WOMEN IN VIETNAM: TRADITIONAL VIEWS, ADVANCES AND ABUSE

WOMEN IN VIETNAM

Vietnamese women make up 50.8 percent of Vietnam's population and some 50 percent of the country's workforce according to the National Committee for the Advancement of Women. Life expectancy is 73 years for Vietnamese women, compared with 71 years for men, the committee said, noting also that each local woman has 2.1 children, lower than the average rate of 2.7 in Southeast Asia. [Source: Xinhua, December 16, 2005]

Women are arguably given more respect in Vietnam than in other countries. Vietnam was once a matriarchy and there are large number of great women heros. Women played a big role in the Vietnam War. They served as combat soldiers and did a lot of the work on the communes, in factories and at home while men were away fighting. Plays and dramas in Vietnam often feature women who stayed loyal to male soldiers while they were fighting. Some Vietnamese women have held high positions of authority. Nguyen Thi. Bình was a Vietnamese communist leader who negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference on behalf of the Viet Cong.

Despite the cultural emphasis on obedience in women, women were not regarded as the weaker sex but as resilient and strongwilled . In the village, women assumed a great deal of responsibility for cultivation of paddy fields, often working harder than men, and sometimes engaged in retail trade of all kinds. A few women owned agricultural estates, factories, and other businesses, and both urban and rural women typically managed the family income. A woman's influence in family affairs could be increased by giving birth to a first male child. In general, though, a woman was expected to be dutiful and respectful toward her husband and his parents, to care for him and his children, and to perform household duties. There were no women in public life. [Source: Library of Congress]

Although the Vietnamese adopted the Confucian principle of male superiority, they still granted women some rights. Except for some restrictions concerning properties reserved for ancestor worship, daughters shared in the inheritance of parental properties on the same basis as their brothers. Divorced women and widows who remarried after their husband’s death remained the owners of properties acquired during their marriage. The full and complete equality of Vietnamese women was enshrined in the first Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam of 1946: "Women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres." The 1980 Constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women in all respects, although a resolution passed by the Council of Ministers in December 1984 highlighted problems involved in promoting female status. Women are still a minority at the executive level. On the other hand, Vietnam has an official matriarchal heritage. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology ]

The middle and upper class ethnic Vietnamese women wear the Ao Dai which is a slenderizing formfitting outer garment that extends from its choke-throat collar to below the knees with long sleeves and slit on either side to the waist. It is worn over a pair of pajama-type bottoms with shoes being either sandals or closed shoes as desired. The lovely pastel color combinations and their light graceful movements combined with well groomed hair and countenance make many Vietnamese women quite attractive.

The traditional garment of ethnic Vietnamese women is the Ao Dai, a slenderizing formfitting outer garment that extends from its choke-throat collar to below the knees with long sleeves and slit on either side to the waist. It is worn over a pair of pajama-type bottoms with shoes being either sandals or closed shoes as desired. According to U.S. Army manual from the 1960s: "The lovely pastel color combinations and their light graceful movements combined with well groomed hair and countenance make many Vietnamese women quite attractive. Their skillful ability to ride bicycles, motor scooters, etc., so gracefully creates an amazement in most Westerners. In the cities many women are becoming educated and capable of performing technical tasks required in a changing society. Yet many of their attitudes are still largely moulded by traditions hundreds of years old."

See Separate Article MEN, GENDER ROLES AND FAMILIES IN VIETNAM

Traditional Views of Women in Vietnam

In the old days, Vietnamese women used to paint their teeth black after they were married. If a woman reached the age of 18 with her teeth still white she was considered something of an old maid and people said she'd probably have a difficult time finding a husband.

Vietnamese women live by the "four virtues": hard work, beauty, refined speech and excellent conduct. A traditional Vietnamese woman is governed by three basic Confucian tenets: 1) She should submit to her father; 2) She should obey her husband; and 3) If widowed, she should obey her eldest son. Children are not regarded as having rights. Daughters are expected to assist with household chores from an early age; to defer to men; to protect their virginity; and to regard marriage as automatic. Family members are expected to work and behave for the good of the group.

In traditional Vietnamese patriarchal society, woman had limited rights and took a secondary place in family. Brought up according to a strict discipline, they have traditionally been less educated than men and usually did not enter the job market outside the home. "Girls from birth were at a disadvantage". Daughters were not considered necessary to carry on the family lineage. The traditional Vietnamese viewpoint was "If you have a son, you can say you have a descendent. But you cannot say so even if you have ten daughters". [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^^]

Traditional Roles of Women in Vietnam

Vietnamese women have traditionally been in charge of running the household and controlling the family finances. The woman of the house is referred to as nôi tuong, "General of the Interior." She looks after her in-laws as well as her parents, husband and children. In rural areas, women also do much agricultural work.

