For much of the past year, residents of a village in Vietnam’s southern Ca Mau province heard a child screaming in terror in a nearby house, but no one alerted the authorities. As 14-year-old Nguyen Hoang Anh was being branded with hot irons, had solvents poured in his wounds and had his teeth pulled out with pliers, those who heard him ignored his cries. Neighbors feared the couple that employed the boy on their shrimp farm might retaliate against them if they notified officials. Others, knowing police rarely interfere in domestic issues, did not know whom to call.
In most countries, suspicions of any kind of child abuse, let alone such a horrific case, would rouse a small army of social workers and police. Vietnam, however, has no such public system and only loose laws protecting children and other vulnerable people.
“We don’t consider beating a child to be violence against children,” concedes Nguyen Hai Huu, director of the Ministry for Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs’ child-protection unit. Disciplining children has traditionally been considered a family matter and officials are still loath to interfere.
Under the current law, a criminal case of child abuse can only be filed if a child suffers injuries on more than 11% of his or her body. (When Anh was hospitalized in April, police determined that the boy was scarred across 66.83% of his body and arrested his employers.) The laws, as well as people’s awareness about vulnerable populations, says Huu, have failed to keep up with rapid, often wrenching social shifts and the rising rates of domestic abuse, divorce and homelessness.
Now this is set to change. Vietnam has launched a massive effort to overhaul its social-support system over the next 10 years.
In May, social work was officially recognized as a profession, a vital legal distinction in Vietnam’s communist society, in which nothing can happen without the central government’s assent. The country plans to offer counseling services, set up crisis hotlines, revamp its social-protection laws, educate the police and spend $123 million to train tens of thousands of social workers in dealing with problems ranging from domestic violence to drug addiction.
“Until now, the government didn’t recognize social workers and didn’t think they were necessary,” says Le Hong Loan, head of UNICEF Vietnam’s child-protection department, which has been working with the government for more than a decade to develop a social-work system as well as write tougher laws and encourage their enforcement.