by Hoang Anh
A newborn abandoned in a vegetable patch, dead.
The mother, a medical student who has claimed she delivered it dead in a bathroom, alone, panicked and tried to get rid of the body.
With such macabre details, it is not surprising that everyone in the capital city (and other places, most likely) was talking about the incident that took place in Ha Noi's My Duc District last Friday.
Amidst the inevitable swirling of rumours, the pointing of fingers and the expressions of horror, a sobering fact emerges: abandoned newborns are not an uncommon occurrence in Viet Nam.
A report published last March by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) and UNICEF said 150,000-170,000 newborns were abandoned in the country from 2004 to 2012.
The report linked this phenomenon to unplanned pregnancies, poor knowledge of reproductive health and lack of support for mothers. Cultural facets have to be added to this mix.
Sexual intercourse and other reproductive health issues are topics that Vietnamese parents still do not discuss with their children. Many who are uncomfortable with the idea of providing sex education for children even argue that this will just "show them the way to do it."
It is high time that we stopped debating it and acknowledge that they are doing it, anyway.
Also last Friday, a mother was shouting at doctors at the Ha Noi Maternity Hospital, unable to comprehend that her 15-year-old daughter was pregnant.
"I drive and pick her up after school everyday. She almost never goes out by herself. How could she possibly be pregnant?" she shouted.
Dr Yen, a maternal health consultant, said the child was having secret liaisons with a boy next door; there was a hole on the house's rooftop that he could use to get inside her room on the top floor.
The teenager was oblivious of the possibility that she could be impregnated. "But I'm not even 18," she said.
"I don't know how to talk about it with my daughters," said Hoang Kim Thang, a mother of two teenage girls in Ha Noi.
"My mother never had that kind of talk with me."
It appears that schools are not helping either. Mai, a student of the Trung Vuong Secondary in Hoan Kiem District, said there was no class dedicated specifically to sex education. Instead, the education, such as it is, is integrated into other subjects like Biology and Ethics.
And the teaching material was "textbook-based and very uninteresting," she said, adding that teachers, already in charge of other subjects, usually regarded as a mundane task and tried to get it out of the way as quickly as they could.
"We can never ask questions in such a formal setting, especially when teachers are obviously not interested in answering them," Mai said.
If this is how sex education happens in a city, it's chilling to think about how inadequate it would be in rural areas, where cultural bias and prejudices run very deep and sex remains a taboo topic.
Nguyen Thuan Hai, an official with the Department of Child Care and Protection under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, told me that in recent years the number of children contacting the ministry's hotline 18001567 had been increasing steadily.
"Up to 60 per cent or more are female teenage, aged 13-18, and they have many questions on sex and gender differences," she said.
The 18001567 hotline is a free-of-charge nation-wide service, which operates 24/7 to help children suffering from various forms abuse including violence, sexual assault, relationships, sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
But in the incident that has shocked the capital city, the young woman is a medical college student. It is impossible to imagine that she did not know, at the very least, how to avoid unplanned pregnancies. The troubling question remains: What is it that drives a mother to give up on her own child?
Opinions shared on social media have varied greatly, with the majority either condemning the mother or mourning the fate of the newborn. The legal implications have also come up for discussion, with one lawyer telling the Vanguard newspaper that if it could be established that the baby was born alive and her abandonment led to its death, the mother could end up spending three months to two years in jail.
Thus far, it appears that the mother was all alone while giving birth to the baby. Her parents had no idea that their daughter was pregnant because they'd not been confided in, much less their help sought.
Was it social stigma, the fear of being ostracized, that led to this sad incident? I could not help but think of The Scarlet Letter by American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorn, where the protagonist commits adultery and is forced to wear its shame for the rest of her life.
More than 150 years after the novel was written, the letter still burns scarlet.
It is very convenient to take the moral high ground and point the finger at the mother or adopt a compassionate stance and mourn the death of the newborn. But as sad as the story is, the much sadder fact is that our society has failed to provide the security, understanding and compassion as well as counselling that would help lonely, scared and desperate mothers refrain from abandoning their babies.
We also have to get serious about providing adequate sex education and work to remove traditional and cultural prejudices.
If we fail to do so, there is no point in pointing fingers.
As someone once said, remember that when you point a finger at someone, three others are pointing right back at you. — VNS