In official discourse, the Vietnamese family is depicted as a safe haven, a cosy nest (to am) of harmony, peace, and meaningful co-existence. Yet, for many of the country’s women, domestic terrains are anything but peaceful and safe. A recent nationwide survey showed that one in three women have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands, and that 26 per cent of these women have been injured as a result, many of them repeatedly (General Statistics Office and UN Vietnam 2010). These statistics corroborate what earlier qualitative studies have documented: for many married women in Vietnam, violence exercised by an intimate partner is an integral part of day-to-day lives (Gammeltoft 1999; Rydstrom 2003: 676—97; Phan 2008: S177-S187; Vu 2008: S163-S176). In epidemiological terms, little is known about the consequences of this violence for women’s health, but one study conducted among 883 married women in northern Vietnam in 2002 found that partner violence caused chronic pain, injuries, and serious mental health problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts in the exposed women (Nguyen 2008). A study of pregnant women and mothers of infants in northern Vietnam found alarming mental health states among the women: nearly 30 per cent were diagnosed with depression or anxiety in the period shortly before or after childbirth, and women exposed to intimate partner violence were twice as likely as their peers to suffer from mental health problems (Fisher et al. 2010: 737—45).

In 2007, the government of Vietnam passed the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control. The law defines forced sex as an act of domestic violence, along with beatings, insults, and psychological pressures. It emphasises the duties of the state, individuals, families, organisations, and institutions to prevent domestic violence and to support victims, stating that those who perpetrate such violence ‘shall either be fined as a civil violation, disciplined or charged for criminal penalty and have to [provide compensation] for any damages caused’ (Article 42). Despite increased mass media attention to domestic violence, marital sexual abuses remain a sensitive and silenced issue in Vietnam, and such acts are rarely brought to public attention or taken to court. This reluctance to publicly acknowledge abuses taking place within the intimate sphere of marriage must be seen in the context of dominant moral standards for femininity, masculinity, and family life. Prevailing constructions of gender in Vietnam define women as weak, passive, dependent, and submissive, whereas men are assumed to be strong, active, independent, dominant, and aggressive. Phan Thi Thu Hien (2008: S180) has reflected on the gendered moral norms that suffuse domestic worlds:

A good wife should be a ‘real’ woman. She behaves in a feminine way, knows how to properly take care of her children, husband, and parents-in-law. She must be obedient and never refuse her husband’s sexual demands. She is expected to be gentle and calm. She must not fight with her husband when he gets angry, and should know how to calm him down.

These moral expectations, studies show, tend to naturalise male violence, while making it difficult for women to recognise and address assaults on their physical integrity. By seeking help, battered women risk being stigmatised as unsuccessful mothers and wives who have failed in their most important task: that of building a happy family (Schuler et al. 2006, Vu 2008: S163-S176). In Vietnam, family laws stress women’s equality with men, but in practice women’s access to inheritance and family economic assets often remains restricted by patrilineal and patrilocal kinship practices. A divorce, therefore, will often entail huge economic uncertainties for the woman (Kwiatkowski 2010: 477-500).

It is, however, not only sexual violence exercised within the moral boundaries of the family that is hidden; sexual abuse committed by non-family members is also often hidden from public scrutiny. In the workplace and in schools, sexual harassment — understood as unwanted sexual attention – is a prevalent, yet largely unrecognised phenomenon. In a pioneering study conducted in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Khuat Thu Hong (2004: 117—36) found that women exposed to sexual harassment would nearly always keep their experiences to themselves. Even though harassment could have serious consequences, damaging the victim’s self-esteem and causing considerable mental distress, women usually opted not to disclose it out of fear that if they did, they would be blamed for it, being assumed to have ‘done something’ themselves to attract attention. Khuat Thu Hong concludes that ‘a victim of sexual harassment cannot win’ (2004: 131).

Perpetrators are seldom criticized and lose nothing, but women experience mental anguish, economic loss, disruption to their private lives, and fear of or actual damage to their reputation. Rarely are women protected or helped when they are harassed. In most cases, they must endure the situation by themselves and do not seek outside support (2004: 126—27).

While sexual harassment in schools and workplaces seems to affect victims mainly as individuals, incidents of rape often have wider social repercussions. In her research on the social management of rape in Vietnam, Nguyen Thu Hu’o’ng (2011, 2012: 1—14) has shown that rape affects not only the physical and mental health of the victim, but also the honour and status of her family and kin. Since a woman’s chastity is seen as emblematic not only of her own personal dignity and morality, but also that of her relatives, sexual violence can have significant moral con­sequences for entire families. An incident of rape — whether committed by relatives or stran­gers — is therefore usually seen as an event that demands a collective family response; and negotiations about whether to report the rape to the police or whether to seek other forms of compensation or redress are undertaken by members of the larger kin group. Parents of victims of sexual violence, Nguyen Thu Hu’o’ng found, often tend to be more concerned about the family’s social standing in the eyes of others than about the well-being of the rape victim. Partly as a consequence of this, crimes such as rape are often dealt with outside the formal justice system, thereby disappearing from public view (Nguy~n T. H. 2012: 10).