After marriage, a woman has traditionally become housewife and mother. She has been expected to be dependent upon her husband, budget his income for the household, take care of children and even grandchildren, and perform all household tasks. According to Muzny, divorce was legal but not common. A wife in an unhappy marriage was discouraged from seeking divorce; rather her family encouraged her to sacrifice and to endure the difficulties of the marriage for the sake of her children. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^^]

With the numerous cultures and societies in Vietnam, attitudes toward women and their status fluctuate widely. The farming or village class woman works at hard labor just as does the man. Wearing black pajama bottoms and a short blouse topped by a conical hat of palm leaf with or without its plastic cover she may be seen at hard work everywhere, be it the rice field, the cane patch, the market place or along the streets. Often she is the business-head of the family and operates any financial endeavor which it undertakes. Such a business may be a small store, a mobile sidewalk cafeteria, etc. She is not normally a pedicab operator or a fisherman at sea, although she is often a fishmonger or peddler. Among the Viet Cong she is known to be a crafty and hardy warrior. Some Vietnamese government women have been similarly acclaimed. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Confucius taught that the young woman is subject to paternal authority; as a wife, subject to her husband; and as a widow, to her eldest son. While this may be the theory and outward affectation, the fact is that women play a vital role even though it is obscure. The man may be the head of the house, but the skillful and perceptive wife understands enough practical psychology to have her ideas followed most of the time. Many Vietnamese legends attest to this. When children are small and the husband dies, the widow becomes the head of the household; she performs ancestral worship until the eldest son is old enough to assume this function; she handles property etc. If, however, she remarries, all of her authority over her children and of her husband's property is lost. ++

Communism and Women in Vietnam

Communism brought improvement for women by reducing early forced marriages, publicly condemning wife-beating, providing free childcare, and recognizing the economic value of housework. Legislation, together with women’s prolonged contribution to the war effort, assisted in dismantling the absolute authority of the Confucian "three submissions." But with doi moi, it seems that the Communist Party has withdrawn from social engineering. Membership figures indicate that the Party is losing women’s support, with a drop in membership from 34 percent women in 1960 to only 16 percent in the late 1990s. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

According to Ha Thi Que, president of the Vietnam Women's Union in the early 1980s, popularizing family reform was extremely difficult, even in 1980, because women lacked a feminist consciousness and men resisted passively. To promote equality of the sexes, members of the women's union took an active part in a consciousness-raising campaign under the slogan, "As good in running society as running the home, women must be the equals of men." Such campaigns resulted in a fairer division of labor between husbands and wives and in the decline of customs and practices based on belief in women's inferiority. [Source: Library of Congress]

Most women enjoy the rediscovered freedom of wearing nice and individual clothes and putting on make-up. In the heydays of Communist rule, these fashions were badly received, as this newspaper excerpt shows: "You young people, I know you need make-up to be beautiful ... but you should also keep the Vietnamese manner; simplicity, purity and wholesomeness are beauty. It is advisable not to imitate the alien "styles" imported from the European capitalist counties, and you see, these styles could really reflect only the lowly liking and crazy, carefree and pessimistic moods. A girl living in such a wholesome social situation as you are in now is advised not to wear such a queer and carefree hairstyle. And such thin, tight and revealing clothes as you are wearing now, in our North, all the decent, cultured women have never cared to wear." (Vietnamese Woman No. 293, May 1972:6) \*/

Vietnamese Women Warriors and the Vietnam War

Among the famous historical figures in Vietnamese history are the Trung Sisters. They lead a peasant army against the Chinese in A.D. 39 after one of the sister's husband, a high-ranking Vietnamese lord, was executed by the Chinese. The sisters initially prevailed: the Chinese governor was forced to flee and the three sisters proclaimed themselves queens. In A.D. 43, the Chinese returned and defeated the Vietnamese. Rather than surrender the sisters committed suicide together by leaping into the Hat Giang River. Almost every town has a street named after the Trung sisters. Lady Au Co, the Vietnamese Joan of Arc of Vietnam, is commonly featured on village woodcuts riding a war elephant into battle.

According to David E. Jones in his book "Women Warriors." A unit of markswomen supporting the South Vietnamese government had a policy of wounding Viet Cong fighters with a single shot, then beating them to death with their rifle butts to save bullets. Ming Khai, an anti-French Vietnamese fighter in the 1940s, wrote a poem in blood on her prison cell wall. The last lines were: "The sword is my child, the gun is my husband." [Source: Mark Jacob, Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2007]

North Vietnam put together one of the largest female armies the world has ever known. They were put to work carrying supplies, working as spies and informers, worked in hospitals and doing manual labor but some distinguished themselves as fierce fighters and killers. These women went on patrols with men, did sniper duty, manned anti-aircraft guns and endured all the same hardships that men did. [Source: David Lamb, Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2003 **]

More than a million Vietnamese women fought against the French in the 1950s and the United States in the 1960s and 70s. In the Vietnam War more than 40 percent of the region commanders were women. Most of the fighters were young and single. They were often in the same units with men. One former fighter told the Los Angeles Times, "We lived and slept together but did not touch. I don’t know of a single pregnancy in our unit. We thirsted for love, but only in our hearts." **

There was no shortage of commitment and enthusiasm to supporting the North Vietnamese side. One fighter told the Los Angeles Times, "I weighed 35 kilos when I went to enlist, and the army said I was too small. I told them, I would throw myself off the bridge and commit suicide if they didn’t take me. Finally, they said OK." Unfortunately for these women, many were not regarded as marriageable material after the war was over. Many Vietnamese thought the diseases and physical hardships they endured in the war would make it difficult for them to bear children or be good mothers.

