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11 December 2023

Paedophilia cases spark social media outcry in Vietnam

Nga, the mother of an eight-year-old abused girl, holds her hand-written letter to police asking for an investigation into her daughter's case. (AFP)


Vietnamese cops took three months to respond seriously to allegations that an eight-year-old girl had been molested, but then outrage spilled onto Facebook and they made an arrest in days -- a rare win for public opinion in the communist country.

The girl was sexually abused by a family friend near her aunt's house in Hanoi in January, but the complaint by her enraged mother fell on deaf ears.

That was until the news spun out onto social media with Facebookers demanding to know why pleas for legal action went unanswered.

Suddenly last week, a deputy prime minister called on police to take the case seriously and the suspect was arrested - offering a window into how the wheels of justice turn in Vietnam.

But the ordeal is not over for the young victim who still wails in her sleep, according to her distraught mother Nga.

"Doctors said my daughter's genitals were hurt... they said there were signs of sexual violence," said Nga, whose name has been changed to protect the victim's identity.

"I never thought it could happened to my girl. It's been heartbreaking seeing her cry in her sleep, still in so much fear."

'Shamed and blamed'

With no independent media in Vietnam, many people turn to social media to share public opinion.

But even popular sites like Facebook are closely monitored by communist authorities, ready to jail anyone veering too far into territory deemed incendiary.

Last week's Facebook furore prompted a different kind of reaction from officials in a country that has made the headlines for paedophilia before.

In 2006, British rocker Gary Glitter was convicted for molesting children as young as 10 in Vietnam, where he had an ocean-side home.

But the country has mostly avoided the headline-grabbing molestation cases seen in neighbouring Thailand or Malaysia.

According to police figures, there are about 1,000 reported cases of sexual abuse in Vietnam every year. Experts warn many more go unreported.

Recent data and the publicised cases "are just the tip of the iceberg", UNICEF Vietnam's child expert Vijaya Ratnam Raman told AFP.

"They may be shamed, or blame themselves. There may be threats of violence, and sometimes they don't have faith in the situation and the system," he added.

Cultural factors also discourage victims from speaking out in a country where children do not receive adequate sex education.

"Everybody is hesitant to talk about rape, forced sex and sexual abuse," said Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies.

"We have to break that culture."

Sluggish law

But some who braved the cultural barriers then hit legal obstacles.

One father described the pain of his unsuccessful three-year battle to persuade police to bring charges against an elderly neighbour who molested his three-year-old daughter.

"I live in extreme anger," said the father, in tears, declining to be named.

It is a common complaint.

Last August, several parents in southern beach town Vung Tau filed complaints against a 76-year-old man, accusing him of molesting seven girls between 2012 and 2016.

Police initially said they could not press charges because of lack of evidence.

Finally last week, amid mounting public pressure, prosecutors said they would re-examine the case.

"Paedophilia-related crimes are often handled slowly," said lawyer Le Luan, who is representing Nga's daughter.  

Sometimes that legal foot-drgaging has devastating consequences.

In February a 13-year-old girl in southern Ca Mau province committed suicide, after she was alleged to have been continuously abused by a neighbour.

State media said police did not charge the suspect because of lack of evidence.   

The public has been quick to pounce on the perceived lack of action, with Facebook becoming the forum for anger in a country where discussion and debate is closely monitored.

"Facebookers must make these cases heard... We will raise our voice to get rid of people who don't deserve to live, for a safe environment for all," said one user, Nguyen Van Hung.  

According to Vietnam's criminal code, molestation charges carry a 12-year sentence, while convicted child rapists can face the death penalty.

But the law also says that there must be signs of physical damage on the body for police to launch an investigation.

As a result, most cases of molestation never lead to trial.  

Despite the struggles ahead, Nga vows to continue to fight for her daughter.

"Being a mother, I have to do my best... to warn others, and to prevent the same from happening to other children," she added.