Last month Duong Thi Hoa Ly, a garment worker, quit her job after experiencing severe headaches following a series of traumatic experiences in recent years.
She could not afford treatment and so chose to suffer the pain, sadness, and anxiety in a tiny rented room off an alley in Ho Chi Minh City’s suburban Hoc Mon District.
Ly, who studied up to sixth grade and looks much older than her 39, fled her home in the central province of Ha Tinh in 2009 after enduring nearly five years of physical, sexual and emotional violence at the hands of her husband.
Her husband worked far from home for an illegal tin mining operation in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. He was back home every three months and stayed for a month. His return was always a nightmare for Ly and her two daughters.
“We would have a happy life until his return. Whenever our children heard his footsteps in the front yard, they would be terrified and jump into my arms,” she recalls.
“He often beat me for failing to give him money to buy heroin or for refusing sex during my menstrual periods. He beat me even during my pregnancies,” she says with red eyes.
“He would drag me by my hair on the floor and batter me against the walls. My children would scream in terror. At that time I thought I was dead.”
She brought her two daughters, then aged two and three, to Ho Chi Minh City in late 2009 hoping for a better life. But she and her little children continued to experience more trauma.
In late 2010 the family had a vacation in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang. Here she met a man who then became her partner. They lived together in the rented room in Ho Chi Minh City where he worked as a day laborer. They had a baby girl a year later.
History did repeat itself. The man beat her and even her daughters whenever he was drunk.
One day in April last year, Ly saw him preparing to rape her oldest daughter, then eight. She ended the relationship and forced him to leave.
Domestic violence has a devastating impact on the health and mental well-being of women, the United Nations in Vietnam said in a 2012 study.
The study found that women who experienced domestic violence had poorer mental health than those who did not.
For instance, women who experienced violence were twice as likely to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts, and were one-and-a-half times more likely to be unable to perform their daily work or even enjoy leisure activities.
Women who experience violence were also less healthy.
Unfortunately, six in 10 Vietnamese women experience at least one form of physical, sexual or emotional violence, according to a 2010 national survey done by the General Statistics Office.
Worse still, only 9 percent of women who experienced violence sought treatment or counseling, whereas 87 percent did not seek any kind of help from public services.
Besides the social stigma and shame that cause women to remain silent, many women also think that violence in relationships is “normal” and that women should tolerate and endure that for the sake of family harmony.
But even when the police are involved, they often do little to support women who experience domestic violence. The perpetrator is rarely jailed: he is usually fined and sent back to live with his family. Often, the woman ends up paying the fine for a crime committed against her.
The 2010 survey showed that all types of violence was more prevalent in rural areas and among the less educated.
In terms of regional distribution, the southeastern region had the highest prevalence of both physical and sexual violence (43 percent), followed by the Central Highlands, Red River Delta and Mekong Delta.
The pain goes on
While Ly could prevent her oldest daughter, Thanh*, from being raped by her partner, she could not protect the child from a neighbor’s abuse.
Ly said she would never forget October 14, 2014, when she learnt the terrible truth: Thanh had been raped 10 times over the last several days by an 84-year-old man living near her rented room.
It was a rainy afternoon, and when Ly returned home from work at 5:30 pm, neighbors told her that they had seen Thanh holding money several times in the last few days and buying lots of candies and snacks.
When Ly asked Thanh where the money came from, the eight-year-old girl told her the story.
Sitting in her mother’s arms, she was in tears and with a very pale face and Ly could feel the pain in her words.
Sau had asked the child to come with him to his house to take money to buy candy. But before giving the money, the old man had raped her.
“I was badly hurt each time. But I didn’t tell you because I feared that you would shout at me and because I wanted money to buy candy,” Thanh told her mother.
Ly’s body felt stiff with pain at hearing this. She reported to the police, and Sau is currently under house arrest awaiting trial.
Ly sent Thanh and her second daughter to the Little Rose Shelter in District 7 for child rape victims and girls who are at high risk of being sexually abused.
Official figures show that 1,544 children, both girls and boys, were raped in Vietnam last year.
Officials said while child sexual abuse statistics are worsening, the real number is surely much higher since many families do not report to authorities for fear of social stigma and shame.
Officials also said in most cases of child rape, perpetrators are members of the immediate or extended family, like stepfather or uncle, or neighbors.
In an effort to help children protect themselves, last April authorities in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District held courses to teach fifth graders signs of sexual abuse and how to deal with them.
Obsessed with rape
When I visited Little Rose Shelter last month, Thanh said hello and smiled at me.
“Her mood isn’t stable,” Le Thi Mai, deputy head of the shelter, said referring to Thanh.
Teachers at the child’s school often complained about her low concentration, she said.
At the end of May Thanh was told she had to repeat second grade due to her bad performance.
Ly was shocked since Thanh, as well as her younger sister Ngoc*, had done very well in first grade last year. Ngoc continued to be ranked “good” this year.
But Ly hopes Thanh’s situation will gradually become better.
To some extent Ly feels at ease that Thanh and Ngoc live in the shelter since they are protected from abuse and provided with food, education, martial arts training and entertainment.
But she is now worried about her youngest daughter, who is four years old. Last month the girl’s father took her forcibly to his home town in An Giang Province.
“He takes our daughter with him all the time. But he is often drunk. I fear that she may be raped like her older sister.”
*Names of the children have been changed to protect their identity