by Michael Tatarski (This article first appeared on Mongabay and has been republished under the CC BY-ND 4.0 Creative Commons license)
Hiking through the tiny village of Doong in central Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.
Five out of six people working in the conservation sector in Vietnam say that they have directly experienced some form of sexual harassment in their work environment.
This is just one striking finding of a new report by WildAct, a Hanoi-based conservation organization that surveyed 114 wildlife conservationists, environmentalists and government officers working in Vietnam.
“Many of the students in the wildlife conservation university course that we run are female, and one day one of our best students called us late at night really confused and upset,” said Trang Nguyen, WildAct’s founder. “She said that she had gotten the opportunity to go into the forest to conduct field work for the first time, and she had been sexually harassed by the senior forest rangers.”
The student said that she was considering quitting conservation altogether, or at the very least requesting to only do desk work moving forward.
“This triggered something in me, as it had happened to me before as well, and at that time I thought I’d brush it aside because I’m a conservationist and it’s more important for me to focus on animals and other issues,” Nguyen said.
Now, Nguyen and the team at WildAct decided something needed to be done. They sent a survey in which respondents could share their experiences with sexual harassment to NGOs, INGOs and government agencies working in the sector.
“We received a lot of pushback,” Nguyen recalled. “People would reply saying that this isn’t real, there’s no sexual harassment, there’s no gender-based violence or inequality in our sector.”
Some even told her that she had only gotten this idea because she lived in the west for many years.
Addressing sexual harassment across society remains a challenge in Vietnam. For example, this week an Estonian national was fined $8 for slapping a woman on her buttocks in a Ho Chi Minh City elevator. This comes a year and a half after a man received the same fine for forcibly kissing a woman in an elevator in Hanoi.
This is by no means unique to Vietnam though, and some of the world’s largest conservation organizations have faced similar problems.
Of the 114 people who responded to WildAct’s survey, 61.4% were female, while 78.1% of the respondents were between the ages of 20 and 40. In total, 82.5% of those surveyed – both men and women – said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the previous two years, with the most common form, at 38.1%, being verbal in the form of sexual jokes or stories.
These figures shocked and concerned Nguyen, particularly the 4.8% of respondents who said they had experienced rape or attempted rape in their workplace.
In terms of the settings where this harassment takes place, a “work-related party with alcohol” was named as the place where respondents feel most vulnerable. This led WildAct to recommend, among numerous other policy improvements, that organizations “prohibit alcohol during fieldwork, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward pressuring staff, partners, colleagues etc. to drink alcohol during work, or while otherwise representing their employer.”
“Vietnam has this culture of forcing you to drink, even if it’s friends or family,” Nguyen explained. “It’s even worse in working environments because you don’t want to upset your business partner in a senior position.”
Working in the field is a particularly challenging environment when it comes to drinking, as local forest rangers and the conservation organization in question usually have a party before they go into the forest.
“You’re expected to drink, and sometimes it can go for hours,” Nguyen said. “One time it started at 11am and went until 6pm. They really push it, both the rangers and colleagues, saying if you don’t drink, you don’t respect them. And females at these parties are also expected to pour drinks for the men. It’s really disrespectful, as we are colleagues, not servers.”
The Vietnamese government has recognized the deleterious effects of forced drinking, and a new law which came into effect on January 1 of this year actually made it illegal for anyone to force or entice others to drink.
However, as Nguyen notes, enforcement is a major challenge.
In order to build off of the report, WildAct plans to create a network next year for anyone working in conservation in Vietnam that wants to empower women in the sector.
“We’ll have a series of workshops and activities,” Nguyen said. “It won’t just focus on sexual harassment or gender equality, but also on building the capacity of women as well.”
They will also run workshops specifically for men where they won’t be treated as the problem: “I understand that in a lot of cases, men might not know what to do when they see a woman being harassed. So it will empower them and show them what to do if you see someone being verbally or physically harassed.”
Banner image: A small village nestled in the Ha Giang province in Vietnam near the border with China. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.