Typical Northern Tribal Women and Their Life

Ta Thu Giang wrote in the Viet Nam News, Carrying a bamboo basket on her back braced by a wire tied round her forehead full of farming products, while hanging a three-month-old baby at the breast ,Hanhi ethnic minority woman LyXe Ho quickens her steps toward the local market, despite the path-way being nearly invisible due to dense fog in the highland commune of Y Ty in the northern mountain province of Lao Cai. After walking for about 3km, Ho reaches the fair at 5am. It may be early, but she is one of the latest traders to arrive. She quickly ar-ranges her produce including beet, sweet tomato and vegetables on the ground and moves her newborn to her back before covering him with a piece of nylon. The baby still sleeps, he seems to be well acquainted with the cold weather and noise. The market opens every Saturday morning. It stretches across about 500 square meters, with only a fifth covered by roofing. It looks like a small street market in an urban area, with about 20 stalls displaying farming products and home essentials on the ground. Ho cannot speak Vietnamese, but it doesn’t matter to her as Kinh majority Vietnamese customers can barter and trade with her by sign language. [Source: Ta Thu Giang, Viet Nam News, March 12-25, 2010 +++]

"Speaking to the Viet Nam News through an interpreter, Ho says she works six days a week while waiting for the market."I can sell my products for money or exchange food for other goods. The market is the only place for me to meet and talk to people," says Ho. However, Ho says she is handicapped by not being able to speak Vietnamese. She has never travelled beyond her commune because she cannot understand what people are saying."That is why I try my best todo the domestic chores to en-sure my children can continue studying," says Ho. Ho, 29, married young and now has five children. The eldest is in 6th grade and the youngest is just three months old. Although she has given birth five times, she still looks young."Building a house is the most important thing in life. My husband and I have our own house. We have both girls and boys. That is enough," says Ho. +++

"Smiles seem to be the only way many Hanhi people can greet visitors, especially women, as most annot speak Vietnamese, but there are several people that can speak the majority Vietnamese language, including heads of the village or communal officials .Children are an exception. Ly Mo Xa, whose house is next to Ho’s, says he has two sisters. All are studying at local schools. "My parents said to me that I needed to learn words that would help me earn money more easily in the future. I don’t know how to earn money with such words but I obey my parents and believe what they say is right," says Xa."My teacher told me that we local children can study at a higher level until we cannot follow it. If we are talented, we would have the opportunity to go out of the commune to study in a big city."Through his teacher’s lesson, Xa says he can imagine cities full of light at night and cars and motor-bikes on the road, however, his parents believe that graduating from senior secondary school is enough for him."In my village, finishing high school study is a source of pride for a family," says Xa who is studying 8th grade at Y Ty Junior Secondary School. According to the head of the village, Sanbo Gio, all the children in the village go to school, and almost all of them have finished their grade. Xa wants to be a doctor in the future, treating local villagers. It is too soon to say if he can turn his dream into reality, but he has a dream that the older generation never would have considered. As for Ho, travelling beyond the commune is something incredible to imagine, but for Xa it will be a normal thing in the future, a future that promises brighter opportunities. +++

"New" Vietnamese Middle-Class Woman

The Encyclopedia of Sexuality reported that since the economic reforms in the 1980s "Vietnam has witnessed a dramatic change in the images of women. The globalization process has drawn many urban women into the commercial sphere, as consumers of products as well as models with which to advertise products. Nevertheless, the images of the women visible in the streets remain contradictory. The communist ideal for women was equality with men, to be achieved through the demise of private property and women’s domestic role. Interestingly, women were also highly praised by the Communist Party as freedom fighters and war heroes; however, they are underrepresented in the political hierarchy. Female members of the National Assembly and of the Vietnamese Communist Central Committee do exist, but they represent an infinitesimal portion of the whole, and exercise almost no real decision-making power. The Politburo has never had a female member. , and the female representation in the National Assembly began to decline immediately after the war from 27 percent in 1976, to 22 percent in 1981, and to 18 percent in 1987 (Fahey 1998). By 1992, the proportion had increased only marginally, but it was expected to decline as the quota that required proportional female representation of 18 percent was eliminated before the last election. Such data suggest that the recent changes in women’s position may have less to do with economic renovation as such, and more to do with restoration of certain aspects of pre-war gender practices. However, as Vietnamese women told Fahey (1998), they regard the decline in representation as irrelevant, because the National Assembly is losing authority and ambitious women can use their time more productively in private enterprise. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology /*\ ]

On the other hand, Vietnamese women are flooded with more and more Western images of how up-to-date women live. Beauty contests, fashion clubs, and magazines exert the strongest influence. Fahey (1998) reported that fashion clubs appeared in the early 1990s, with members including fashion designers, models, and companies eager to establish a fashion industry. The first modeling agency, CATD, begun by a young overseas Vietnamese woman, was licensed in Vietnam in 1995. Vietnam now has two locally produced fashion magazines: one for women in general (Thoi Trang) and the other for younger women (Thoi Trang Tre). Another magazine called Thoi Trang Dien Anh (Movie Fashion) reproduces sections from international fashion magazines, including French and American fashions, and appears to be more popular in the South. These magazines also have small sections for men, perhaps indicating that the commercialization of beauty is not entirely limited to women. Most newspapers now have a women’s section that covers topics from how to pluck eyebrows to Japanese-sponsored parades. /*\

