Ao Dai - New Naratif

Vietnam’s Fledgling #MeToo Movement

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the United States, Vietnamese freelance journalist Bao Uyen was encouraged last year by a male friend to share her own #MeToo story of sexual harassment in the workplace.

She didn’t. She was afraid she’d be seen as using an overly friendly relationship with her boss to advance her career, and felt like she was partly to blame for not putting up more resistance.

A recent online survey of 247 journalists conducted by Fojo Media Institute in Vietnam found that over 27% of female journalists and around 3% of their male counterparts have been sexually harassed. Perpetrators included sources and co-workers. The actual number is likely to be higher, the report says, as some female reporters interviewed in focus group discussions hadn’t realised that harassment could also be verbal.

Despite its prevalence, most Vietnamese newspapers don’t have a complaints mechanism in place, shifting the burden of dealing with the matter onto (potential) victims and supportive colleagues ready to come to their rescue whenever a source, colleague or superior goes too far.

Speaking out

Since she was still a student in Ho Chi Minh City, Uyen was told by colleagues and even a teacher that going to beer parties—“nhậu” in Vietnamese—and flirting with sources was a skill female journalists should master to help them get stories. The belief that women should somehow use their physical attributes and seduce their way into getting scoops has become entrenched; Dr Pham Ha Chung, a lecturer at the Academy of Journalism and Communication in Hanoi said at the Fojo seminar in May that many young journalists have left the industry after being unable to “adapt” to these expectations, or having been on the receiving end of harassment.

When rumours circulated on Facebook on 18 April this year that an intern at Vietnam’s most prestigious newspaper, Tuoi Tre, had attempted suicide after being raped by her boss, many comments online asked why the intern had not used her “reporting skills” to uncover the story.

The belief that women should somehow use their physical attributes and seduce their way into getting scoops has become entrenched

24 hours after this story of sexual assault surfaced online, none of major newspapers in the country had covered it. It’s an unspoken rule in the Vietnamese media industry: you’re not supposed to criticise your colleagues. Their inaction led Uyen to share how her former boss had repeatedly asked her out for coffee and once touched her hair in an empty office.

The newspapers’ silence on wrongdoings within the media industry “is not hypocritical. It is more like a failure of journalism,” Uyen wrote (link in Vietnamese) in a Facebook post which has been shared over 1,600 times.

Uyen isn’t alone. She’s part of a network of seven journalists who, for a week after the Tuoi Tre incident, wrote stories on Facebook about Vietnam’s toxic media environment, where it’s an open secret that some bosses extract sexual favours from interns in exchange for full-time positions. These #MeToo journalists refer to themselves as “nhóm phóng viên nữ (group of female journalists)”—more a reference to the issue they cover than an actual description, as one of their members is male.

Although the group’s stories were widely shared by NGOs, groups for women’s rights and young journalists who also invited them to speak at events, only two newspapers picked up their stories. The major newspapers didn’t cover the Tuoi Tre case beyond reporting that the paper was looking into the allegations. But many started discussing sexual harassment and victim blaming, topics traditionally seen as too sensitive, more generally.

That might have been the end of it, but, in an unprecedented move, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City—where the victim studies—demanded that Tuoi Tre investigate the matter. The university criticised the paper’s denial of the attempted suicide, while not addressing available evidence that the student had suffered from prolonged distress. The alleged perpetrator has since resigned, and Tuoi Tre has transferred the case to the police, according to the paper’s official statement.  

More women come forward

On 27 April, just as Vietnam’s first #MeToo case appeared to be losing steam, dancer Pham Lich claimed on Facebook that Pham Anh Khoa, a famous rock singer, had sexually harassed her, adding that she had text messages as evidence. She had even communicated with Khoa’s wife in an attempt to resolve the matter privately. Not long after, two other women also came forward as Khoa’s victims. Unlike the Tuoi Tre case, these allegations made it into the mainstream media.

Khoa initially threatened to sue his accusers for defamation, but was eventually forced to apologise amid heavy public backlash after he tried to dismiss the incidents as part-and-parcel of the Vietnamese entertainment industry. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) dumped him as their ambassador, and several of his shows were cancelled.

