Nhi’s legs are curled from the knees and the 16 year old has not been able to walk steadily since she was a child.
Her parents, who have never received a precise diagnosis for her developmental disability, say they can't send her to school.
They tried to home school her for a time and finally had to accept that she couldn't memorize anything except the names of her father, mother and siblings, and the first three letters of the alphabet.
She spends most of her time watching television and neighborhood kids play outside her door.
However, the one time she ventured out of her house remains stamped hard in her memory: she was raped by the old man who ran a charitable center her parents sent her to.
“She kept telling the same story,” Nhi’s father said. "The trauma may be unforgettable to her."
Nhi* is one of several children Thanh Nien met with who have had to deal with the pain and stigma of rape as their tormentors remain scot-free.
Nhi is her parents' oldest child and her father says that, despite her disabilities, they love her more than her two younger siblings.
The family has tried to squeak out a living farming on a small field in Phung Hiep District, in the Mekong Delta’s Hau Giang Province.
They switched from planting rice to sugarcane, from raising chickens to ducks and finally took factory jobs away from home.
They worried that no one would take care of Nhi's meals and sleep at the center, but decided to ignore that concern in the hopes that she would learn some skills that would help her fend for herself, “at least when we get old and die,” the father said.
At the time, they heard that the nearly 80-year-old owner was a kind man who was widely recognized for his charitable activities.
So they brought Nhi to the center in Ho Chi Minh City, 250 kilometers from home, when she was 13.
The old man greeted them himself.
Two years later, her mother fainted at her factory job after receiving a phone call from the center explaining that Nhi had been raped and needed to be brought home.
A disabled women at the center discovered the crime after Nhi complained of pain in her privates.
They took Nhi to a doctor, whom she told in brief but specific language, what the owner had done to her during the many nights he snuck into the girls’ dormitory where she slept near the door.
The owner’s photo was shown to her and she confirmed he was her tormetor.
She did not know she had been raped but she remembered he threatened to kill her if she opened her mouth.
The family refused to name him because a police investigation into the crime remains open. The old man has never been identified as a suspect.
Raping a minor (a person under 16) in Vietnam is punishable by between 7-20 years in jail. Repeat offenders are eligible for the death penalty.
But no such thing happened in Nhi’s case.
Medical tests confirmed that she was sexually abused, but police investigation failed to identify the old man as the culprit.
Police felt that Nhi's mental condition made her an unreliable witness.
But she remains adamant.
Though she can hardly identify her relatives, she can quickly pick the old man out of a group of people in a newspaper photo.
During an evening chat with her mother, she suddenly mentioned the rape story and screamed, her parents said.
One night she saw the perpetrator accepting a charity award on television and sat right up, clasped the TV and ran out into the street and cried.
Fighting the stigma
A 15-year-old girl from Hau Giang Province (R) and her mother at the hut they rented far from their old house to avoid public comments on her being raped. Photo: Khai Don
Nhi’s parents said their only comfort is that their neighbors have been supportive, encouraging them to file lawsuits (though they haven't).
Many neighboring families send their children to hang out with Nhi every day.
Tran Thi Nhu An from Long My District in the same province shares a rented hut with her single mother.
An refused to go back to the home she was raped for the first time and her mother wanted to save her from “cruel” gossip after police ruled the crime “consensual sex.”
“They talked about my daughter every day,” the mother said of her former neighbors.
One woman said: “That girl could have slept with ten men already,” she recalled.
She learned about An’s tragedy when a group of parishioners heard her screaming on a church campus. The citizens arrested a local 17-year-old boy who was caught in the act in August 2013, when she was just 14 years old.
An told the police he'd raped her three times and threatened to kill her each time if she told anyone.
After police dropped the case, An refused to go back to school, even though her teacher came and promised to scold anyone caught teasing her.
“(The rapist)'s siblings were in my class. I was afraid that they would say things,” An said.
There has been a lot of fear in her. She’s scared of going to church, she’s scared of going out to face strangers and she was even scared of the police when they questioned her.
She said she was “angry” when she heard what the neighbors said about her. “But I didn't know what to do.”
But her mother--a street food vendor--did know what to do.
She learned to use the Internet on her cell phone and begun researching child sex abuse regulations; she has filed nearly 20 petitions to the police, prosecutors and courts.
She also joined workshops held by psychologists and lawyers in the district on filing petitions and how to helping her daughter overcome the pain of her assault.
An agreed to return to school after nearly a year and has been doing well. She has even gone back to church.
The social stigma remains, but her schoolmates are having fun with her again, and her mother is ignoring gossip and focusing on supporting other families that share in her plight.
The parents of the rapist once offered her VND6 million (US$280) to drop the matter. “I just shook my head and replied: ‘Are you asking me to sell my daughter’s virginity for VND6 million?’”
