Dramatic rise in child abuse cases

When Tran Van De strikes his grandchildren, he says he does it out of love. "I know it hurts; it hurts me too," says the 68-year old retiree, a grandfather of four. "But it helps them become good citizens. That was the way I was taught when I was a child. It's not abuse. I love my grandchildren. How could I abuse them?"

In many countries, a parent hitting a child or leaving them in a house alone would be reported to the authorities. A social worker would be sent to investigate. The police might be summoned and child abuse charges could even be filed against the parent.

In Vietnam, this scenario would not happen. There is no accepted definition of "child abuse". There are no social workers. There are no specific laws against physical punishment, according to Duong Tuyet Mien, a professor at Hanoi Law University, and other experts in the field.

Disciplining children by striking or humiliating them has traditionally been a normal part of good parenting in Vietnam. It is a part of good teaching. Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to use physical punishment if a child misbehaved, according to parents interviewed by IRIN and authorities at the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA).

Ministry report

Nevertheless, child abuse is a growing problem in Vietnam. Surveys indicate that the number of reported cases is skyrocketing.

Statistics released by MOLISA on 22 August in a preliminary report available only in Vietnamese show violence against children in the home tripled between 2005 and 2007. Violence committed by teachers against children increased 13 times.

A five-province survey conducted by Vietnam's Committee for Population, Family and Children in 2006, indicated that 58.3 percent of children interviewed said they were reprimanded with curses, insults or slaps (no Internet link and only in Vietnamese).

Pham Kieu Oanh, a child protection specialist at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Hanoi, suspects the jump in numbers is due in part to better reporting. "But the statistics are just the tip of the iceberg," said Oanh." It doesn't really reflect the reality. The number would be higher if all cases were reported."

"If an adult hits a child, no one reports this to the relevant authorities," Oanh said. "That would only happen if a child was badly injured. Then the police would come in. But they would just handle the case by charging the parent with creating disorder or making loud sounds, rather than child abuse."

"We don't implement the laws properly"

The laws of Vietnam do, of course, cover children, cautions Duong Tuyet Mien of Hanoi Law University. But when it comes to children "we don't implement the laws properly."

"If you slap a child that violates the law but no one reports that," says Mien, "these are seen as normal acts. According to the law, one has to have 11 percent of the body injured to make it a criminal case."

Sexual abuse

Part of the problem, say experts, is that when Vietnamese think of child abuse they usually think of sexual abuse. And they think that only girls can be victims.

"Many people have no idea that boys can be sexually abused," adds Mien. "They don't imagine what kind of abuse that could be. So they never think that boys need to be protected."

Abusing children is not right, concedes Huynh Tien Thanh, a Hanoi businessman with a nine-year-old son. "I only hit my son to teach him to become a good man. Of course, there are limitations. You cannot beat a kid too hard," Thanh said. "You have to know where to hit."

These are the kind of attitudes that have to change in Vietnam, says UNICEF's Oanh. "It's really a challenge to raise awareness among people. It's tradition," she said, but it is a way of thinking that she believes has to end.