Dispatches from Vietnam: Learning From "Our Bodies, Ourselves"

Vietnam - Our Bodies, Ourselves project team “Our Bodies, Ourselves” Project Coordinator Khuat Thu Hong (striped scarf) and editorial team members facilitate a discussion with women about their sexual lives, reproductive health concerns and issues related to menopause. / Photo courtesy of ISDS

By Khuat Thu Hong — November 17, 2015

In July 2015, the Hanoi-based Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) published a three-volume version of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” after two years of work editing and adapting the U.S. version to the local Vietnamese context.

The series has been welcomed by readers from all walks of life. It is one of the first and only books addressing comprehensive scientific and social information on women’s issues published in Vietnam.

Since then, the editorial team has received stories, from both women and men, reflecting on how “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has affected their lives — from changing their incorrect perspectives and beliefs and equipping them with useful knowledge and skills, to boosting their self-confidence as they read of situations similar to their own.

One of these stories that I would like to share comes from my next-door neighbor, a woman I’ve been friends with for three years now.

After “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was published this summer, I brought her a copy as a friendly gift for her and the whole family. That apparently turned out to be the moment that changed her life. Some days ago, I got a phone call from a strange number. I recognized my neighbor’s voice on the phone, breathing fast.

The story she shared was shocking. She has been violated physically, psychologically and sexually by her husband for years. Her children were now also suffering violence from their father.

Volume 1: Cơ thể & Đời sống Tình dục của Phụ nữ
Volume 1: Cơ thể & Đời sống Tình dục của Phụ nữ / Click the image to view all three Vietnamese titles.

Thanks to reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” she finally gathered enough courage to stand up for herself and her children against her abusive husband. She told me she did as the book advised. She prepared cash for a taxi, kept her credit card ready with money, and prepared bags for herself and her kids’ clothes and necessary items to run in case of violence.

She and her children practiced how to escape from home quietly and who to contact for help. She learned by heart the address of the shelter for victims of domestic violence listed in the book.

Last week, she and her children ran away from home after her husband threatened her. They are now living in a hidden place and are taking care of each other. With my introduction, she is contacting organizations and lawyers to search for ways to legally deal with the issue, and to protect and free herself and the kids.

Before this phone call, for as long as I had known her, she had always stood out as an elegant woman with a successful and caring husband, a typical happy family. She said it was just an act. She thought it was what she had to do to protect her family from embarrassment – to “save face” – and because she was afraid of her husband.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” taught her to love and respect herself, explained her rights, and provided her with advice and tips to practice these rights. She keeps referring to the book whenever she talks about how she managed to escape from her husband.

She is now receiving counseling from an NGO working on domestic violence. I hope the next time on the phone she will sound happier and will update me with some positive news.

The last phone call we shared was so moving for me. I was happy to see a woman with strength and determination stepping out of her disguise to take charge of her own happiness, empowered by the book I gave her.

Khuat Thu Hong, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Institute for Social Development Studies. Previously, Hong worked for the Institute of Sociology, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities for 16 years and for UNDP as the gender specialist from 2000-2001. Hong’s major fields of studies include gender, sexuality, reproductive and sexual health and HIV/AIDS.

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