The mother said she doesn't need the rapist to go to jail, but he has to carry the guilt and not her daughter.
“He's done harm with impunity.”
An also said she doesn't want revenge; she wants justice.
'I don’t love grandpa anymore'
Hien, 7, looks over from her family's hut in Hau Giang Province. She has been more silent and easily startled since being raped by her grandfather earlier this year. Photo: Khai Don
Hien, 7, lives with her parents and sibling in hut built out of coconut fronds on a patch of bare ground in Long My District, steps away from her paternal grandfather’s hut.
He hasn't been allowed to come over since teachers notified her parents that he'd been sexually abusing the girl several months ago.
The old man offered to care for Hien and her siblings when her parents returned to work in Ho Chi Minh City and nearby Dong Nai Province after the Tet (Vietnam's Lunar New Year) break in February.
They used to hire caretakers, but they agreed to let the old man care for their children, the eldest of whom is just 9 years old.
One day, the mother received a phone call from Hien’s teacher who said her daughter had been raped.
Teachers discovered the crime when Hien’s brother (who attended the same school) raised his arm to answer a question and revealed bruises.
“My grandpa hit me,” he said, revealing bruises from head to toe. When he was brought to the principal’s office, he said he was hit after asking his grandfather to stop “doing it” with his sister, who was just a little more than one meter tall.
The brother said he warned his grandfather that Hien would die since she was too small and he could go to jail.
When Hien confirmed the stories, the school called the police and they confirmed the child had been raped by her grandfather.
Hien’s parents came home only to realize that every adult in the family knew of the scandal but kept mum about it.
They never would have found out if Hien's teachers hadn't stepped in.
Huy, her father, said he is as ashamed of his father as he is hurt for his child.
His neighbors have been of no help, he said. They either push him to let his father rot in jail or blame him for leaving his children with him.
These days, Huy only goes out at night to fish. He stopped spending his mornings at local cafes or any other event that might expose him to his neighbors.
Raping a child under 13 carries a sentence of between 12 years in prison or death by lethal injection, according to the Penal Code.
But Huy said his father won't live much longer and he plans to ask for a reduced sentence at his upcoming trial.
His wife, Ngoc, still cooks daily meals for the old man, but she plans to send Hien to live with her mother and put her in a different school nearby.
Hien remains easily startled. She can hardly focus on her lessons and the teachers don't know how to help. “I don’t love grandpa anymore. I’m very sad,” she said.
One day Ngoc won VND100,000 through a lottery ticket and the whole family drove to a theme park in the district center to spend all the money on merry-go-round rides and games.
It was the first time Hien smiled since the incident, Ngoc said.
She expressed regret not having told Hien about the dangers a girl can face, but she thought Hien was too young to be at risk.
When and how to tell?
Nguyen Lam Anh, a social worker who has spent nine years working on programs designed to stop child sex abuse with the French NGO Partage, said Hien is too young to understand sex, or rape, or their impact on her.
She and her family suffer from the public response to the crime, which ranges from pity to judgement, Anh said.
“Rural areas in particular can create big challenges for a victim's future, including her chances of getting married," she said. "She and her family will have to face the problem every day.”
If the child is abused, they themselves need to know that it is abuse to tell us. We can’t wait for some people to catch the rapist" -- psychologist Vo Thi Minh Hue
Anh said the family does not have to make Hien forget the incident, but must accept that it happened, without damaging her virtue, and move on.
The parents’ trust and respect will play a major role in accomplishing that, she said.
She said parents can teach their children to protect their private parts as early as age 3.
The Ministry of Public Security reported 5,600 cases of child sexual abuse in Vietnam between 2006 and 2011, and child rape accounts for nearly 66 percent of the country’s annual average of 1,000 reported sexual assaults.
Psychologist Vo Thi Minh Hue, who authored a book on gender education that features a chapter on child sex abuse said parents need to talk about sexuality with children as early as possible.
“If the child is abused, they themselves need to know that it is abuse to tell us. We can’t wait for some people to catch the rapist,” Hue said, who has treated victims of child sexual abuse.
She also said parents can start when children are 2 or 3, by teaching them what kind of contact is safe, who can touch them and what parts of their bodies should not be touched.
She said boys have to learn not only to protect themselves but to respect girls.
“We teach girls but tend to forget to teach boys. In the case of the 17-year-old raping his neighbor, did anyone teach him that the act was not acceptable?”
Anh said that, as a psychologist, she objects to some parents’ mindset that early discussions about gender are tantamount to teaching children how to have sex.
“You have to be clear from the beginning. You will have to teach them sooner or later, so better be early than dealing with the consequences of waiting.
“It’s not about what boys do and what girls do during sex, but how each child can protect themselves from abuse.”
*Names of the victims and their family members have been changed for their protection.