Nguyen Thu Quynh
In 2012, when I was doing research in Bo Trach District, Quang Binh Province, I asked kids 8-10 years old to write down the names of the people closest to them. Answers varied from parents and teachers to neighbors and police officers, as expected.
But when asked who could protect them in a crisis, the children were perplexed. They started jotting down random names without being able to pinpoint exactly why those names were chosen.
It seems that our children are clueless when it comes to seeking help on issues concerning their own safety. This fact gains added relevance at a time when increasing cases of child sexual abuse and harassment are being highlighted by local media.
Earlier this month, a primary school teacher in Hanoi was accused of touching several 5th graders in “inappropriate places.” However, it was stated at a press conference later that there were no signs that the teacher molested the students; that all he did was “pinching their ears and noses, touching their shoulders, butts and thighs.”
How can this happen? What we should be asking is how a teacher could do these despicable things for so long on so many children. Instead we have a press conference absolving the teacher of all blame. How is this possible?
Part of the answer is the imbalanced power relations between teachers and students.
Think about it. Teachers hold absolute authority in a classroom, and students are much lower in the power hierarchy. This instills fear, makes kids cower and tremble before a force mightier than them. And the more the students fear, the easier it is for corrupt teachers to prey on them.
Like a herd of sheep trapped within the fences of a farm with a coyote, our children are unable to do anything to save themselves; as they don’t dare to speak out about the abuses they suffer. Their silence is at the heart of the problem.
Vietnamese children return home from school in Luong Son District, Hoa Binh, Vietnam, May 6, 2015. Photo by Shutterstock/Asia Images
One thing I would like to note here is that not all student populations carry the same risk of being abused. Studies have shown that children from ethnic minorities, poor backgrounds, those who are developmentally challenged, or live away from their parents, are more vulnerable populations as they are less equipped to handle situations where they are physically or sexually abused. This has to do with their lack of education and crippling poverty which prevents them from getting a proper education in the first place. All this is worsened by the power dynamics between adults and children, particularly adults as teachers.
As long as a massive power imbalance exists in classrooms, more cases like the one in Hanoi will surface. As long as our children feel that their voices go unheard, they will lack the confidence to convey their concerns to adults.
There are very few communication channels for our children to speak out about abuse, according to a UNICEF report on children in Vietnam. It says that our current legal system is yet to give our youngest citizens proper tools to report abuses, to make them feel safe and secure, to protect them from being ridiculed or be subjected to prejudices.
The social milieu in which children grow up is also part of the problem. Criminals don’t grow on trees; they are made and fostered by a social system that either ignores or condones criminal behavior.
While individuals responsible for criminal behavior, including abuse of children, should be punished for their crimes, we will not solve the problem if we do not fix the flawed system itself.
The government needs to conduct research independently to determine the loopholes in a school’s operations that give adults too much power and authority, and identify empowering factors missing in our child welfare and protection programs.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” says an African proverb.
So if anything bad happens to that child, the village is to blame.
*Nguyen Thu Quynh is a researcher and editor for Tia Sang magazine. The opinions expressed are her own.