Here’s a very moving piece by a Buddhist nun on her experiences with violence against women. I hope we can all try to be more aware of these terrible problems and do what we can to overcome them.
When I was a child, sometimes our neighbor came to take shelter in our house. She often came with her small children (2-5 of them). This happened from time to time because whenever her husband was drunk he would hit his wife cruelly and chase away their children. This usually happened late at night.
One day he ventured into our house to snatch his wife and children to his house in order to do whatever he pleased with them, but my mother and all my brothers and sisters stood up to protect poor women and her children. When I asked my elders to report this matter to the local authority, they told me that it is an in-house or family matter and nobody cared about it. For many decades, in Vietnam, a country ruled by purely communist party, who claim to promote gender justice along with total equal right in society, still there were no laws to protect victims of domestic violence.
When I grew bigger, I came to know that there are many cases of domestic violence and rape (often incest), but nobody talked about this matter publicly. It is considered shameful, therefore the people who suffer, mostly women and children, keep silent. The result is that many of them either commit suicide, become mentally disturbed, or suffer depression for many years. I felt so helpless in such a society and culture.
Just in 2008, the Vietnamese government made some effort to discuss this matter in their parliament and eventually some laws were issued to punish the perpetrators and provide some measure to protect the victims. This has nothing to do with Buddhism, because the context I experienced was in a non-Buddhist region.
In a conference on the theme of domestic violence held in Bangkok in March 2007, I came to know that an estimated 3 000 to 5 000 Vietnamese young girls were sold every year through the borders to Cambodia or China to become child-prostitutes.
I met a girl of 14 years of age in Bangkok. She had been rescued by a Thai woman social worker from a brothel where more than 100 children from different countries were kept. She told me that her parents who lived in Cambodia had sold her to a man for only $200 US!
As I knew further through other sources, there are about 10 000 to 20 000 Vietnamese young women were forcibly married to foreigners (mostly to Taiwan, Korea, and Malaysia) every year, and sadly most of them become sex-slaves in their strange husbands’ houses. In this kind of marriage, the family of the poor woman gets about $US 200 to 1000. This is how young girls and young women from the poorest areas of the world sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their family.
The number I cited above are only estimates, because no formal and legal investigations were authorized by the local government. It is noteworthy that young girls and women who are sold or deceived to go to other countries for a job are from rural provinces where people are predominantly either Theravada Buddhists or without religion. Most of them are totally ignorant about the sex industry and their fate.
When I asked some monks from these areas to give religious talks concerning these problems, they appeared very uncomfortable at my idea and the information I gave them.
And they told me: “It is their Karma (i.e., fate in this context), we have nothing to do with that.” At that point, I felt some indignant at Buddhist monks who supposed to be compassionate and caring persons.
I started thinking to make Buddhist nuns (Bhikkhuni) more involved in this matter. This works better. Many nuns feel concerned and indeed, many nuns’ monasteries in Vietnam have become havens for the destitute, especially poor women and girls. I tried to get more nuns involved and encourage them to go to rural areas to establish Buddhist centres for education to help poor and uneducated people to live a better life.
Unfortunately, this was obstructed by the very Buddhist administration in the only legal Buddhist organization in Vietnam.
I myself went to some rural areas in Hatinh, Nghe An and Hagiang provinces. I got in touch with some of the women’s associations in these areas, gave religious talk and distributed booklets concerning the welfare and happiness of individuals and of family and society in general. This is just an individual effort, but fortunately, I was welcomed by the local people and community’s administrators. I wish we can do this in a more organized way, especially concerning financial and spiritual support.
In 2007, a layman from Malaysia asked us: “What can you, Bhikkhunis, do for us?” At first, many Bhikkhunis around me were puzzled! His question becomes a Koan (a subject to contemplate upon) to me for years, especially concerning domestic violence.
Most of the perpetrators are husbands or fathers; how can I tell them not to use violent means to get their wife or children to obey their will? What can I do to change a cultural context where husbands have the right to do whatever they pleased with their wives and children? This is a very crucial point because unless we get men to be aware of the evil consequences of their violent actions, they would just act out their impulses.
Sadly, there is no organization or institution in South East Asian that gives a formal education to men concerning the standard of moral relationship. Most of the people who come to listen to religious talks in Temples or Churches are elderly women.
Last year, some of my Buddhist friends in Kula Lumpur, Malaysia reported that they have organized pre-marriage courses based on Buddhist valuation of a moral marriage life. I felt thrilled and on my part, I edited a very important Buddhist text on social relationships named Singalovada Sutta (DN 31) to publish for free distribution in Vietnam. This works very well, as soon after the books come to the readers, many report to me that it helps them a lot in understanding their responsibilities toward family as well as to society. Some men even say that if they knew this discourse earlier, they would have not committed many mistakes or sins in their lives.