Pham Anh Khoa - New Naratif
Rock singer Pham Anh Khoa has been accused of sexual harrassment. Credit: Thanh Nguyen

More stories came forward on social media. On 19 May, nude model Kim Phuong said that she had reported Ngo Luc, a high-profile body painting artists, to the police for rape. She said on Facebook that she hoped other victims would come forward; fellow model Huyen Phuong did so, promising to testify in court if necessary. The case is ongoing.

Victim blaming and support

Such a turn of events is unheard of in patriarchal Vietnam, where male promiscuity is embraced as a reflection of “natural desires”, while female sexuality is repressed and seen as little more than a reproductive tool.

There’s been plenty of victim blaming with these recent #MeToo cases. When Kim Phuong came forward with her story, social media responses questioned her account and her motives. Some said they doubted her story as she hadn’t had any bruises; others insisted that it isn’t rape if the alleged perpetrator used a condom.

Such harmful misconceptions are widespread, and cut across genders; Fojo Media Institute’s research found that female journalists’ perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment are as narrow as their male colleagues.

In March this year, UN Women released a report saying that Vietnamese women and girls who report cases of rape and sexual assault are often not believed due to social and institutional bias. Interviews with policemen revealed cases in which families were advised to “protect” the victim’s “honour” by keeping silent about the assault so as not to hamper her chances of finding a husband later.

Fojo Media Institute’s research found that female journalists’ perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment are as narrow as their male colleagues

But Uyen says there has also been an “unexpected wave of support”. Even though someone cloned her Facebook account—then reported her original profile for being a fake account—after she shared her #MeToo story, the 29-year old journalist says she didn’t receive any hateful messages: “It was all supportive.”

Pham Lich and Kim Phuong report similar patterns—less shaming and more compassion than expected—in interviews with Uyen for an upcoming #MeToo Vietnam book to be published by the Vietnam Program for Internet & Society, a research programme at Vietnam National University Hanoi. Such encouragement, especially from male friends who went out of their way to amplify their stories, keep them going.

Public awareness

Khai Don, a popular writer who is also part of the network of #MeToo journalists, says the celebrity factor had a role to play in pushing some of the stories to the front pages of many newspapers. But there were other variables at play, too: in Khoa’s case, the victims’ perseverance, backed up by strong evidence, pushed the narrative along. Khoa also shot himself in the foot when he claimed that “in showbiz it’s normal to pat each other’s buttocks upon greeting”—a comment condemned by other celebrities and denounced as an insult to the entertainment industry.

Also, by the time Khoa’s case came to light, “the Vietnamese public was already better informed about sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace,” Khai Don tells New Naratif.

Vietnamese sexuality scholar Dr Khuat Thu Hong agrees. “Over the past few years, social awareness about violence, especially sexual violence against women and girls has seen significant changes,” says Dr Hong, who wrote the book Sexuality in Contemporary Vietnam: Easy to Joke About But Hard to Talk About in 2009.

She attributes the change to the power of social media—used by more than half of Vietnam’s population—and the ease with which waves of outrage in response to injustice against women and girls have spread, especially when lenient sentences are handed down to child molesters with powerful connections.

“But we can’t ignore the hard work of agencies, organisations and the media over the past few years who studied and shared about gender based violence,” she notes. “These activities have built a foundation for today’s changes.”

When the Tuoi Tre case broke, reliable data was ready for the #MeToo journalists to substantiate their stories, notably shocking data from 2014 by NGO ActionAid showing that 87% of women interviewed in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City had been sexually harassed at least once in a public place. The study also showed that the majority of victims and bystanders had not acted upon the harassment.

Too soon to call it a victory

Despite this progress, Dr Hong says recent developments are simply signs that #MeToo could eventually become a movement in Vietnam. Both Uyen and Khai Don say it’s too soon to call their campaign a success—they’re still monitoring the police investigation into the alleged rape at Tuoi Tre.

Translating the growing support for #MeToo into structural change has in fact been hard. After a week of their #MeToo campaign, Khai Don “realised young newsrooms were open to it and wanted colleagues to understand they had the right to report sexual harassment.”

