At the Intersection of Gender, Sexuality and Politics: The Disposition of Rape Cases among Some Ethnic Minority Groups of Northern Vietnam

Article excerpt

During my fieldwork on rape in Vietnam's Lao Cai province in 2007, local officials, mostly members of the majority Kinh (1) ethnic group, often told me: "Well, they will talk to you. They have no qualms. I'm sure you can do it." "They" here refers to members of two ethnic minority groups, the Dao and the Hmong. Already aware of popular tales of "free love" among Hmong and Dao youths of both sexes, I was, typically, told by an informant, "these [Dao] girls do not know whether they still have it [their virginity] or not". (2) The implication was that a young Dao female is entitled to unrestricted sexual freedom. Another informant said, "Young Dao people are just like Westerners. If they like each other they just do it as long as the girl doesn't get pregnant. They do not care much about their future spouse's sexual history." (3) The general opinion was that, in such an environment of "sexual freedom", there was no room for rape. There seemed to be a causal association between the extent of sexual freedom among Hmong and Dao youths and the apparently rare cases of rape. The apparent absence of value traditionally placed on women's virginity and chastity among members of these two ethnic groups--a topic that will be explored below--led to the belief among such informants that they did not view rape as a serious matter. This all seemed a far cry from the experiences that I had had when conducting research on rape victims among Kinh people in Hanoi. My peers and colleagues had in fact expressed doubts as to the feasibility of such a project in that latter context, because sex and especially rape are taboo subjects among the Confucian-oriented Kinh people (Nguyen Thu Huong 2012).

This research note explores the ways in which some members of the Hmong and Dao peoples in Lao Cai province, a northwestern province of Vietnam, perceive rape and manage its consequences. Cases considered demonstrate that local understandings of rape are played out among victims, family and kin members and local cadres--the law enforcement authorities at the grass-roots level. In examining cultural notions pertaining to marriage, sexuality, and especially female virginity among these ethnic groups, I point out that notions of family honour and economic considerations are prominent in the management of the consequences of rape. Their prominence is manifested in the ways in which a victim's family decides on whether or not to press charges against the rapist.

Method and Sample

This note draws on an ethnographic study of a limited number of respondents using open-ended interviews, life histories, and participant observation. The study formed part of my doctoral research in 2007 on rape among both the Kinh/Viet majority and some ethnic minority groups in northern Vietnam. The cultural and social stigma attached to rape among the Kinh meant that I approached prospective participants through a counselling office, which provided a contact address in the flyers distributed at the start of my research. The flyers highlighted the purpose of the research, stressing the confidentiality of personal information, the voluntary nature of participation and the free counselling services of a non-governmental organization whose main activities at the time focused on child sexual abuse.

In conducting the fieldwork among members of minority groups in Lao Cai reported here, I relied on the assistance of a student who had helped in the distribution of flyers for my pilot study of rape victims in Hanoi in 2003. As luck would have it, in 2007 she was working in the Lao Cai provincial cultural bureau and had close contacts with members of different ethnic groups in the province. I asked her to hand out flyers among local people when she travelled to various districts in the course of her work. Through her contacts I was able to cover five cases of rape, four of which involved women and girls from three different Hmong and Dao villages and the fifth case involving an adolescent Kinh girl. …