A popular activity for middle-class women, especially those with substantial independent incomes, is attending the gym before work. The membership fee is about US$10 per month or 5 to 10 percent of these women’s monthly income. Interviews with these women reveal that they attend them both for social interaction and to improve their body shape. Although they are conscious of maintaining a shapely body, and coyly admit this, they inevitably refer to both inner and outer beauty when asked open-ended questions about the definition of a beautiful woman. /*\

Vietnamese Women Doing It For Themselves

Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Dinh Thanh Lam wrote in the Asia Times, "Drop by evening business classes, a dance or fitness center in Vietnam, and you are likely to come across large numbers of single women. While this may be nothing unusual in many other countries, in Vietnam it is one among many signs that of the changes in society that have set-in during doi moi (economic regeneration) that began in the 1980s. Today, it is no longer rare for women to decide to remain single to pursue their careers or even to break up with their husbands, without any fear of "what people will say". In the past, middle-aged single women were as scarce as hen's teeth. Anybody pushing 20 was expected to soon do her "matrimonial and familial duties", before the old folks started wondering whether something was "not quite right". [Source: Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, Asia Times, March 8, 2001 \\\\]

"But the great economic and cultural changes in Vietnam do not mean single women have broken all the old perceptions of what they should be. "My parents and neighbors ask me all the time why I do not want to get married though I am a nice girl," said Tran Thi Thu, a 30-something who works for a company with foreign investment funds. "The question does not upset me, but the tone does. It is as if nothing else I've achieved in my life is worth anything if I am not married," she added. The same thing happened to Le Thi Thuy Tien, a business development executive for a joint venture in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. Even though her parents and friends keep telling her that she is "close to the edge" at 28, Tien says she does not view it as a problem. This is the age when traditional thinking says a Vietnamese woman has to be married, lest she be thought of having "something wrong" with her mind or body. \\\\

"I love my job and still love being single," she says, adding she will remain so unless she finds the right partner. "I dedicated most of my time to my work and studies in my field, they are the two great interests of my life." She is among the 100 educated women who said in a recent survey that they had no intention to get married yet, with 30 of them affirming they would stay single. The latest General Statistics Office (GSO) data shows that the period at which a Vietnamese woman is considered to be ready for marriage has definitely shifted. The peak time for it now ranges from 25 to 30, when just a few years back it was between about 18 to 23. Social scientists attribute this to factors ranging from the "more progressive and free attitudes" both toward and among women, to the inevitable pressures of industrialization. GSO estimates that 8 percent of all director and deputy director positions in state companies in Vietnam are held by women. They also hold 18 percent of provincial company director positions. Journalism, marketing and tourism are the careers that have the highest number of single women, government data show. Being always on the move for their work, many say they have no time for courting and dating. "For me, marriage is not the first priority," says a 29-year-old reporter. "For an uneducated girl, marriage may be the only thing she has in her whole life but I have a great deal to do other than think about marriage." \\\\

Many educated women find men of their age too young and "not mature enough", and would like to have for a husband "not just a man to rely on financially, but emotionally", Thuy Tien said. Thuy Tien herself got married this year to a businessman five years older than her. Though her husband still encourages her to pursue her career, she admits that she has not enough time to fulfill her dream. "I am sacrificing my own ambitions," she says, "like millions of Vietnamese women." But Ngo Thi Bich Van, a 32-year-old executive at the Ho Chi Minh City Foreign Bank, says: "A career is a big part in a life of a modern woman and there is no reason to give up your desires to follow a husband's rules." Her former husband, a trading company director, had wanted her to stay home after they got married. "A wife should spend the rest of their waking hours doing housework, looking after children and waiting for their husbands to come home," she recalls him saying. "We like clever and independent women, but we do not want to get married with them. Clever and independent women at work are okay, but having such a wife at home is not a good choice," he had added. After several quarrels between husband and wife, Van decided to seek a divorce. Looking back, Hanoi-based sociologist Le Thi Quy says: "While ancient ideals and concepts continue to influence people's thinking about women, the real lives of women have changed profoundly." \\\\

The rigid taboo against divorce has crumbled. By 1996, the most recent statistics available, 44,000 divorces were granted and half that number were initiated by women. "People look at divorce now with a more forgiving eye," explains Quy. "They are beginning to understand that personal happiness is one important element of a marriage." But a recent Ho Chi Minh survey undertaken by the Phu Nu (Women) newspaper partly attributes the rising divorce rate to the increasing preoccupation among Vietnamese with careers and making money. "We're earning a lot of money, but we don't have enough time to talk and share troubles with each other," says Nguyen Thi Dao, owner of a jewelry shop at An Dong market here. When she found out that her husband took her money and gave it to another woman, she decided to end the marriage. Now 40 and the mother of two children, she decided to lead an independent life. That was also the choice of 37-year-old Do Thi Luu. Tired of being left alone at home by her husband who spends after-work hours drinking beer with friends and colleagues, she decided to have her own good time. She renewed ties with her old friends, including those who remained single or split from their husbands, and formed a group that frequented fitness clubs, karaoke parlors and other places of entertainment. After some time, Luu asked for a divorce. "Women should not be considered second class," she says. \\\\

