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Breaking the silence: Sex abuse laid bare by Australian artist in Vietnam

In every encounter, Hiratsuka Niki is cheerful, with her sparkling eyes, childlike voice and caring demeanour.

On her project’s Facebook page, “1001 Portraits of the Goddess”, young people have praised, thanked and encouraged the 32-year-old Australian artist for her recent water color portraits of sexual abuse survivors in Vietnam. The realistic, humble paintings depict strong women wearing the traditional ao dai, each with their favorite flower pinned on their collars, as well as ethnic women in vivid traditional dresses.  

Hiratsuka Niki was a victim of sexual abuse as a child herself, and her project is inspiring thousands of Vietnamese women to speak out.

In Vietnam, at least 1,300 cases of sexual violence against children are reported each year, according to the United Nations. A report in 2014 by ActionAid also found that 87 percent of women in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City had been sexually harassed at least once.

In 2016, researchers at the Institute for Social Development Studies concluded that social prejudices against women and blaming the victims themselves had silenced most cases of sexual violence, especially if the victims belonged to vulnerable groups such as migrant women, people with disabilities, sex workers and people with HIV.

To speak up in this country takes courage.

“I think there are layers of difficulties for Vietnamese women”, Niki told VnExpress International. “Virginity value, the face of the families, the widely recommended virtue to bear a burden and not make a big deal out of it.”

“It’s also a taboo in Australia, but here it really takes someone special,” the artist said.

After her childhood trauma, Niki experienced anxiety, fear and difficulties doing anything normal. She first spoke publicly about her childhood story at her solo exhibition last September in Sydney, which later drew a moved audience to come up to her and encourage her to do a portrait project.

“I kinda refer to some superhuman qualities within these women to step up on a social level and share their stories,” said Niki, explaining her “Goddess” concept. “It’s rare because you don’t actually see a lot of people standing up and sharing this. That’s the biggest challenge of my project.”

Having lived in Vietnam from 2009 to 2010, the artist was appalled by the real challenge when she came back to Vietnam to start her project this year. Roommates, friends and acquaintances simply told her to brush off the idea.

“There’s no way any Vietnamese women will share their stories with you,” said a friend, Niki recalled.

Encouraged by the first portrait, Niki knew the silence could be broken. The second woman, Lynn Nguyen, messaged the artist on Facebook after the first story. Lynn then inspired the third, fourth and fifth “Goddess” to follow.

“Niki was very gentle and nice and mindful,” Lynn told VnExpress International. “When we met up, she made sure there was nobody but me and her. I never felt that safe in my life.”

Niki has found 12 “Goddesses” in Vietnam and completed six portraits. From NGOs to acquaintances, and online fans to couchsurfing, the artist has discovered brave voices in the most unexpected places.

This December, Niki will exhibit her portraits at the Vietnam Women’s Museum. Almost halfway into her mission in Vietnam, the artist is eager to complete the rest of her project, even though it means creating 1,001 portraits.

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