Domestic violence a symptom of family breakdown

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Young couples pose in front of an old public fountain for photos for their wedding albums at a public park in downtown Hanoi. Rising divorce rates and tragic domestic violence cases are evidence that the Vietnamese family has become a fragile social unit, experts say. 

Vu Viet Quang did not think that beating his wife and asking her to get out of the house was a big deal.

It had happened before and would happen again.

"Our family life has never seen any major conflict. Just some quarrels and then everything was settled," he said.

So, on March 10, when he beat his wife and told her to leave the house, he expected she would return after a few days, "like she'd done before."

She did not. Instead, his wife, 31-year-old Nguyen Thi Tham, pregnant with twins, chose to put herself and their two-year-old son out of misery forever. 

Not far from their house, her body floated up in a river two days later, tied to her son with a shirt.

The story is the latest addition to reports of increasing cases of domestic violence with tragic endings.

In some cases, it is not just the women, but elders, children and husbands who have been victims, prompting sociologists and other experts to warn, yet again, that Vietnam is facing a breakdown in traditional family values.

At their funeral, Quang, 32, a resident of Chuong My District on the outskirts of Hanoi, told the Phap Luat & Xa Hoi (Law and Society) newspaper: "I failed to restrain myself. It is all over now." 

The case is under investigation and what action will be taken against Quang has not been mentioned by the police or local officials.

Neighbors said the couple had quarreled in the afternoon of March 10, after which Tham had taken her son to the market and bought a red shirt, which was later used to tie him to herself. The couple continued fighting on the street that same night, and Quang pushed Tham so hard that she hit her head on a parked car. She left the house then with her son.

In her suicide note, she only asked people not to separate her and her son. She made no mention of her abusive husband.

According to a report released at the launch of the Vietnam Family Year 2013, 178,847 domestic violence cases were recorded between 2009 and June 2012, of which more than 16,000 cases involved elders and 23,300 involved children, with the majority of the rest involving spouses, mostly wives. 

Every third married or divorced person admitted to being a victim of domestic violence, according to the report, which also mentioned thousands of divorces have taken place in the said period.

According to research done by Nguyen Minh Hoa, a lecturer at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, there were 18,000 divorces in HCMC in 2010, of which 60 percent happened among couples between 20-30 years old.

The Vietnam Family Survey found that the average marriage period among couples 18-60 years old is 9.4 years. In cities, this number falls to around eight years.

Loose connections

The  launch of the Vietnam Family Year and the government's approval of a national strategy to "develop Vietnamese families by 2020" show that the government sees the urgent need to tackle some of the major issues behind rising domestic violence, experts say.

However, they say that any such strategy, to be effective, will have to acknowledge and address the role of the much vaunted "modernization and industrialization" process and the ensuing lifestyle changes.

A recent survey found about 20 percent of fathers and 7 percent of mothers have no time for their families because they have to work hard to earn a living.

Tran Tuyet Anh, director of the Family Department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said there is an urgent need for improving relationships between family members in Vietnam.

"Parents have increasingly little time for their children. Children constantly indulge in [violent] online games. Violence is increasing within the family and at school, and this has become a major concern for society has a whole," she said.

Sociologist Trinh Hoa Binh of the Hanoi-based Institute of Sociology said the Vietnamese family is being a big challenge from the industrialization progress.

Citing Alvin Toffler's prediction about a decline in the nuclear family, he said Vietnamese people need to strengthen some traditional values.

"It's not a coincidence that this year has been chosen as the Year of the Family. It carries a warning against the problem of broken families," he told Vietweek.

He said Vietnamese society has moved "further and further from traditional values" as a result of "individual liberation."

"Extramarital affairs are more common in the modern society among both men and women. People have more opportunities to meet others and extramarital affairs are a side-effect of individual liberation," he said.

Unfair to men?

Sociologist Vu Hong Phong, a senior researcher at the non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (ISEE) said there should be a more correct approach towards domestic violence, which now holds men primarily responsible.

"People often blame domestic violence as a leftover of feudalism represented by patriarchy. Man is said to be the core member of the family and has the dominating power, including the power to punish other members with less power," he said.

Phong said many newspapers and social studies have criticized patriarchy without mentioning that men are also victims in that social structure.

"Men are expected to do work that sometimes they are not able to because of their own condition," he said, explaining that the pressure of maintaining standards and duties under the patriarchal system has had several "bad consequences," both psychologically and physically.

"The call for men to act and achieve gender equality has had little results because they are considered the culprit rather than beneficiaries," he said.

When men are considered culprits, they are constrained in taking actions to promote gender equality because they cannot target themselves, Phong said.

He said men are also victims of gender norms and expectations and there should be programs to help remove this burden so that they can get more involved in tackling domestic violence.

Phong said it would be difficult to obtain accurate figures on domestic violence in Vietnam because many people deal with it as a personal, family matter not to be mentioned to others.

"Unstable incomes, together with increasing cultural and moral tensions, have contributed to increasing domestic violence in Vietnam," he said.

Last November, Nguyen Van Tham, a 48-year-old shrimp farmer in Ca Mau Province was sentenced to 20 years in jail for killing his wife Nguyen Thi Loan in April the same year.

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The killing occurred at a party at his shrimp farm, when Loan taunted Tham for his poverty, saying that if she left him, many rich men would be willing to marry her. 

Tham slapped her and after she punched him in return, he banged her head on the floor till she died.

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