Domestic Abuse in Vietnamese Households
December 7, 2006
BN Magazine, News Report, MT Lite, Posted: Dec 06, 2006
“Tuyet” works in a hair salon. She is pretty, with well-manicured finger nails and a trendy, short layered hair style. She can be easily mistaken for someone in her late-20s even though Tuyet is actually in her late-40s. Tuyet grew up in a home environment in rural Viet Nam where she married her current abuser in her late-teens, and even back then, her in-law family and her own family would beat her and not defend her against her abusive husband.
I located Tuyet because each week, she attends an Asian women’s support group offered at My Sister’s House (a non-profit organization based in Sacramento, California that provides support and shelter to Asian American women in the Central Valley) to mentally cope with her sad but unchanging situation.
Tuyet has been beaten by her husband, a man in his early-50s, at least three times severely. On the third time, Tuyet suffered broken fingers that she explained to her co-workers and doctor as arising from a car accident. Married to an alcoholic who is also a diabetic with high blood pressure, Tuyet is afraid to leave him because she feels bound by honor and duty to take care of him. Our interview transpired in Vietnamese at a Starbuck’s cafe. She lamented with brows furrowed and arms thrown up in fatalistic concession: “I’m afraid that he’s sick and nobody would take care of him if I left or divorced him. And if he died or committed suicide, I would feel like it was my fault … I don’t want to leave him after 31 years of marriage. He doesn’t [typically] go to the hospital because he’s a man, so I have to take days off to accompany him to the hospital. I’m afraid of going to Hell or having bad karma if he dies.”
Each day, she lives in fear that he would lash out against her, and sleeps with him to fulfill her wifely duties (though she did make it clear that she got no pleasure from this). In order to meet with me at 9 p.m. in secret for this clandestine interview, she had to reassure him that dinner was ready and that she had to work late for her nail salon clients. Unfortunately, Tuyet is just one of the many Vietnamese American women who experience physical as well as verbal abuse from her partner. Moreover, her situation is made more complicated by the cultural tug of war she goes through mentally and daily in her sense of obligation to stay with a batterer due to these deeply ingrained Confucian values.
Intimate partner violence
Domestic violence in the Vietnamese American population is as much of a public health concern as cervical cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and post traumatic stress disorder and, in many ways, has a broader social impact. The Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Cluster on Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, Dr. Catherine Le Gales-Camus, was quoted in the World Report on Violence and Health (2002) elaborating upon the broader social consequences of violence: “Beyond the very personal human tragedies associated with each and every case of violence … In economic terms … responding to violence diverts billions of dollars away from education, social security, housing and recreation, into the essential but seemingly never-ending tasks of providing care for victims and criminal justice interventions for perpetrators.”
Intimate partner violence is a form of domestic violence and it is both a local and global problem. It is defined by the Center for Disease Control as any behavior purposely inflicted by one person against another within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm. Most often, the violent person is a husband, former husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. Sometimes the abuser is female.
If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she leave?
There’s an old Vietnamese proverb “Den nha ai nay rang” that means, loosely, “Shine the light only in one’s own home [and not on others’].” This approach illustrates part of the problem of why violence against wives and girlfriends may sometimes occur when neighbors and acquaintances turn a blind eye. In Vietnamese culture, when domestic violence is talked about (if at all), it is often referred to as an private dispute and a family matter to be resolved internally. It is not understood as having multiple driving forces in society. It is a belief reinforced by cultural practices and economic circumstances, and hence, requiring participation from many sectors of our society to be prevented and treated. Many of the reasons why Vietnamese women do not leave—apart from the lack of English language skills, a stable income, or forgiving the aggressor because of the children—are cultural factors such as the perceived need to honor, love, and duty felt at the individual level, while at the community level, the discourse surrounding intimate partner violence becomes submerged into an internal dispute that is portrayed as strictly a private family matter, not a community or societal threat.
Please don’t arrest him
Dr. Hoan Bui, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and author of In the Adopted Land: Abused Vietnamese Immigrant Women and the Criminal Justice System (Greenwood Press, 2004), found that Vietnamese American women were much less likely than their American counterparts to call the police when domestic violence occurred. This estimate is four or five times less likely than the general population of American women to report domestic violence incidents to the police. In many Vietnamese cases, when the police are actually called, the woman does not really want her husband to be incarcerated.
The second time that Tuyet’s husband beat her on the head with a blunt object that left a bruise three weeks later, she called the police. However when they arrived, she begged them not to take him away. The police, instead, reprimanded him according to her request and said that they would arrest him the next time that the Sacramento Police Department was called. This tendency is supported by a survey in 2000 of approximately 440 Vietnamese women in four cities. The survey asked the women about their attitude toward the various approaches to criminal justice interventions. In this study, Dr. Bui found that interventions such as court-mandated counseling received the highest support, followed by fines and probation, while prosecution and imprisonment received the lowest support. For immigrants with limited English proficiency, the language itself poses a great hardship in contacts with government officials and constrains their willingness to participate in the criminal justice process. In extreme reported cases, police untrained to deal in this matter have asked the offending husband to translate for the victim. This reflects as well as reinforces the Vietnamese refugee community’s broader mistrust of the US criminal justice system.
Underreported and understudied
According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, one in three women will suffer some form of violence in her lifetime, becoming a part of an epidemic that devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development. Unfortunately, there is a lack of nationwide representative data capture the extent of domestic violence amongst Vietnamese Americans, but some regional studies can help paint a conservative estimate. The most comprehensive study by the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Boston found that the prevalence of domestic violence was 39 percent in the Vietnamese American respondents. Dr. Tuyen Nguyen, a researcher and professor based at the California State University, Fullerton, found in a 2003 survey of 200 immigrant Vietnamese men in Houston, Texas that partner abuse of some type occurred in 31 percent of the respondents’ cases.
