PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL ABUSE IN VIETNAMESE SCHOOLS
Physical and sexual abuse is one of the most common issues in the Vietnamese educational sector. All types of child maltreatment are highly prevalent, ranging from physical and sexual to emotional abuse. According to the Human Rights Watch 2021 Report, violence against children, including sexual abuse, is pervasive in Vietnam, including at home and in schools. Numerous media reports have described cases of guardians, teachers, or government caregivers engaging in sexual abuse, beating children, or hitting them with sticks. During the first six months of 2021, amid the pandemic lockdown, there were reports of increasing physical and sexual abuses of children in Vietnam.
This article aims to explore some of the educational challenges in Vietnam, mainly focusing on the abuse suffered by students and the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in the educational sector.
In 2019, UNICEF published a report on the child abuse epidemic in Vietnam. It shared the story of Thao, a Vietnamese 13-year-old girl who her math teacher abused for two years. The abuser was never named or taken to court due to the stigma and damaging culture of secrecy. Thao shared that her math teacher used to beat her up, “I was so scared but I didn’t dare to tell my parents because he threatened me that he would kill me”. Upon turning 14, the abuse turned sexual. Even after telling her mother, they chose to leave the matter unreported, due to the lack of action by police and authorities and the fear of judgement and rumours at school. UNICEF’s report states that most of the profile child abuse cases in Vietnam in 2019 involved teachers, with severe cases such as the arrest of a teacher for impregnating a student.
According to the statistics provided by Tran, a PhD candidate, 31.8% of 1900 Vietnamese school children surveyed suffered emotional abuse, and 19% suffered physical abuse.
A news article published in 2017 by Vietnam Insider condemns lack of supervision, increased stress at work, and low salaries as probable factors for the increasing child abuse in Vietnam’s kindergartens. The previous month, a Youth newspaper published a video showing shocking footage of infants being beaten in a private daycare center. Common classroom items such as slippers, combs, brooms, spoons, and even knives are examples of props teachers use to instill fear among their students. Nguyen Thanh Loan, a teacher at a public kindergarten in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District, said every kindergarten class of 50 children has 2-3 teachers who must do everything from feeding children and coaxing them to sleep, to teaching them and cleaning the classrooms. Low incomes paired with insufficient government supervision of private kindergartens are factors amounting to the aggressive behaviour carried out by educational staff. According to government data, more than 2,000 children in Vietnam suffer severe abuse that requires special help and intervention every year. Despite the government’s supposed efforts on tackling the issue, Vietnam Insider published another news article in 2019 on children mistreatment by teachers in private kindergartens in Hanoi. Maple Bear Westlake, a high-end Canadian Kindergarten, was the spotlight of attention after a parent asked the school to let her watch the security camera footage. The footage showed the teacher locking a child in a cupboard.
In April 2016, a teacher at an elementary school in Sa Pa, northern Vietnam, was taken into police custody for allegedly conducting lewd acts with a fifth-grader at his school. Moreover, in December 2017, police in the southern province of An Giang launched legal proceedings against a P.E. teacher, who was denounced by parents as having sexually abused at least ten fourth and fifth graders at his school. In the same year, Lang Thanh Duan, a school guard in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak was prosecuted for raping five 11-year-old schoolgirls and one nine-year-old student between 2015 and 2017. Although the Ho Chi Minh City education department has advised the municipal administration to encourage local kindergartens to install CCTV cameras to give better oversight of their children, the dilemma is still prevalent and extremely worrying.
The matter is not merely of concern amongst kindergartens. Vnexpress, a local Vietnamese newspaper, revealed that in December 2018, the principal of a high school in the northern province of Phu Tho was found to have forced numerous male students to “perform sexual services” to him for years.
Vietnamese LGBT youth face widespread discrimination and violence at home and school. Pervasive myths about sexual orientation and gender identity, including the false belief that same-sex attraction is a diagnosable and curable mental health condition, are common among Vietnamese school officials and the population at large. This section will analyse the Human Rights Watch 2020 report on abuses faced by the queer community in Vietnam.
“‘My Teacher Said I Had a Disease’: Barriers to the Right to Education for LBGT Youth in Vietnam”, a 65-page report released by Human Rights Watch in 2020, documented how LGBT youth in Vietnam face stigma and discrimination at schools over myths such as the false belief that same-sex attraction is a diagnosable, treatable, and curable mental health condition. Many experience verbal harassment and bullying, which in some cases leads to physical violence. Teachers are often ill-equipped to handle instances of anti-LGBT discrimination, and their lessons frequently uphold the widespread myth in Vietnam that same-sex attraction is a disease, Human Rights Watch found. The report is based on in-depth interviews with 52 LGBT youth as well as teachers and other school staff in Vietnam. While some teachers and schools take it upon themselves to include lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, the lack of national-level inclusion leaves most students in Vietnam without basic knowledge on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a promising step in 2019, the education ministry, with the assistance of United Nations agencies, produced guidelines for an LGBT-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, but such a curriculum has not yet been created.
Human Rights Watch found that verbal harassment of LGBT students is common in Vietnamese schools. Students in various types of schools – rural and urban, public, and private – said that students and teachers commonly use derogatory words to refer to LGBT people, sometimes targeted directly at them and coupled with threats of violence.
Other studies, including research by UN agencies and Vietnamese groups, have included similar evidence. In a 2014 report, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) noted that “education institutions are not safe for LGBT students due to the lack of anti-bullying and
non-discrimination policies. Furthermore, sex and sexual orientation and gender identity education is still limited in Vietnam and are considered sensitive topics that teachers usually avoid”.
While it appears to be less common, some LGBT youth report physical violence as well. “The bullying was mostly verbal but there was one time when I was beat up by five or six guys in eighth grade just because they didn’t like how I looked”, an interviewee stated.
In cases of both verbal and physical abuse, school staff responds inconsistently. Most of the LGBT youth interviewed who had experienced bullying at school said they did not feel comfortable reporting the incidents. This was sometimes because of overt, discriminatory behaviour by the staff. In other cases, students assumed it was unsafe to turn to the adults around them for help.
Even in cases where students did not face verbal or physical abuse, many reported that their teachers implicitly and explicitly alienate and exclude them. This occurs in classrooms, where teachers refer to anything other than procreative heterosexual relationships as “unnatural”.
By Olga Ruiz Pilato