One day in September 2018 Pham Thi Mui was having a nap after working on the field that morning, when she was woken up by her husband holding a knife to her throat and asking: “Where did you go today?”
Trying to hide her fear and not daring to move, she replied: “I worked for uncle Thanh. Here is the money.”
He put the knife away, took the money and left. It was not the first time he had brandished a knife.
The 43-year-old woman narrated her ordeal at a conference organized by the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender (CSAGA) in Hanoi last month “I was scared. I was tired and having a nap at that time. Since I [subsequently] learned some safety skills, I have never put myself in a corner again.”
She was in fact one of hundreds of women with violent husbands to acquire such skills by taking part in training programs held by CSAGA in several northern provinces.
“I would always sit near the door even during meals. To make a quick exit if required. There was a time when he attacked me with a knife, but I escaped with a few scratches on the stomach because I was wearing 2 shirts.”
She asked her husband’s friends and relatives to talk to him.
In 20 years of marriage the forty-something woman only had a few years of love and peace before her husband turned violent.
But things have improved since her training last year.
The woman who would once beg her husband to stop beating her has now decided to stand up and defend herself.
Vu Anh Tuyet, an expert at CSAGA, said: “We respect the choice they make, we don’t tell them to get a divorce or keep living with their husbands. We only show them how to live and be safe, and to love themselves.”
Before joining the program, Nguyen Thi Quyen suffered from physical, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse by her husband.
Tuyet said: “She was raped on her wedding night. He beat her every day. Sometimes he attacked her in the market, but people stopped intervening since it became routine.”
When CSAGA approached her, Quyen lacked concentration and could not remember many things. A year of counseling changed her. She still lives with the husband but does not tolerate abuse.
When he gets abusive, she goes to her parents’ house instead of going to the cemetery and sleeping there as she used to.
She does not beg him to stop beating any more, but instead takes photos and sends them to the local police.
Sign of change?
Domestic violence is still rife in Vietnam. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, there are 30,000 cases of violence annually, with 75 percent of the victims being women.
But recently there was an outpouring of outrage on social networks at three cases of domestic violence. On September 13 a wife was thrown into a swimming pool by her husband in front of their child. Earlier two clips that went viral showed men repeatedly beating their wives though they were carrying little children.
“The reason is rooted in gender inequality,” Nguyen Thi Thuy, CSAGA’s deputy director, said.
“Men exercise control with a mailed fist because they are breadwinners and ask other family members to follow them.”
However, a significant change seems to have come among women, many of whom have chosen to end their marriage. According to the Supreme People’s Court, there were 1.22 million divorces in the last decade, 80 percent of them because of domestic violence.
But some women do choose to stay instead of walking away from their marriage. Nguyen Thi Van in the northern province of Hoa Binh is one such. After twice trying unsuccessfully to get a divorce from her abusive husband, she is now a leader helping other women fight domestic abuse.
After being hospitalized in 2007 due to her husband’s brutality, Van started to take part in local women’s meetings and raise her voice.
“Ethnic Muong women are not respected. We used to follow our husbands and didn’t dare to oppose them. But I am braver and decisive now, instead of withdrawing.”
The 42-year-old now works at the Violence Prevention Division and is also a secretary in her village.
She has been helping other women seek support against domestic violence.