HANOI (AFP) — Gripping her skull to ease a constant pounding headache, Lieu explains how she came to a decision that would have been unthinkable in Vietnam just a few years ago — to divorce her husband.
Speaking in a measured voice, her eyes steady, the 29-year-old from Hanoi recounted two years of living hell, of the abuse, humiliation and physical violence she suffered at the hands of her husband and his family.
Things turned bad soon after they married in 2006, she said, when he would come home, having spent his meagre postman’s salary on alcohol, shout at her and then beat her — sometimes so badly she passed out.
“His punches tore the skin around my eyes,” she told AFP, sitting in a centre providing support to female domestic abuse victims.
“Doctors stitched up a four-centimetre (1.6-inch) gash.
“Later he started to smash my head into walls,” Lieu said, wincing at the pain of what doctors have told her are long-term head injuries.
“I have suffered enough. I will divorce, and I will raise my daughter alone.”
Lieu’s story is not unusual in Vietnam, which remains a male-dominated society.
But what is new is that women are starting to speak out.
More victims of domestic violence have broken the silence and the social taboo to share their suffering and discover they are not alone.
A flurry of media reports has shocked the public by reporting about women’s often horrific ordeals through mental, physical and sexual violence.
The Gia Dinh Va Xa Hoi (Family and Society) newspaper reported on a Hanoi woman who was forced to have sex with her husband 365 days a year and dared not refuse him even after she was hospitalised with serious internal injuries.
A woman from northern Nam Dinh province has permanent disabilities caused by brain and spinal injuries from her husband’s beatings, the An Ninh Thu Do (Capital Security) newspaper reported.
A joint UN-government family survey this year found that 21.2 percent of married couples had reported instances of domestic violence in their households, including emotional abuse, beatings and rape.
“Men have the right to beat a woman, women are supposed to suffer” —
Many cases of abuse involved men drinking alcohol and arguments about men’s financial decisions, gambling and extramarital affairs.
Some 3.4 percent of men had beaten their wives, according to the joint study by UNICEF and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, an interview-based study that almost certainly underestimated the problem.
Few of the respondents who talked about domestic violence said they had asked for help from their parents, friends or the authorities, citing fears of “blackening the family’s image” or “showing their wounds to strangers”.
Vietnam’s communist government stresses equality for women, who fought alongside men during the war, a role that recalls revered folk heroes such as the Trung sisters, who in the first century AD led an anti-Chinese revolt.
Nonetheless, Vietnam is also a patriarchal society long governed by Confucian values that hold that women must obey their men.
Arguably discrimination against women starts before they are born, because of a long-running preference for male offspring who are expected to support their parents in old age and carry on the family line.
Medical advances such as ultrasound tests have made it easier for many families to abort female fetuses in the first months of pregnancy, skewing the national gender ratio at birth to 110 boys for every 100 girls.
“In our culture and tradition, men always play a higher and dominating position,” said Hoang Thi Kim Thanh, head of a women’s protection centre in Hanoi.
“Men have the right to beat women, and women are supposed to suffer.
“Society considers and accepts this fact as a matter of course,” said Thanh from SAGA, the Centre for Studies and Applied Sciences of Gender, Families, Women and Adolescents.
Women tend to accept the violence because they put their children, parents and other family members ahead of themselves, she said.
Lieu is a case in point. For a long time, she said, she did not even consider divorce because she worried for the future of her two-year-old daughter.
“I knew if we separated, she would be the one that suffers the most,” Lieu said, tears filling her eyes. “When she grows up and gets married, her husband’s family may say that she does not have good values because she comes from a broken home.”
Thanh said women such as Lieu are starting to shed light on the scourge of domestic violence.
“It’s an encouraging sign that many women dare to speak out about their problems,” she said.
“Domestic violence is no longer a private family issue. It’s a social concern.”