The phone rings all day inside the small room at 35 Tran Phu street in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh district.
Le Thi Mai Quyen, an answering operator who has spent seven years fielding calls made from all over the country to the number 18001567 — the child protection hotline — said she could not remember how many phone calls she has received, how many people she has aided.
“We are very happy because we can help in many cases, but we are still very sad due to many cases in which children need help but they do not know the phone number to make a phone call,” Quyen told the Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi) newspaper. “Many cases let me think a lot,” she said.
Quyen said that she had recently received a phone from a 15 year-old girl in Dong Nai province. The girl told Quyen that she fell in love with an elder man through Facebook. After chatting online for a month, they had sex but the man stopped their relationship after that, causing her to panic and lose confidence in the future.
The girl phoned the centre that operates the hotline for advice on how to keep the man, instead of denouncing him for abusing her. Quyen said she was very surprised and saddened by the situation. But later the girl overcame the psychological crisis thanks to the advices of the centre, she said.
“This is just one of the hundreds of children affected by the social network that we have supported. This shows the increased number of children who fall in love, have sex early and live in virtual world," said Quyen.
Helping young people cope with the fallout from relationships or dangerous situations that begin on Facebook is a new challenge for a years-old programme. Since 2004, Vietnam has used the free-of-charge hotline to advise and support children, receiving over 2.5 million calls from across the country.
In 2004, the centre had only five employees with five phones running 14 hours per day. The number of staff, experts and counselors has increased to over 20, and they work round-the-clock, Nguyen Cong Hieu, deputy director of the Centre for Consultation and Communication Services of the Child Care and Protection Department under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA), told the Tuoi Tre (Young) newspaper.
Nguyen Thuan Hai, manager of the hotline, said that since the beginning of the year, the centre has received more than 2,000 calls from people seeking to learn more about the legal framework for protecting children or to report child sex abuse, exploitation or trafficking, or to discuss study stress, sadness or depression in family when the parents divorced.
In case of emergency, the information is classified and reported immediately to the local police and authorities for timely preventive measures, Hieu said.
For high-risk cases, operators will prepare documents and transfer them to the local relevant agencies for support, he said.
Children account for 70% of the callers. Sixty-five percent of them are from cities.
Calls related to physical abuse or hardship accounted over 53% of the total, mental health problems accounted for nearly 32%; reproductive health for 9.6%. Three percent of the calls were for other issues, Hieu said.
Though the hotline has connected some children with lifesaving resources, many cases have not been detected and handled quickly due to a lack of human resources, coordination between competent local agencies or families’ desire for privacy.
But since the Child Law came into effect on June 1, hotline staff hoped the new regulations would comprehensively improve the enforcement of children’s rights, said Dang Hoa Nam, head of the Child Care and Protection Department.
The Child Law was built to provide a legal foundation for children’s rights in Vietnam and to ensure the enforcement of children’s rights in accordance with the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children.
It has also created a firm legal foundation to improve the efficiency of preventing, controlling, detecting and handling child abuse.
The law provides regulations ensuring various children’s entitlements, such as the right to privacy, the right to live with parents, the right to be adopted and the right to be protected from abuse, including violence, sexual harassment, labour exploitation, abandonment and kidnapping.
Localities must assign staff to receive and handle information about children, Nam said.
And to make it easy to remember and respond in case of an emergency, a new helpline, 111, has been set up and is expected to become operational in December.
The current 18001567 line will still be maintained, running parallel with 111, alongside other emergency numbers, such as 113, 114 and 115. The current hotline staff will carry on their work at the new number.
"In the short term, we cannot give up the old number, but we will stop their transmission to focus on 111," Hieu said, adding that the function of 111 is similar to the number 18001567.
There will be three consulting centres in the cities of Hanoi and Da Nang, and An Giang province when the hotline comes into operation.
The Hanoi call centre connects and handles consultations for 28 provinces and cities in the north, while Da Nang handles calls from 16 provinces in the central and the Central Highlands, and An Giang serves 19 provinces and cities in the southeast.
Hieu said not many people knew about the line 18001567 due to the long number and lack of effort to publicise it. Putting the phone number on book covers, notebooks, pens or dairy products would also help make the hotline known, Hieu said.