#MeToo, Vietnam

Recent Features

Features | Society | Southeast Asia

#MeToo, Vietnam

Vietnam’s fledgling #MeToo movement reveals the limits of the country’s progress on gender equality.

#MeToo, Vietnam
Credit: Le_ Hoang___ on Unsplash

The Facebook posts started on April 19. A young intern at Tuoi Tre, the country’s most prestigious newspaper, had been raped by her supervising editor and attempted suicide, the messages by Vietnamese journalists said. Over the next few days, women from across the country began sharing stories about harassment and abuse they had experienced while working as reporters. They tagged their posts #toasoansach (clean newsroom), #ngungimlang (stop staying silent), and #MeToo.

The international movement had come to Vietnam, forcing a public discussion of something 29-year-old Bao Uyen, a freelance journalist whose #MeToo Facebook post was shared almost 2,000 times, calls “the elephant in the room”: sexual harassment and violence is a fact of life for many women in Vietnam, as around the world. A 2014 report by the NGO ActionAid found that 87 percent of Vietnamese women and girls had experienced sexual harassment in public places.

Uyen, who worked in three newsrooms before becoming a freelancer, said she was aware of endemic sexual harassment as soon as she started working, and she thinks the problem is common across industries. The allegations at Tuoi Tre surprised her only insofar as they echoed quieter claims she had been hearing for a decade.

“The victims raise their voices but then after that everything just goes into oblivion,” she said in an interview.

Unlike South Korea and Japan, other Asian countries where #MeToo has made headlines and revealed the effects of deep-rooted patriarchies, Vietnam has one of the world’s highest female labor force participation rates, similar educational attainment for men and women, and better-than-average representation of women in its legislature. The ruling Communist Party is eager to tout these achievements; the state-run Voice of Vietnam declared last fall that the country had notched one of the world’s “fastest pace[s] in eliminating the gender gap over the past 20 years.” But Vietnam’s nascent #MeToo movement has demonstrated the persistence of sexual harassment and violence against women even as they have won greater autonomy in areas from education to politics.

Before reforms in 2015, the Vietnamese penal code criminalized only a narrow definition of rape; the updated laws expand the definition to include “other sexual contacts.” High evidentiary standards plus a lack of understanding among the heavily male police force deter most victims from taking their cases to court. While South Korea’s sexual education has been criticized as retrogressive and victim-blaming, Vietnamese students receive almost no information about sexual violence. Few workplaces have codes of conduct against sexual misconduct or systems in place to handle complaints.

Khuat Thu Hong, founder and director of the Institute for Social Development Studies and a sociologist who published one of the first studies of sexual harassment in Vietnam in 2004, sees little societal interest in addressing the issue. Sexual harassment — if it is recognized at all — is often regarded as a normal way for men to treat women.  

“The phenomenon of sexual harassment, I think in Vietnam on one hand it’s considered very much a cultural thing rather than a rights issue,” Hong said. “But on the other hand, it’s politicized in the way that, if it occurs in the workplace, then there’s many actors involved. And there are a lot of efforts to silence the victims or cover up what occurred.”

After the posts charging that senior editor Dang Anh Tuan had raped the intern — a journalism student at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities — Tuoi Tre issued a statement denying that the intern had attempted suicide. The editorial board suspended Tuan later on April 19, according to articles published by the paper, and began an internal investigation. Tuan later resigned and the paper announced the case had been turned over to the police. Tuan denies all wrongdoing. (Reached by phone, a Tuoi Tre editor declined to comment.)

As the story made the rounds on social media, some commenters, including some women working in journalism, claimed that the intern was responsible for what had happened. She must have consented, posters said, with the goal of helping her career.

Bui Thu, a 22-year-old student who studies with the Tuoi Tre intern in Ho Chi Minh City, wasn’t surprised by the reaction. Women working in newsrooms have come to expect that their opportunities for advancement can be directly linked to their willingness to date or sleep with supervisors, she said, and pushing back against this culture is difficult. Because young reporters need promotions directly from their bosses in order to advance, women worry that speaking up might mean they can never become journalists; Thu knows women who left the field because they felt the only other option was accepting harassment. During her own newsroom internships, Thu found that women’s requests for male colleagues to stop hugging or other touching were rebuffed.

“When we react to that behavior, they will say that we are brothers and sisters in a big family, so don’t take it so seriously,” Thu said.