Vietnam’s Women’s Union and Women’s Issues in Vietnam

The Women’s Union, a national organization of over 11 million members and 7,000 employees, has shifted from an organization responsible for protecting women’s rights to an implementation agency for programs of immunization, family planning, credit, and nutrition education for international funding organizations. Branches of organizations like the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor have a long history, with the responsibility of lobbying for women’s rights and conflict resolution. Although they have generated some information on women’s position, more recently they have been co-opted by international organizations for the administration of aid and have lost much of their lobbying role. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

Fahey (1998) points out that, for political reasons, the social science research by Vietnamese scholars largely plays down the importance of amle-female divisions other than those stemming from Confucianism or the cult of the ancestors cutting across the nature of the family-like class and regional differences. Research is concentrated rather on politically relevant issues, like female employment, access to birth control, and prostitution and other so-called "social evils," like drug addiction, alcoholism, and gambling. Concerns with no immediate policy relevance, such as the commodification of women, have hardly been considered as yet. But in 1996, a very interesting survey was conducted by the Hanoi Institute of Sociology in cooperation with the Population Council to gain understanding of the participants’ views toward sexuality and sexual activity, including differences across the pre-doi moi and doi moi-era generation (Khuat Thu Hong 1998).

According to a 2002 United Nations report Vietnamese women earn less than men and work longer hours. They are denied equal access to land, education and jobs. The BBC reported: A United Nations report on gender issues in Vietnam said "found that more than 60 percent of men with the HIV Aids virus failed to use condoms with their wives. The report also reveals that despite protections for women in Vietnam's laws they are denied equal access to land, education and jobs. They work longer hours than men for less pay and on less food. Since 1990, more than 10,000 women and children have been sold into the sex industry. The government's adviser on women, Tran Thi Mai Huong, says there has been a surge in trafficking which the authorities have been trying to address. She says Vietnam needs to shift its approach from seeing inequity as a women's issue and to get gender issues considered at all levels of society and policy making. The report also outlines the progress Vietnam has made towards a more equal society. The Communist dominated parliament has one of Asia's highest rates of female membership, at 27 percent. Child health is improving and, with the exception of Vietnam's 10 million ethnic minority people, boys and girls have equal access to primary education. [Source: BBC News Service - October 22, 2002]

In February 2007, the United Nations’s Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—or CEDAW— voiced concerns over trafficking in women and girls, as well as an increase in HIV-AIDS infections among women. The committee also expressed concern about the concentration of women in the informal economy, an issue rights activists have flagged as well. Women account for 80 percent of the work force in the textile and garment industry, which is characterized by low wages and unsafe working conditions [Source: Bojana Stoparic, Women's e-news, February 15, 2007 <<>>]

A report by Penelope Faulkner, vice president of Action for Democracy in Vietnam, a human rights group based in Paris, estimates that tens of thousands of women and girls have been trafficked for sexual exploitation to neighboring countries, as well as from rural areas to urban centers within Vietnam. Often these women, lacking education and employment opportunities, are tricked by the promise of jobs or a better life. There is evidence that some government officials are either directly or indirectly involved with the sex trade. In 2001, the ministry of social affairs announced that 70 percent of the men caught with prostitutes were Communist Party members. "A woman who is a victim of some sort of abuse, who can she complain to when there is corruption at every level?" asked Faulkner. "If there are no independent structures, no rule of law, no independent judiciary, then there can be no guarantee of women's rights." <<>>

The story of Nguyen Thi Gam, a retired 65-year-old woman from the Quang Ninh province in northeast Vietnam, is highlighted in Action for Democracy's report to the U.N. Thi Gam has spent the past six years living, sleeping and protesting in a park opposite the government complaints office in Hanoi, the country's capital. She was left homeless and destitute after her ex-husband struck a deal with corrupt local officials to get compensation for her land, which was being reclaimed by the government for a new highway project. After local authorities offered no help, Gam joined the hundreds of other women who have been denied their rights to land and who gather daily in Mai Xuan Thuong Park to protest the abuses. But the women can expect little from Hanoi, which in 2005 passed a law banning demonstrations in front of government buildings. They have been beaten by police, arrested and detained in rehabilitation centers the government set up for prostitutes, street children and other "bad social elements." <<>>

Equality for Women Has a Long Way to Go in Vietnam

In 2000, Huw Watkin wrote in the South China Morning Post, "The killing of a young man by a gang of jealous youths has again shown that Vietnam's constitutional guarantee of equality between the sexes is little more than rhetoric. Doan Van Tham, 23, drowned after being beaten unconscious by seven men in the village of Trai Nui, 50 kilometers northeast of Hanoi. [Source: Huw Watkin, South China Morning Post, March 25, 2000]

According to the People's Police newspaper, Tham had gone to Trai Nui from his own village at the request of his cousin, Hoang Van Thang, who wanted to propose to a woman in Trai Nui. But as is the case in many parts of Vietnam, the males of Trai Nui see women as chattels. They ambushed the interlopers and justified their actions as "protecting Trai Nui's women". Such attitudes are not unusual, with reports often detailing locals beating outside suitors, particularly in the country's conservative north. The possessive attitude of Vietnamese men is not much better in the cities.

