In July, a 44-year-old foreign national slapped a Vietnamese woman on the butt as she exited an elevator in the commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City.
Though deeply upset, she chose not to file a police report out of concern that the man would only receive a small fine under broad regulations on sexual harassment, which is not a criminal offense under Vietnam’s penal code. It generally falls within minor administrative violations considered “indecent speech and behavior.”
But several months later, prior to footage of the incident being leaked to the media, the 36-year-old Ho Chi Minh City woman decided to reverse course. She filed a complaint against the man, whom local media said was from Estonia and had also hurled racial epithets at her. Reports said she had encountered him again in the complex and feared for her safety. In response, he was fined VND200,000, or just under $9.
Observers in Vietnam were quick to point out stark parallels with the incident and another viral video from nearly two years ago, when a Vietnamese man was punished with the same $9 fine for forcibly kissing a woman in an elevator in Hanoi, another act caught on CCTV.
Social media erupted in anger over the small fine, as it did following the more recent incident, and in late 2019 the Ministry of Public Security proposed increasing fines for sexual harassment to a maximum of $217, though it is unclear what became of the proposal.
While the fines clearly don’t act as a deterrent, some experts see a silver lining: the cases received an unusual amount of attention in a country where the #MeToo movement made little impact and where even filing complaints is discouraged.
“The more harassment gets reported, the better it is,” Nga Le, founder of She Will Be Strong (SWBS), a Ho Chi Minh City-based social enterprise, told VICE World News. “Although the fine doesn’t seem like much and it won’t scare the harasser enough for him to not do it again, the fact that the woman was strong enough to report this is a good sign.”
Le added that such harassment is common in Vietnam, and women often let it go as they don’t want to be seen as a victim.
Given the hazy legal boundaries around sexual harassment in the country, it is difficult to know just how widespread the problem is, but existing research paints an unsettling picture.
A major report released this year called “Men and masculinities in a globalising Viet Nam,” funded in part by the Australian government, found that nearly 80 percent of respondents believe “it is harder for men than women to control sexual desire.” About 64 percent surveyed said “it is normal for men to flirt with women,” and almost half agreed that “a woman must have done something wrong to be sexually harassed/abused.”
The survey included 2,567 men aged 18-65 in four different regions of Vietnam. The authors conclude that “these beliefs and stereotypes inherently uphold the superiority and privileges of men over women…and justify gender-based discrimination.”
A 2020 study called “Sexual Harassment in Youth at Schools” carried out by ActionAid and the Hanoi-based Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) found that 60 percent of adolescents had experienced sexual harassment at least once, and 25 percent of those affected didn’t tell anyone.
More narrowly, a recent survey from WildAct, a Hanoi-based wildlife conservation NGO, found that almost 83 percent of respondents in the conservation sector had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the previous two years.
Le believes that much needs to be done in order to improve regulations on the subject: “The law about sexual harassment is not strong in Vietnam at all, and a lot of thought needs to be put into how to improve it. We need help from the media because the government is not paying enough attention to this matter. If the media can show how serious it is, and with help from social media to spread the word, I think gradually it will have a big enough impact to change the law.”
Le and SWBS, for their part, are working to improve knowledge of the issue of sexual harassment, while also trying to help women by teaching them self-defense classes that teach “practical movements” to ward off aggressors and “mental preparation to deal with these incidents.”
But Vietnam's laws will ultimately need to change in order to fully address the problem. Khuat Thu Hong, founder and director of ISDS, said that the fines discussed above were an embarrassment for women, rather than offering any sort of protection.
“Most people agree that the law in Vietnam fails to protect women and children from sexual harassment,” she told VICE World News. “We need to stipulate sexual harassment as a more serious violation than being equal to urinating in the street, which is how the law works now.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mispelled the name of the founder of She Will Be Strong (SWBS). It is Nga Le, not Nha Le.