Confucian traditions holding that men are superior to women are still influential in Vietnam, as is the idea that women should be sexually pure. Speaking out about sexual abuse of any kind can invite shame and blame — on top of the feelings of responsibility several women interviewed said they had after being harassed. An older, married male colleague once gave Thu a ride home from an evening of drinks with the office. As they passed a hotel, he slowed down and asked if she would stay with him for the night. She said no and he drove on.

“I wished that the road would end immediately,” she said. “I was so confused — was there any behavior of mine that created a misunderstanding for him or misled him?”

Others on Facebook made light of the situation at Tuoi Tre. When Nguyen Hoang Anh, a professor of international business with a focus on gender issues at Hanoi’s Foreign Trade University, wrote a post about sexual harassment, a man commented with a joke about rape. When Hoang Anh wrote that the comment was inappropriate, he responded, “It is only a joke. Why are you so angry?”

The concept of sexual harassment itself seems a foreign import to many, and the Vietnamese term — quay roi tinh duc — is a relatively recent translation from English. According to Khuat Thu Hong, the term was never publicly discussed prior to Vietnam’s 1986 doi moi reforms, as acknowledging sexual harassment would call into question the improvements socialism had wrought in women’s lives. She also cites a Vietnamese folk saying: “Flowers are made for people to pick, girls are born for people to tease.”

Today, Hong said, many men are incredulous that behaviors they consider normal could be regarded as harassment. She once appeared on a television program to discuss the issue and found the male reporters perturbed about her claims.

“‘Does this mean we cannot even make jokes with our female colleagues, we can’t even compliment them about their beautiful dress or something?’” Hong recalls them asking.

If attitudes about sexual harassment have been slow to change, so, too, have laws. The term first entered the Vietnamese labor code in 2012, but lacks a clear definition. The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) issued a voluntary code of conduct on workplace sexual harassment in 2015, but promotion of the code and monitoring efforts have been essentially nil, advocates say.

With the government now in the process of revising the labor code for the first time since 2012, international and local NGOs are working to build support to clarify the definition of sexual harassment and strengthen provisions and enforcement mechanisms against it.

Pham Ngoc Tien, director general of the gender equality department at MOLISA, agrees that harassment needs to be defined more clearly and legal consequences established. One issue is the lack of data. There are no comprehensive surveys or studies of workplace harassment in Vietnam. “It’s a challenge for the regulators to confirm whether these kinds of situations are ‘common’ due to the lack of official statistics and reports,” Tien said.

The lack of research, however, is not an accident, according to some advocates, who think officials and businesses would rather believe sexual harassment isn’t a problem. One Vietnamese expert on gender issues, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said conversations about sexual harassment policy are stifled by a general preference for maintaining appearances.

“About sexual harassment, or domestic violence, I think the government always wants people to be patient,” they said. “Patient and silent, to help society seem very peaceful. They don’t want people to speak out.”

Now that people are speaking out, what next? The stories on Facebook have not become a flood. Unlike in South Korea, where #MeToo has brought forth allegations against prominent politicians, actors, and writers, there have been few high-profile cases in Vietnam.

Le Thi Hong Giang, gender-based violence program specialist at the NGO CARE International, said she worried that naming abusers and harassers — a frequently terrifying prospect for victims in any country — could backfire in Vietnam.

“It’s not easy to have the #MeToo movement in Vietnam,” Giang said. “We cannot reveal individuals because if we reveal individual by individual but they are all very high-ranking people we cannot continue… So we need to do it differently.”

While #MeToo at first seemed confined to media circles in Vietnam, it spread to show business by the end of April: three women have now accused singer Pham Anh Khoa of sexual harassment. Yet this case has also illustrated the ramifications of speaking out in Vietnam, as Anh Khoa vociferously denied the allegations and accused the women of lying.

Then, on Saturday, he made an hour-long televised apology with the support of Nguyen Van Anh, the director of the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women and Adolescents (CSAGA), an NGO regarded as a leading advocate for women’s rights and anti-violence efforts in Vietnam, as well as an in-country #MeToo movement. Commenters on social media argued that CSAGA had chosen to protect a powerful man and normalize his behavior — potentially discouraging victims from coming forward in an environment where doing so is already difficult. On Tuesday, after widespread criticism of his perceived insincerity, Anh Khoa made another apology to his accusers and said he regretted involving CSAGA in his first appearance.

Uyen said she thinks it is too early to tell whether #MeToo will have major ramifications in Vietnam. Still, she is glad she told her story.

“The bosses in other newsrooms also will be careful after his incident,” she said. “They’re going to think that it’s not like the past. It’s not going to be easy to harass people and get away with it.”

Isabelle Taft is a Hanoi-based freelance reporter.