Women who marry foreigners are often vilified by strangers in the street and are forced to quit if they work for the Government. Even in Vietnamese marriages, capable and ambitious young woman find themselves shackled by chauvinistic attitudes. "Some women are stuck in an impasse when they are longing for advancement in society and at the same time functioning as standard mothers and wives," said Tran Thi Kim Xuyen, of the University of Social Sciences.

According to Ms Xuyen, so strong are the prevailing attitudes - which among other things define a single woman over 30 as aberrant - that many women who qualify for post-graduate studies choose not to enrol. Ha Thi Khiet, of the Women's Union, hopes to see real gender equality by 2010 to stop the female "brain drain". She recognises the difficulty but says it is essential for more prosperity. "It's universally proven that investing in women means investing in future generations and the socio-economic development of a country," she said.

Wife Selling and Human Trafficking in Vietnam

Market reforms in Vietnam have brought back the practice of prostitution and selling women. Some girls and young women have been kidnaped and taken to China and sold as brides and prostitutes. The Wall Street Journal described 22-woman who was offered a job at a candy factory. When she showed up for work she was abducted and taken across the border to China and sold to a farmer for $350. The initial kidnapper get paid around $100 with remainder going to the brokers. Other women have been sold to brothels.

In 2001, Associated Press reported: “About 10,400 Vietnamese women have been sold to China to be wives of Chinese men or to work as maids or prostitutes, a state-controlled newspaper reported on Monday. Of the total, 1,829 women have escaped back to Vietnam with 200 children fathered by Chinese, the Nong Thon Ngay Nay (Countryside Today) newspaper quoted a Ministry of Public Security report as saying. [Source: Associated Press, May 14, 2001 *-*]

“Since normalization, there has been increased trade as well as visits by villagers across the border. Men in southern China who have difficulty marrying local women have looked to Vietnam for wives. Vietnamese wives are also popular among Taiwanese men and Vietnamese Americans. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, more than 10,000 Vietnamese women have married foreigners in the past few years, officials say. Most of the foreign grooms are Taiwanese or Vietnamese Americans. Vietnamese police have broken up several women trafficking rings in recent years. *-*

See Human Trafficking, Human Rights, See Marriage to Foreigners. Bride Shortage, See China.

Abuse of Women and Domestic Violence in Vietnam

Domestic violence against women is common. A 2010 UN report found that 58 percent of married women had been victims of physical, sexual, or emotional domestic violence. Domestic violence cases were treated as civil ones, unless the victim suffered injuries involving more than 11 percent of her body. According to the government, sexual harassment of adults is not illegal, and there is no legal requirement to prevent it. There also is no law to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to the U.S. Department of State: The law prohibits using or threatening violence against women or taking advantage of a person who cannot act in self-defense. It also criminalizes rape, including spousal rape. Rapists are subject to two to seven years’ imprisonment. In severe cases of rape, including organized rape, a repeat offense, or extreme harm to the victim, sentences may range from seven to 15 years in prison. Authorities reportedly prosecuted rape cases to the full extent of the law, but the government did not make arrest, prosecution, conviction, and punishment statistics available. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

In 2002, the BBC reported: "A United Nations report on gender issues in Vietnam said violence against women is widespread and includes neglect, verbal abuse, beatings and forced sex. Much of the blame is placed on the gender stereotypes which keep women and men in prescribed roles and which maintain an unequal power balance between them. The figures on attitudes to violence, which are already shocking readers of the report, come from a study by the Vietnam Women's Union. Men blame alcohol or temper for their violence, while their partners, in the tradition of stoic Vietnamese womanhood, accept it as normal. Another, smaller study found that almost all men and most women questioned believed it was acceptable for a man to abuse his wife. [Source: BBC News Service - October 22, 2002]

One study quoted by the United Nations reported that 80 percent of Vietnamese women have experienced some form of violence. In 2009, Minh Huong wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Nguyen Thi Thuy, director of the Peaceful House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Hanoi, said victims from eight to 75 years old seeked support at the shelter. The house has already consulted more than 1,200 victims in the first 10 months of this year, which is an increase of 130 percent from the total number of victims in 2008. Chau, an official from UNFPA, said if many people did not know about the law, then domestic violence against women would continue to be widespread. [Source: Minh Huong, Viet Nam News, November 25, 2009 ==]

Pamela LaBorde, MD wrote: "Domestic abuse exists in all cultures. However, it is important to know that Vietnamese women in the U.S. may be less likely to report abuse to authorities or even discuss it with friends. Marital conflicts and domestic violence are considered to be intensely private family matters. Any perception of wrongdoings brings embarrassment and shame to the entire family, not just a given individual. To compound matters, women are traditionally considered to be responsible for maintaining the harmony in the home, so if marital conflict does arise it may be viewed as the fault of the woman (Shiu-Thornton, Senturia, & Sullivan, 2005). [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed ethnomed.org/culture/vietnamese <+>]

