turn a blind eye to complaints.
The law will also give workers the right to terminate their labour contract at their will in cases of sexual harassment.
Lan, however, remains cautious, pointing out that the new Labour Code does still not provide any clear definition of the crime to promote law enforcement, and does not fully explain the phase "at the workplace."
"If a woman is sexually harassed when she has dinner at a restaurant with her company's business partners to discuss business issues, will it count as sexual harassment at work?"
ILO are set to make several proposals, including ones about a more extensive definition, at a future workshop on sexual harassment attended by policy makers. They are also co-operating with the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs to develop a set of guidelines for companies and social organisations to adopt.
Polaski says that it is essential to have a safe mechanism in place allowing victims to complain about sexual harassers without being afraid that their personal affairs could become widely known. This mechanism could be created by the Government, the employer, or the trade union.
She is hopeful that through widespread public campaigns raising awareness, progress can be made in Viet Nam, just as there has been positive change on the issue in the US, her home country.
"No culture is immutable, cultures can change." — VNS
*Viet Nam News has changed the first names of the first three interviewees to protect their privacy.