Sexual harassment an occupational hazard for women

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Amended Labor Code taking effect in May bans the practice but fails to define it

 

Patients wait to be examined at the Children Hospital 2 in HCMC. A recent study found sexual harassment at workplace common in the healthcare and education sectors.

Hoang Thi Hien still shivers with fright when she thinks about the time she taught at the Nam Don Primary School several years ago and was frequently harassed by a local education official.

"He continuously asked me to have sex with him and promised to help me at work and advance me to high positions," she said, referring to Hoang Dinh Thien, head of the education and training division of Bao Lam District in the northern province of Cao Bang.

She said she was almost raped by Thien once, after he asked her to come to a local hotel to talk about her work.

"He pulled me into his room and asked me to have sex with him. He only let me go after I told him that I had brought along a friend who is coming there soon," she said. She added that many other teachers in Bao Lam District have told her that they have been harassed by Thien but they did not denounce him for fear it would affect their career.

Thien has rejected all the accusations saying the teachers only wanted to defame him based on some personal conflicts. Meanwhile, agencies concerned may have a reason for being sluggish in handling the case, which is one of many sexual harassment cases in the workplace reported frequently on the media the lack of a legal framework, experts said.

Undefined act

Bui Phuong Thao, a lecturer at the People's Police Academy, said Vietnam's legal system has no punishment against sexual harassment.

In the Penal Code, people can be charged with the "child obscenity" provision for sexually harassing children, or with the crime of "affronting others" if the act is conducted on an adult, but there is no "sexual harassment" crime, she said.

Vietnam is going to ban sexual harassment at the workplace next May when the amended Labor Code is due to take effect, but experts are afraid that it does not provide a tightening legal framework for the crime.

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Nguyen Kim Lan, the International Labor Organization (ILO)'s national project coordinator on gender issues, pointed out a major shortcoming of the amended Labor Code: it fails to define the act of sexual harassment at the workplace.

"Without clear definitions, it would be difficult to enforce the law," she said.

Lan said many people surveyed only considered physical acts as sexual harassment but not verbal abuse or texting, or the showing of pornographic images.

Rampant harassment

Last month, the ILO and the Vietnamese Labor Ministry released the first-ever report about sexual harassment at the workplace that found sexual harassment is common with a dominant cases happening in healthcare and education sectors.

Nguyen Thi Dieu Hong of the Gender Equality Department under the Labor Ministry, one of the researchers, said the qualitative report was based on media reports, conferences and interviews with more than 100 respondents.

"We found that sexual harassment can happen everywhere and in any sector," she told Vietweek.

"In education sector, students saw teachers harass each other or the cleaner. The students themselves are also victims of sexual harassment, like when they ask for a place in the dormitory."

According to the report, more than 78 percent of victims of sexual harassment at the workplace are women and it mostly happens to women between 18-30 years old.

Hong said many respondents were frustrated with being harassed by doctors and nurses when they went to the hospital for treatment.

To make matter worse, many victims of sexual harassment at the workplace are not willing to raise their voice, fearing it would badly impact their career.

"But they are not willing to go public with their grievances. We have no mechanism to handle them. Some patients said they were afraid that they could die [because of indifferent or deliberately wrongful treatment] if they denounce the harassment," Hong said.

She said although there have been many cases of sexual harassment in the education sector, some officials might not have properly evaluated the seriousness of the problem since they refused to participate in the study.

"In Vietnam, the perception of sexual harassment is limited. We were really hurt when some government officials said the [amended] Labor Code does not stipulate the relationship between teachers and students and between doctors and patients. What is the law to handle such cases then?"

Sandra Polaski, executive director of ILO's social dialogue sector, said governments, employers and trade unions should create a safe mechanism for complaints.

"Quite often victims of sexual harassment don't make complaints because they feel embarrassed and humiliated," she said.

Polaski said Vietnam needs a "lot more statistics and data" on sexual harassment at the workplace in particular to help policymakers.

According to the ILO, sexual harassment undermines gender equality at work and, by weakening work relationships, reduces productivity.

Serious complications

According to the report, gender equality exists in almost all levels of society and sexual harassment at the workplace represents an imbalance of power, typically with males dominating.

Men often hold higher positions and are paid better than women and in this situation, women are more exposed to sexual harassment because of their unsafe and fragile position.

A major hurdle for many victims is that many women think they will be surely be blamed for the sexual harassment they suffered for encouraging or provoking such acts, and also feel they will suffer social stigma for publicly accusing men of sexual abuse, the report said.

Even when the [male] culprit is punished, the public still maintain that there is some problem with the involved woman and her conduct. The tendency to blame women is rooted in culture, and they have to face this discrimination all their lives, the report says.

Last July, a supreme court upheld a nine-year jail term handed down by a lower court to a former school principal who was found guilty of having sex with his underage students.

Sam Duc Xuong, the 54-year-old former principal of Viet Lam High School in the northern province of Ha Giang, is said to have paid to have had sex with several students, six of whom were aged below 18, between July 2008 and August 2009.

He also forced his students to have sex with him in exchange for high marks, the judges said.

The court also handed down suspended sentences of 36 months and 30 months respectively to two of his students, Nguyen Thuy Hang and Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, both 20, for procuring schoolgirls for Xuong, but it was not noted explicitly that they were first the victims of sexual harassment themselves.

Hang and Thuy implicated a number of provincial officials, including the former province mayor and other businessmen who they said paid to have sex with them. However, the provincial prosecutors' agency said they could not collect enough evidence to press charges against the officials and others named by the students.

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