According to a report in the Phu Nu Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh newspaper, more than two-thirds of suicide victims were females whose sense of worthlessness was heightened by the criticism and extreme demands of other family members. For the most part rural Vietnam remains conservative. Women are responsible for about 70 percent of economic output, but have fewer educational opportunities and lower social status than men. [Source: The South China Morning Post, January 2, 2001]

See Acid Attacks Under Crime

Confucianism Undercut New Laws to Protect Women

In 2009, Minh Huong wrote in the Viet Nam News, "The anti-domestic violence law went into in 2008, but many couple confess that they do not care to abide by the law. The country had built laws and actively taken part in international conventions to protect women from domestic violence, said lawyer Le Thi Ngan Giang, who helped compile the statute. However, Giang admitted that Confucian culture, which teaches women to depend on and obey men, had been in practice for thousands of years and still had a strong influence on society now. [Source: Minh Huong, Viet Nam News, November 25, 2009 ==]

"Nguyen Hoang Nguyen, who works for the FPT corporation in Hanoi, said a majority of men were very rude to women, therefore their wives should know how to treat their husband. Nguyen said that men preferred and loved gentle women, and so women should not be rude. If they argued with men with bad words, then they would not only be scolded but beaten also. "I feel sorry when my wife cries," said Nguyen, but he admitted that he would never forgive her if she talked back. "If the wife does not listen to her husband, then what kind of the family is that." Nguyen said that he, along with many men, did not care about the law. Under Article 2 of the law, disparaging remarks against women are also considered offences against women. However, Nguyen thought scolding women, even with the most vulgar words, was not violence. ==

Nguyen Thi Lan, 39, from Hai Phong earns tens of millions of dong per month and supports her entire family, which includes her unemployed husband. Although Lan’s husband is unproductive, he continues to scold her with bad words. Lan was aware of the new law, but said: "It is my fate, no law can help. I cannot call the police every day when he says dirty words to me because he never beats me." "I wish I had a husband that loved and treated me good but I don’t." She added that she would be crazy to divorce him for this reason. ==

"Many women are in this situation but keep it a secret. They will continue to suffer for the rest of their life." Instead, the woman assumed that her husband had some kind of mental disease that needs to be cured. "There are so many women and men that share the same thoughts about this issue," said Do Thi Minh Chau, an official from the United Nations Population Fund. Chau said in order to further educate people about this issue, they were working with the Voice of Viet Nam radio to broadcast "Desire to Live." The show has 104 episodes about domestic violence and will be broadcast so that even women and men in remote areas of Viet Nam will be able to access. =

"Lawyer Le Thi Ngan Giang said it was difficult to appraise the effectiveness of the law after one year. Most of the cases were not solved because of the weak co-operation between functional agencies. Andrienne Reilly, an expert on the issue, said there was a gap between the law and reality in every country in the world, therefore it would take more time for the law to have an effect in Viet Nam. Representatives from the women’s union in Hanoi suggested the Government to issue heavier punishments against offenders. ==

Women in Government in Vietnam

About a third of the legislators in Vietnam’s National Assembly are women. Women serve in high level positions in government, including vice president, but arguably are still denied access to real power centers in the Vietnamese government. In 2007, the number of women elected to the Vietnamese legislature was 127, five percent short of the target.

In December 2005, Xinhua reported: "The women members in the National Assembly of Vietnam has increased to 27.31 percent of the total in the 2002-2007 tenure from 17.8 percent in the 1987-1992 tenure, a local women committee told Xinhua Friday. "Besides having a woman vice president, we have many women holding important positions. Now, women make up 12.5 percent of total ministers and positions equivalent to ministers. For the vice ministers and similar positions, the percentage is some 11,"said the country's National Committee for the Advancement of Women. [Source: Xinhua - December 16, 2005 <<<<]

"Under the National Strategy on the Advancement of Women approved by the government in 2002, Vietnam targeted, by 2010,to reduce the urban unemployment rate among women to below 5 percent, increase the percentage of women post graduates to over 35, and raising the proportion of women in boards of governors of state agencies, political organizations, and political-social organizations at both central and local level to 50 percent. <<<<

The Encyclopedia of Sexuality reported that since the economic reforms in the 1980s "Women were also highly praised by the Communist Party as freedom fighters and war heroes; however, they are underrepresented in the political hierarchy. Female members of the National Assembly and of the Vietnamese Communist Central Committee do exist, but they represent an infinitesimal portion of the whole, and exercise almost no real decision-making power. The Politburo has never had a female member, and the female representation in the National Assembly began to decline immediately after the war from 27 percent in 1976, to 22 percent in 1981, and to 18 percent in 1987 (Fahey 1998). By 1992, the proportion had increased only marginally, but it was expected to decline as the quota that required proportional female representation of 18 percent was eliminated before the last election. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

Working Women in Vietnam

Women serve in high level positions in business and women get same pay as men in government. But you can’t say women are equal to men in the Vietnamese work place. Many working women in Vietnam do low-paying factory work. Women account for 80 percent of the work force in the textile and garment industry, which has become one of Vietnam's primary export areas, said Penelope Faulkner, vice president of Action for Democracy in Vietnam, a human rights group based in Paris. However, the pressure to keep prices low and stay competitive in the global market has suppressed wages and created unsafe working conditions, according to Faulkner. [Source: Bojana Stoparic, Women's e-news, February 15, 2007]

