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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Lao Student’s Viral Story Sparks Discussion on Sexual Harassment, Victim Support

This Week

Sexual harassment has been an increasingly pressing issue across the world, yet it often fades from public discourse. This is also the case in Laos, where social media users argue that the authorities’ response has been inadequate, leaving victims without sufficient support despite ongoing public awareness efforts.

According to several interviewees and social media users, cases of sexual harassment in Laos often go unnoticed or are not effectively tackled. 

The most recent case involved a 15-year-old boy, who assaulted and murdered a 13-year-old girl on 25 June in Champasack Province. According to Champasack Public Security, the teenager initiated his plan around 8 am when he sexually harassed the victim before killing her, local media reported.

Although the boy has been arrested, the authorities have not reported the punishment he will receive. This has led the public to question the effectiveness of the law, fearing that the boy may be released and the case may go silent—a practice that many online believe is widespread in Laos

According to Section 248 of Laos’s Criminal Law, rape can result in 4-6 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to LAK 30 million (USD 1,360). If the victim is under 18, the punishment increases to 6-10 year jail term and a fine of up to LAK 50 million (USD 2,267).

But some residents call for stringent punishments for such cases. 

“Engaging in sexual activities with minors should result in a life sentence. But here, if you have enough money, you can always pay yourself out of the trouble,” a Facebook user commented on the overall situation in Laos

The frustration with the legal system is echoed by others who have experienced similar issues first-hand.

“I was once attacked by my ex husband. Even after reporting my case to both the village chief and the district governor, it all went nowhere. So, I’ve been living this nightmare ever since,” another Facebook user wrote.

On the flip side, some victims of sexual harassment choose to fight injustice by being vocal not only within their communities but also on social media

Former Lao Student Flees After Alleged Sexual Assault by National Assembly Member

One such case is the story of Nanthida “Nesxy” Phoummichit, a former French language student at the National University of Laos. She fled to Thailand in June after sharing her experience on social media and immediately going viral. Nanthida recounted being sexually harassed by a government official, who later confessed in a Messenger text screenshot and published on Facebook by Nesxy herself. 

Nanthida stated that the assault occurred on 10 April while she was working as an assistant for Vietnamese officials during the meeting of the Commission for Economic, Social, and Environmental Affairs in Luang Prabang. Around 10 pm, the man broke into her hotel room and attempted to engage in forced sexual activities with her. However, she managed to fend off the attacker and avoid further harm, she told in a Facebook post

A few months after the incident, Nanthida sought help from her teachers, the hotel, authorities, and the Lao Women’s Union but claimed their responses were inadequate. Fearing retaliation from her assailant, she eventually fled the country.

“I am sad and disappointed that people around me started to keep their distance from me,” Nesxy told the Laotian Times, describing the reactions of others after she shared her story online. “Nobody tried to help, understand, or lend me any support at all. Even the other students who were with me during my work assignment in Luang Prabang.”

Despite feeling to have received minimal support from both the people around her as the authorities, Nanthida continued to seek help by reaching out to several international human rights organizations. When asked about the measures or support Laos could provide to victims of sexual harassment, Nesxy emphasized the need for greater understanding and effective response from authorities.

“They should not blame victims for not speaking up immediately after the incident. It doesn’t matter how early or late you tell; the fact remains that you were sexually harassed,” she said. 

Nesxy further explained that she feared people wouldn’t believe her and would accuse her of fabricating the story. Additionally, she wasn’t ready to come forward until she had gathered sufficient information and evidence.

Nesxy emphasized that her assailant should be punished according to the law. 

Her story has sparked significant discussion on social media, prompting Lao media pages and prominent individuals like Miss International Queen Laos 2022 Minladar Aengmany, Maxar Yathortouyongkaiy Xiengkhouang’s Top 18 Miss Universe Laos 2024, and Phaimany Lathsabanthao Miss Universe Laos 2023, to post about  the issue of sexual harassment in the country. They have emphasized the insufficient support for victims’ mental health and the lack of updates on the offenders’ status.

Former Hotel Waitress Shares Harrowing Encounter with Hotel Staff

While no latest updates were shared on Nanthida’s case her story has inspired other victims of sexual harassment to come forward and share their experiences. 

One of these women is Nixa Haifong, who recounted how she was violated by Wei Zheng, a Chinese staff member at Athens Hotel in Vientiane Capital, in August 2021 when she worked as a waitress at the hotel.

Nixa recounted that the incident occurred while she was delivering breakfast to Zheng’s room. Upon opening the door, Zheng claimed he hadn’t ordered the meal but then grabbed her arm and “attempted to rape” her. Nixa managed to escape and shared her experience in a Facebook post.

After reporting the incident, the hotel offered her LAK 1 million (USD 47) as compensation, which she declined, according to her.

“I have attempted to report the case on all levels, from my village all the way up to the province level, but nothing has come to fruition,” Nixa said.

“The incident has haunted me to this day,” she added, encouraging other women who may be victims of violence or sexual harassment to come out and speak up, acknowledging that Lao women have gone through similar experiences but remain silent due to fear of family and societal rejections.

Nixa’s case reinforces the belief among Lao people that sexual assault cases in the country are often handled quietly rather than being pursued through legal channels.

Laos,  Regional Hotlines Provide Support for Sexual Harassment Victims

Despite several unresolved cases of alleged sexual harassment, Laos offers measures to support individuals who have been violated. Two main hotlines, operated by the Women’s Union and Lao 1362, provide 24/7 consultations. For medical assistance, residents can contact the Health Assistance Hotline at 1527, which also operates 24/7.

Currently, the Women’s Union consultation centers are available in Vientiane Capital, Luang Namtha, Savannakhet, and Xieng Khouang. For the residents of districts without a center, support can be accessed by making a phone call.

Meanwhile, across the region, hotlines available for individuals who experience sexual abuse to seek immediate assistance, including guidance on steps to take to ensure the safety of the victim.

In Thailand, victims of sexual harassment can reach out to the Royal Thai Police by calling 191 or the Tourist Police at 1155. For emergency medical assistance, dial 1669, and for social support, contact the Social Assistance Centre at 1300.

It is recommended that visiting a hospital for medical care and support should be the first step to take, as hospitals are better equipped with resources like rape kits and medical examinations. Government hospitals offer One Stop Crisis Centres (OSCC) that provide comprehensive support, including medical, legal, and social welfare assistance.

Making a police report is a personal choice and should not be done under pressure. While a police daily report can serve as a record, it does not automatically initiate a criminal case unless explicitly requested. The Domestic Violence Victim Protection Act allows reports at any police station, but it’s often recommended to report within the area where the incident occurred for more effective legal action. 

The statute of limitations for domestic violence cases is three months, but rape cases have a 20-year limit, with specific exceptions for spousal rape and private indecent assaults.

Cambodia offers two main helplines for victims of sexual abuse. The TPO Cambodia Suicide Prevention Helpline provides free, confidential support for issues including abuse, domestic violence, anxiety, bullying, depression, family issues, loneliness, parenting, relationships, school and work stress, self-harm, sexual abuse, stress, suicidal thoughts, and grief. Trained counselors offer empathetic support and collaborate on finding solutions.

Child Helpline Cambodia addresses children’s concerns, such as school, reproductive health, sexuality, trafficking, hard labor, online exploitation, abuse, and violence.

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