However, Dr. Nguyen told BN that this may be an underestimate. He believes that “the figures are higher because in cases where abuse is occurring, these people are not as socially connected as [others] in the larger Vietnamese community.” He furthermore believes that this number will increase: “As the Vietnamese American population grows through immigration, the problem will leak out more to authorities and reporting will also be on the rise.” When asking Dr. Nguyen about his current research on domestic violence in Viet Nam compare with its incidence among Vietnamese Americans, he stated that “in this country, even though there are a lot of struggles, the men here know the law, so the prevalence of partner abuse in Viet Nam is actually much higher than here in the US as immigrants become more acculturated.”
Community advocates, such as Chic Dabby, Director of the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence in San Francisco, cites the fact that Asian women on the whole are overrepresented in victims’ profiles. For instance, in Santa Clara County last year, where the diverse population is 17 percent Asian, 35 percent of the reported cases of victims of homicide from domestic violence were identified as Asian. As a benchmark for understanding the prevalence of domestic violence in the US population as a whole, the National Violence Against Women Survey indicates that one out of four women has been physically assaulted or raped by an intimate partner and one out of 14 men reported such experiences. These statistics, however, do not show how domestic violence cuts across socioeconomic status lines—anecdotal stories of white collar women such as doctors and professors being battered shows that this was not just a poor immigrant female problem.
Immigrant Status—“bao lanh”
Other circumstances that were named for why women sometimes do not leave an abusive relationship had to do with immigrantion status—sometimes a woman is sponsored as a fianceùe or wife to the US and is abused by the husband, but is afraid of leaving out of fear that she will get sent back. Le Minh Hai, a partner at Robert Mullins International, an immigration consulting firm, told BN that there are roughly 12,500 cases or more of marriage partner sponsorships per year from Viet Nam to the US. Though Le was unable at the time of the interview to give concrete examples of green card marriages that ended due to intimate partner abuse (to which Le reassured me that few cases which end are due to domestic violence), a Vietnamese language advocate at My Sister’s House, who requested to be anonymous for safety reasons, cited this as a huge concern when it came to the Vietnamese American community. Others in the Sacramento Vietnamese American community, such as Nancy Minh Thi Tran of TNT Radio, agreed that apart from the other issue of abuse and violence originating from the global problem of human sex trafficking (see the article “Not for Sale” by Tom Vu, BN July 2006), many immigrant Vietnamese women who recently arrived and were sponsored by their overseas Vietnamese husbands would be too scared to report their case to the authorities for fear of deportation.
Services and prevention
There are many solutions at the aggregate and individual level to help reduce intimate partner violence against Vietnamese women and women in general. My Sister’s House pioneered the successful Women at Work program which focuses on helping domestic violence survivors “get back on their feet so they can get on with their lives.” The Women at Work program helps participants from multicultural backgrounds overcome the trauma of abuse and transition more effectively to emotional and economic independence. The executive director, Nilda Valmores, stated that, “If prevention was totally successful, no shelters would be needed. But in the meantime, the shelter is critical. Clothing donations are nice but they don’t pay the bills. The community needs to value the work enough to keep the shelter going.”
Other program and service providers that have received praise among researchers and advocates is the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Boston. Started in 1987, the organization offers a 24-hour multilingual hotline, an emergency shelter in New England, individual counseling and support groups, and help with legal issues, healthcare, housing and public benefits, English tutoring, parenting classes, and children’s advocacy. Information about job and education opportunities are also provided.
There is a need for greater coordination of services and cooperation between various public, private, and non-profit agencies that are trained to deal with Asian domestic violence. An example of such a network is the Filipina Women’s Network. This is a partnership of domestic violence agencies, the Domestic Violence Consortium, the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, local government, the Philippine consulate, professional women’s associations, faith-based organizations and for-profit corporations to draw attention to the problem of domestic violence in the Filipino community of San Francisco.
Nancy Minh Thi Tran told BN that “we need to increase education via the media, schools, and church groups … We need our communities’ volunteers to interpret with the police, a network to hold workshops, and to have people [come forward to] tell the truth.”
On the legislative side, at the time of this writing, the US Senate and House of Representatives were trying to agree on one version of the stalled reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, passed unanimously in 2005. This reauthorization called for a coordinated community response to domestic violence.
Leaving is hard
“What should I do? Do you think I should leave him?” Tuyet asked as I dropped her off back at her car in the parking lot of My Sister’s House, close to 10:30 p.m. I was by this point very concerned that she would get in trouble for staying out so late, given her husband’s possessive nature. During the interview several times, Tuyet had told me that she just could not afford to move out and that she had no close friends or confidants, so I told her to keep calling My Sister’s House to help her through this difficult time. At the time of the interview, Tuyet was still living with her batterer and did not have any close friends nearby or supportive family. “Thank you for sharing my story,” she told me and drove off.
For further information, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233). In Sacramento, the My Sister’s House crisis hotline is ( 916) 428-3271.
Am I A Victim? Signs of Abuse
Below is a partial list of behaviors that are seen in people who physically abuse another person. The last four signs are almost always seen only if the person is a batterer.
• Controlling behaviors
• Quick involvement and escalation of the relationship
• Unrealistic expectations
• Blames others for his problems
• Cruelty to animals or children
• “Playful” use of force in sex
• Verbal abuse
• Rigid sex roles
• Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde/mood swings
• Past battering
• Threats of violence
• Breaking or striking objects
• Any force during an argument
Courtesy of My Sister’s House webpage (www.my-sisters-house.org).