In their paper, "Missing Girls in Vietnam: Is High Tech Sexism an Emerging Reality?, Gita Sabharwal and Than Thi Thien Huong wrote: "Women in Vietnam have historically been economically empowered. They have a long tradition of participating actively in the labor force. This is reflected in the high levels of women’s work participation rate, which are identical to men. Rates of underemployment also appear to be similar and declining for men and women. In fact, women in Vietnam are expected to be gainfully employed. According to the World Values Survey (2001) 97 percent believed that both husband and wife should contribute to household income and be productive members of society. [Source: "Missing Girls in Vietnam: Is High Tech Sexism an Emerging Reality?" by Gita Sabharwal and Than Thi Thien Huong ]

See Labor

Discrimination Against Working Women in Vietnam

In their paper, "Missing Girls in Vietnam: Is High Tech Sexism an Emerging Reality?, Gita Sabharwal and Than Thi Thien Huong wrote: "Despite women’s economic empowerment they continue to be disadvantaged and discriminated against in the economic and social spheres of life. This reflects Amartya Sen’s analysis about gender inequality not being one homogeneous phenomenon. Vietnam has different faces of gender inequalities some of which are deeply entrenched and with evidence of new forms of gender inequality emerging. [Source: "Missing Girls in Vietnam: Is High Tech Sexism an Emerging Reality?" by Gita Sabharwal and Than Thi Thien Huong /:\]

“Though women have taken advantage of the new opportunities generated by the process of transition and broad based growth, they have done so on disadvantageous terms. There are persistent inequalities in returns to labor between men and women. According to 2002 Vietnam Household Living Standard Survey (VHLSS), women’s average monthly wage is 85 percent of men’s. In agriculture the corresponding figure is 66 percent and in industry 78 percent. While gender inequalities in returns to labor reflect a combination of factors including differences in educational attainment, skills and work experience there is the angle of discrimination which is deeply entrenched and calls for further examination. /:\

“Analysis suggests that women are also discriminated against specifically while seeking employment in sectors believed to be men’s forte like information technology, oil and gas, chemical, etc. Similarly, sex segregation in the labor market is to some extent due to job recruitment and promotion practices. Government and the private sector reinforce these gender stereotypes. For example, an analysis of Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper advertisements in the first quarter of 2000 indicated that a fourth of the jobs advertised specified only male candidates. Similarly, a Ministry of Health advertisement states bluntly that women and men can apply for pharmacist jobs but that women must have "excellent" university degree while men needed only "average" or "higher level". Such gender biased advertisements are a reflection of labor segregation and actively promote gender discrimination in the labor market. /:\

“Women also work longer hours. Women’s work load analysis suggests in rural Vietnam, women put in six to eight hours more which typically involves domestic work and contributions to the care economy. In urban Vietnam, women put in 2.5 hours more than men performing household work. Men regard household work including cooking, taking care of children and the elderly or sick as women’s responsibility with a very small proportions of men willing to share domestic work. Thus the burden of hardship falls disproportionately on women. This is the other face of inequality in gender relations within the family. /:\

“Gender relations have not changed much over the past years. Traditional Confucian norms and belief continue to form the overarching framework which defines gender relationship within the household and the society at large in Vietnam. Patriarchal value system tends to sit along side economic well being and high levels of women’s literacy. This combined with technological access is resulting in new forms of gender inequality as evidenced by declining sex ratio. /:\

Proper Work for Women

In their paper, "Missing Girls in Vietnam: “According to the Confucian cultural norms, women in pre-revolutionary Vietnam were supposed to have little or no authority in any sphere-political, economic, educational, or familial. There were no women in the "council of notables" that governed the village, nor were they part of the village political community that met in the communal hall. Because a woman was always incorporated within a family and subject to male authority within the family, a woman’s economic management and enterprise was always subject to male control and therefore not "real" authority. [Source: "Missing Girls in Vietnam: Is High Tech Sexism an Emerging Reality?" by Gita Sabharwal and Than Thi Thien Huong /:\]

“Under Communist rule a new social role for women in the countryside has opened up: co giao, "Miss Teacher," who teaches her pupils norms and behaviors, which may conflict with those of the parents. Vietnamese studies cite with approval cases where rural students admonish their parents on the grounds that "Miss Teacher would not like it," "it" being, for example, not boiling water before drinking, or quarreling. However, women’s present leading role in primary-level education, as well as in health, is conceptualized as an extension of women’s traditional role in the family: teaching children and caring for the sick. /:\

“As Pelzer White (1987) further points out, women are seen as making good cooperative accountants only as an extension of their traditional role as the keeper of the household budget. On the other hand, young men would never be allowed to train for careers as caretakers of very young children and infants. Only during the war was there a policy, expressed in a 1967 law, to promote women to leading positions in the countryside. The percentage of women acting as cooperative chairmen and other management posts shot up. After demobilization, however, the roles changed again. Even today, women face hostility from their husbands, and especially from their mother-in-laws, if they have higher status jobs. /:\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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