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Australia Awards Fellow Couple Use Research Results to Advocate for the Disadvantaged

Beginning their career in the mid 80s, when Viet Nam was experiencing a period of hardship before the economic open-door policies, Australia Awards husband and wife Fellows, Dr Le Bach Duong and Dr Khuat Thu Hong, managed to stay true to their love of social research. They would later become well-known public intellectuals who advocate for the rights and well-being of disadvantaged communities in Vietnam.

The couple first went to Australia in October 1990 to attend a three-month research program on population issues at the ANU under an UNFPA fellowship program designed to develop research capacity for Vietnam in the fields of population and family planning.

Hong ANU library Oct 1990

Ms Khuat Thu Hong working at the ANU library in October, 1990.

“Our first impression was the deep blue sky, the forests stretching all the way from Canberra airport to the city and trees blossoming on ANU campus. We took photos of the tall glass buildings, which to us then were “skyscrapers”! But most amazing to us was the ANU library. We had never seen such a large source of materials. We stayed there every day, sometimes even skipping our meals. Our first trip to Australia opened a new world for us, changed us fundamentally, both in our political and social views, lifestyle and working methods,” Hong said.

They would both later go back to Australia on many other occasions including on an Australia Awards Fellowship in 2009, which gave them the opportunity to work on the “Harm Reduction and Stigma Against People with HIV” project with the Nossal Institute for Global Health (Melbourne University), resulting in the published article “Harm Reduction and “Clean Community”: Can Vietnam have both?”(1).

Apart from maintaining contact with their former professors and colleagues in Australia, they currently receive students from Australian universities working as interns at their NGO Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS).

In academic circles, Dr Khuat Thu Hong is most famous for her research on gender, with such international publications as, “Sexual Harassment in Vietnam: A New Term for an Old Phenomenon”(2) or “Gender, Kinship and Agrarian Transitions in Vietnam” (3). She also often appears on the media to talk about sexuality, a taboo subject in Vietnam.

Dr Le Bach Duong, on the other hand, is well-known for his research on important social issues. Similar to his wife, many of his works have been published internationally, including “Facilitating Labor Emigration for Security and Prosperity: The Case of Vietnam”(4) and “Social Protection and Market Reforms in Vietnam”(5).

Ms Hong2

Dr Khuat Thu Hong and Dr Le Bach Duong.

The couple also teamed up in various publications, for example: “From Farmers’ Daughters to Foreign Wives: Marriage, Migration and Gender in the Sending Communities of Vietnam”(6), “Post-Socialist Regime and Challenges to Social Cohesion Structure in Vietnam”(7) and “Transnational Marriage Migration and the East Asian Family Wefare Model: Social Reproduction in Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea”(8).

“We have the luck of doing the same work together, therefore it is easier for us to balance the work and life. We always share everything with each other, both the joy when receiving funding for our studies and the sadness when our proposals failed. We understand the challenges of the research, but we love it, and always share with each other relaxation moments after each project is well completed, or the pressure of finding new fundings, or new learnings of new social theories and their application in Vietnam,” they said.

The two also advocate for the rights of the disadvantaged communities using results of their research. For example, based on the research on discrimination to people living with HIV/AIDS, together with other NGOs, Dr Hong and Dr Duong successfully advocated for the HIV/AIDS Prevention Law 2006 articles which mentioned non-discrimination towards HIV patients.

They and their organization ISDS also participated in the consultations on gender issues for the Gender Equality Law 2006, Law on Domestic Violence Prevention 2007, Land Law 2013 and the revised Civil Code.

Each research project has left them with deep memories. The most memorable was their research on people with disability.

“We met a heavily disabled person. He was an adult but his size was only that of a child. We could not hold back our tears when he talked about his dream of love and sex and of the happiness of social inclusion. Another time, we met a person with mental disability who was locked up by his family in a crib. Our heart was clenched each time we thought of that person lying helplessly at a corner of the crib. Such images urged us to raise our voice together with people with disability to fight for their equality in every area of life,” the couple said.

Doing research on disadvantaged groups presented various challenges, as they explained in their own words.

MsHong

Dr Le Bach Duong and Dr Khuat Thu Hong.

“In a society where there is still gender inequality and stigmas towards people with disability, people living with HIV, the LGBT, drug addicts and sex workers, research on these groups is not easy. First, we had to learn to overcome social influences on our own opinions of these groups, because prejudices would prevent researchers from having unbiased results. The next challenge was how to communicate with the research target groups, so that they understood our work and were cooperative. The last and also biggest challenge was how to ensure research results were accepted and considered meaningful by policy makers and the public and helped to change people’s mindset toward the research target groups, and thus helped to improve the policies towards them.”

They had to fight off prejudices when trying to stand up for the disadvantaged. For example, they were ridiculed when they proposed including references to sexual violence in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Law. Another time, they were suspected to be HIV positive when suggesting non-discrimination towards HIV positive women in the Gender Equality Law. Their motives were also put into question when they did research on gender and sexuality.

“On the other hand, during 30 years working in research, we met many good people and received help and love from people all over the country. Such people inspired us to do our work better,” they said.

“We believe in the purpose of protecting human rights and social equality. And these are the values we both pursue,” they added.

(1) Harm Reduction Journal 9(1):25,July 2012.

(2) Gender practices in contemporary Vietnam. NIAS Press. Singapore, 2004

(3) Land Tenure, Gender and Globalisation: Research and Analysis from Africa, Asia and Latin America, ZUBAAN & IDRC, 2010.

(4)Asia on the Move: Regional Migration and the Role of Civil Society. Japan Center for International Exchange. Tokyo: 2015

(5)Social Protection as Development Policy: Asian Perspectives, Routledge, 2010

(6)Asian Women and Intimate Work, The Intimate and the Public in Asian and Global Perspective, Lieden – Boston: Brill, 2014

(7)Regional Integration and Social Cohesion, Perspective from Developing World, Brussel: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2013

(8)Migration, Gender and Social Justice: Perspectives on Human Security. Springer Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace, Springer, 2013.