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Vietnamese woman’s journey to find a voice for sexual abuse victims

Monday, May 18, 2020, 15:00 GMT+7

A Vietnamese woman, who was a victim of child sexual abuse, has spent nearly 15 years protecting her country’s minors from having the same traumatizing experience in positions she held in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and as the founder of a social enterprise that works toward the cause.

Cao Huyen Dieu Huong, better known as Huong Cao, set up the OpenM social enterprise in 2016 to raise awareness among the community about sexual abuse and pedophilia and to support victims of sexual assault.

Before establishing OpenM in 2016, Huong, now 33, had spent almost 15 years taking part in similar non-governmental projects.

The woman said she wanted to break free from NGOs’ dependence on funds from sponsors so that she could focus on long-term projects that bring about more sustainable values.

Unable to stand aside

When Huong and OpenM organized a photo exhibition called ‘Voices Out’ in 2018, it was the first gallery in Vietnam that shone a spotlight on child sexual abuse. 

The exhibition featured stories about pedophile victims and the mental damage they and their families endured.

“I was molested by my own cousins when I was young so personally [child sexual abuse] is a frightful topic. At the time of our project, stories of pedophile attacks reported in the media were getting so abundant and horrifying that I could no longer sit still and do nothing,” Huong said.

“With 'Voices Out,' we hoped to create a humane community and share accurate information [on the subject] to its members so that parents and teachers can be the first ones to stand up and protect their children."

Since then, she has organized children’s education programs at schools across the country.

Her team includes nearly 30 lecturers who are psychology experts and lawyers with experience in helping victims of sexual abuse.

Four years on, Cao’s dedication to the work she does has not faltered. She still accompanies sex educators from province to province across Vietnam to impart their knowledge about gender, reproductive health, puberty, and abuse prevention to local residents.

“When you build a library or a school, the fruit of your work is physical and instantly visible, but to measure the impact of education on children can take years,” Huong said.

“Different lessons must be taught at each phase of a child’s growth, and [we] must follow their entire path of growth and maturation. The task cannot be pulled off by an organization without government intervention," she told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

“So I chose to be one who raises issues and advocates for policy changes."

Education is of the essence

Huong's enrollment in Fulbright University’s public policy master’s program helped her approach her work from an academic perspective and equipped her with the scientific evidence needed to advance her cause.

“Research cannot be drawn from 100 or 200 cases. It must have a much bigger sample. By now, more than 30,000 students, parents, and teachers in 11 provinces and cities that we traveled through to teach have reported experiencing abuse and harassment at different levels,” the woman said.

“But what I and the project need is acknowledgment and cooperation from the teachers and the schools’ leadership that what happened to these victims is real, and that education on sex, reproductive health, adolescent psychology, and abuse prevention is of high priority."

Her primary obstacle is that although she has successfully convinced schools’ leadership to bring the program to their schools, few school leaders have sat down to observe what her team taught or what the students learned.

For now, what she wants to achieve is that such education can be added to Vietnam’s Law on Education not only as complementary lessons but as part of a compulsory curriculum.

“Many people still wonder why it is necessary to give sex lessons to kids and consider it egging them to practice sex from a young age. It is an issue that we have addressed for many years,” Huong said.

“Why is it that sexual abuse and harassment does not only occur among teenagers and children but has become increasingly common throughout a person’s life? Why does sexual harassment happen at work or on public transportation?" she underlined.

“Sexual abuse is not limited to urban or rural settings, or to certain educational backgrounds. Perpetrators of pedophilia can be anyone, from strangers to one's own siblings."

According to Huong, what her and other similar projects have been doing is merely scratching the surface of the problem.

“Most parents think that in order to protect their children, they must send them to school. They do not think that they themselves, their families, relatives, and neighbors also need to be aware [of the issue]."

“So the root [of the problem] here is education. Everyone must be educated as early as possible on gender, reproductive health, and sexual abuse."

Sex education for one million children

Huong and her team’s goal is to teach sex education to about one million Vietnamese children by 2021.

“It is a huge effort for a single organization, but it is nothing compared to [Vietnam’s] 26 million children. Therefore, it is necessary to make such education a mandatory part of the law on education,” she shared.

To have funding for the project and pay educators’ salaries, OpenM offers English training courses for business leaders, managers, and individual consultants.

“Balancing between business and social work is very difficult. OpenM has always refused to accept funding, but we plan to start looking for like-minded philanthropists from 2020 to accompany us,” she said.

“But if projects are only designed to spend money or live off funds or sponsors, then social enterprises are no different from NGOs."

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