But more traditional newsrooms—where power lies in the hands of male editors and upper management—still tend to blame the victim and see harassment at work as an internal matter not to be discussed publicly, lest it hurt the image of the media industry, Khai Don says.

The majority of lawmakers and powerful corporate bosses in Vietnam are not part of the social media-savvy generation that has been exposed to more progressive views on women’s sexuality and rights from a young age. Many of these elite decision-makers are men who have grown old in a society that only recently started to question the validity of the Vietnamese proverb: “As a flower is meant to be nipped, a woman is meant to be teased”.

Vietnam first acknowledged sexual harassment in its Labour Code just six years ago, but provided no definition, no prevention mechanism and no punitive measures

Vietnam first acknowledged sexual harassment in its Labour Code just six years ago, but provided no definition, no prevention mechanism and no punitive measures. In 2015, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), together with the government, labour unions and local businesses, developed the Vietnam Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. But Tran Quynh Hoa, communications officer at the ILO, says it’s been difficult to convince local companies to adopt it.

“Those who have adopted the code of conduct are foreign-invested companies as they face pressure from abroad,” she said at a seminar on gender equality in the Vietnamese media in May.

“When working with leaders, it’s very hard to convince them that certain words or a certain look are in fact sexual harassment,” she said, adding that they found the concept foreign and unsuitable for the Vietnamese context, where people love to joke.  

While most Vietnamese companies do have internal protocols, these are primarily designed to increase the productivity of the workers, without much concern for employees’ right to a harassment-free workplace, lawyer Nguyen Van Tu said during a talk show on #MeToo organised in April by CSAGA, an NGO that advocates for women’s rights in Vietnam.

Unconscious bias

The issue also reveals unconscious bias that have been entrenched in Vietnamese social norms, media and laws for so long that even some of the men and women who openly support #MeToo are perpetuating harmful tropes.

Most notable was the case of above-mentioned CSAGA. In a now-deleted video, CSAGA’s effort to engage Khoa in a serious discussion of sexual harassment ended up normalising his mistreatment of women, blaming his actions on his naïveté as an artist working in an entertainment industry with no clear code of conduct, where he claimed it was “normal” for colleagues to get touchy-feely.

The problematic message was echoed by Nguyen Quang Vinh, director of the Performing Arts Department under the culture ministry. He called the public to forgive the singer after he had apologised. “Perhaps Khoa has been in an overly free environment and so failed to see that he had crossed the line,” he told local newspaper Lao Dong. “There are actions deemed acceptable by one person but unacceptable by another. It depends on each individual.”

As the Labour Code has no mechanism to impose penalties for sexual harassment, the Performing Arts Department didn’t fine Khoa for sexually harassing Pham Lich while they collaborated on a show on national television. What the same department does have a mechanism in place for, though, is the imposition of fines—about VND5–10 million (USD220–440)—for dressing inappropriately, in ways that go against “Vietnamese values”. Many female performers have been fined either for wearing skimpy outfits, or having wardrobe malfunctions. The local media reports widely on such cases.

More than just celebrating Women’s Day

At the launch of the Fojo report detailing the prevalence of sexism and sexual harassment in the Vietnamese media, representatives of two well-known newspapers, Vietnam News Agency and The Thao Van Hoa (Sport and Culture), claimed their newsrooms were harassment-free. They confidently declared that there was no need for a code of conduct as they have more female reporters than male. They also have women in management positions, special benefits for women and big celebrations on Women’s Day.

These features, however, are typical of a Vietnamese newsroom, according to the Fojo report. Vietnam consistently ranks highly worldwide in female participation in the workforce; the high number of women present in a company doesn’t mean that gender is no longer an issue.

“I hope the trade union doesn’t just organise Women’s Day parties but is also capable of protecting female employees,” Hoa of the ILO said in response to the two newspaper representatives. “What if the female victims simply haven’t told you yet about being harassed?”

As Uyen and Khai Don put it, #MeToo is not about forcing an equality of outcomes for men and women. Nor is it about smearing the media industry or the reputation of any man.

“[#MeToo] fights for respect for women,” Uyen says. As far as the #MeToo journalists are concerned, it’s about time.

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