#MeToo, the hashtag movement that galvanized women all over the world into coming out with their sexual harassment experiences, has had its impact on Vietnam. Photo by AFP
To say that Loan was disappointed would be a gross understatement.
She was aghast.
After she had put herself through the agony of detailing the sexual harassment that she’d suffered at her colleague’s hands, the punishment that the man received was a paltry fine of VND200,000 ($8.59).
“I was really shocked”, said the 30-year-old accountant in Quang Tri province, her voice carrying pain and bitterness.
“I traded my honor to reveal a crime and seek justice, and cannot imagine that this was the result.”
For Loan, the punishment meted out to her harasser was salt rubbed into her wounds.
Police investigations found that one day in late June, a male colleague took a file to Loan's office where he asked her for a "kiss" and molested her. The police identified bruises on Loan's lips caused by the male colleague, but there were no signs of disarranged desks and chairs or torn clothes.
They concluded that his behavior "was not aimed at sex, but only teasing and touching" and fined him VND200,000.
Loan said this penalty would not be a deterrent, and worse still, would discourage female victims of sexual harassment from reporting the crime.
"... victims will hesitate to report such incidents since they themselves have to endure a lot of pain and prejudice, while the offender faces no significant punishment,” she said.
“I think this sentence is a joke. It is like mocking the victim,” Khuat Thu Hong, Director of the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS), told VnExpress International. “It is absolutely useless in terms of defending the victim’s honor, and in terms of protecting her and women in general against such harassment.”
“In terms of deterring the offender and encouraging victims and potential victims to reveal the truth, and fighting for safe, healthy living conditions for women and girls, this is absolutely futile,” Hong emphasized.
Lawyer Nguyen Anh Thom of the Hanoi Bar Association said that a fine of VND200,000 was too lenient and revealed a legal loophole, because there are no specific provisions on sexual harassment in current legal documents.
At present, harassment is usually equated to the act of offending someone’s honor, which entails a fine of VND100,000 to VND300,000 (US$4.29-US$12.89).
Thom said sexual harassment was on the increase in Vietnam, and pervasive in the workplace, public places and public transportation.
Research has shed light on sexual harassment in the daily life of Vietnamese women. In their 2014 report, NGO Action Aid found 87% of interviewed women and girls faced sexual harassment in public places.
#MeToo in Vietnam
#MeToo, the hashtag movement that galvanized women all over the world into coming out with their sexual harassment experiences in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the U.S., has had its impact on Vietnam, too.
In a country where public discussion of mundane sex-related topics remains taboo, many women came out to expose sexual abuse and assaults.
One of the prominent ones was dancer Pham Lich reporting the harassment she suffered at the hands of rock star Pham Anh Khoa. Two other women then came out, revealing Khoa had harassed them, too.
In May this year, nude model Kim Phuong accused painter Ngo Luc of raping her. After a two-month investigation, Kim Phuong and Ngo Luc were asked to confront each other directly in front of police officers. Kim Phuong told the Thanh Nien newspaper that Luc denied all accusations, saying that she’d taken advantage of the #MeToo movement to attack him. He said he was the victim of false accusations.
Despite such setbacks, many women throughout Vietnam have shared their stories of harassment and abuse.
They shared hashtags like #ngungimlang (stop silence) and #MeToo on the social media together with their stories.
"Vietnamese women are increasingly aware of their rights; they know they should be equal to men, be able to live in a safe environment, go to school or work safely without constant fear of being harassed by their colleagues or bosses," Hong said.
Despite improving public awareness of sexual harassment, victims rarely get justice in Vietnam, and many women are worried that #MeToo will eventually fail because of the culture of blaming the victim that persists to this day in Vietnamese society.
Loan, the accountant, said that in the wake of her coming out, “some rumors began circulating that I had an affair with him, and he could not satisfy my demands, so I made the whole thing up.”
“Some women even said, ‘it’s okay if she is a virgin, but she is divorced, why did she make such a fuss?’”
Loan said that when the harassment was brought to authorities’ notice, she knew she would face public criticism, but she never imagined such malicious comments from women.
After the incident, Loan took two weeks off work and spent many days crying and could not step outside.
"My parents are teachers, they live a disciplined life. Now they have to endure criticism because of me, though I didn’t do anything wrong. Fortunately my parents showered me with love and encouragement to help me through the dark days," she said.
Hong said it is true that a victim blaming culture exists in Vietnam. “Vietnamese society usually suspects sexual harassment victims of doing something provocative to attract the offenders,” she said.
Because of this, many victims do not dare to speak up for fear of being blamed by families, friends, colleagues and the whole community.
They are always asked: “Why aren’t others harassed, but you are?” In such a situation, victims are frightened to come forward, because instead of protection, they get blame.
“I think this is the biggest barrier to preventing sexual harassment in Vietnam,” said Hong.
Another barrier is the legal process, according to a 2017 report by United Nations. It attributed victims’ attrition to the lack of evidence of force that police officers usually look for, like “tied arms” and “torn clothes” to conclude that harassment or assault had taken place.
Police officers also admitted that if the victim seemed unhurt, they would suggest that the family protects her honor by remaining silent.
In Loan’s case, as not earlier, police found no sign of torn clothes and disarrangement of chairs and desks, and concluded that the behavior was aimed at just “teasing and touching.”
Loan has now returned to work, and moved to another position to avoid contact with the molester.
"Honestly, I’ve lost confidence, and I’m still scared and in panic. Every time someone passes by, I get tense, but that’s life, I have to go to work. It is good that my female colleagues stand by me,” she said.
Despite these challenges, Hong is optimistic about #MeToo.
“I believe that #MeToo will continue to develop, though the road we have to walk is long. It may go in a zigzag pattern, and it can face downturns, but it will rise strongly, I believe. I think Vietnamese society has been awakened,” she said.
“But whether the road is long or short will depend on the commitment and efforts of all stakeholders, particularly women.”
*Name of the victim has been changed.