HO CHI MINH CITY — Both boys and girls can fall victim to sexual abuse.
On its face, the statement seems obvious. But it took a long time to convince the Vietnamese government to agree. Before this year, the country did have laws on the books to deal with sexual crimes and human trafficking, but they made explicit reference to female victims only. In what seemed to be an unintended consequence, a strict interpretation of the law made it hard for prosecutors to go after criminals who sexually victimized boys.
But that has changed with the revisions to the Penal Code that took effect on January 1, now offering male and female victims the same protection.
“We were taking on an issue of law that nobody else was talking about,” Michael Brosowski wrote in a blog post about how the group he started, the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, helped to get the legal amendments passed.
“In Hanoi, no person had ever been charged with sexually abusing a boy until Blue Dragon’s involvement,” Brosowski said. “While some people were sympathetic, or even angered, by reports of this exploitation, others considered that the boys could not be victims because they appeared to go willingly with the pedophiles.”
He shared the story of Tan, who as a boy made money by performing sex acts for older men. Even after the foundation took him in, he inexplicably would still have sex with the men he seemed to hate. Tan had undergone a sequence of events not unfamiliar to many exploited rural Vietnamese: he needed money after leaving the countryside and coming to the capital, as his father was an alcoholic and his mother had abandoned him. But Brosowski also saw the case as a sign that the molestation had left a deeper, more nuanced psychological impact than could be readily explained.
Now, there are new, stronger legal tools to prevent or punish the kind of harm Tan faced. To ensure that the updated Penal Code does not remain just a piece of paper, police now are training on how to actually enforce the law, adapting their approach to more effectively pursue sexual predators and human traffickers.
In the past some police did try to investigate criminals who molested or raped boys. One obstacle that emerged had to do with prosecution. By the time suspects had been arrested, authorities did not know how to charge them because the law focused on sexual offenses against females. To legislate based on the gender of a possible victim would not even occur to many people, making the reference to females in Vietnam’s criminal code appear to be an oversight.
A second obstacle had to do with evidence. Police sometimes would monitor potential traffickers but then nab them before they took sex slaves across a border and thus committed a crime. That allowed some to walk off scot-free. Now the officers are coordinating more closely with colleagues across jurisdictions, waiting until suspects board planes or nearly cross borders before arresting them. That underpinned a successful probe in May headed by law enforcement in Vung Tau, some 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City. This month, the People’s Police Academy is incorporating that and other experience into its periodic review to improve training.
With sexual crimes running across gender lines, abuse of women and girls remains a problem. May, for example, was one of many girls sold into bondage.
“If I was not trafficked I would have been married, or worked somewhere,” said May, whose full name is not used to protect her privacy. But she was rescued by Blue Dragon, which has been active in tracking down victims and bringing them back home.
She now hopes to become a teacher, something she did not think she would get a chance to do.
“I never thought I would study further,” she said.
What makes the new Penal Code notable, in recognizing boys and men, is that it defies social expectations of who are victims. Vietnamese worry that violence against children may be on the rise, or at least is being reported more often. But public outrage usually ticks up when a video of teachers hitting students goes viral, or when cases of domestic violence emerge.
That motivated the Ministry of Public Security, for example, to recently propose setting up hotlines for people to call or email in about these crimes. Such is the public concern, though, that people prefer to publicize offenses online for swifter action.
“Social media spreads very quickly, very publicly, reaching the ears of law enforcement agencies,” Nguyen Trong An, deputy director of the Center for Research, Training and Community Development, said on the police TV channel ANTV. “But if we just fill out forms and wait for district officials to respond, we’ll certainly be waiting.”
Sex crimes against boys are admittedly a minority of cases, but public debate rarely touches on this. That is likely to change under the latest criminal code.