TACOMA, Washington — After its 2015 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations acknowledged the concerning issue of gender inequality and violations of women’s rights in Vietnam. Although women and men are equal under the letter of the law, there are still many glaring disparities in practice. Women are generally well regarded in Vietnamese society, but in veneration, stereotypes emerge that only serve to hinder more than half of the country’s population.
Poverty and Gender Inequality
Poverty continues to be the primary factor adversely affecting women’s rights and quality of life in Vietnam. The country struggles as a hotbed for human trafficking in Southeast Asia, especially in underserved rural communities such as Lao Cai. Women living in this mountainous northern province are often the victims of heinous human rights violations, particularly in violent trafficking and sexual exploitation crimes. Living in these low-income high-illiteracy communities paint targets on young women as potential black market commodities shipped out to other Asian countries as sex workers or wives. In response to these human rights issues, organizations like UNICEF are looking into community-based solutions where victims can find resources and assistance organically in their social circles. Organizations like the Cao Loc women’s club aim to provide support to former victims and raise awareness for policies and protections to curb such harmful impediments to women’s rights in Vietnam in the future.
Gender Equality Legislation
An Oxfam report reiterated the importance of women’s rights in Vietnam at the forefront of the country’s political discussion. In its 2017 findings, Oxfam notes that “high levels of inequality reduce social mobility, leaving the poorest more likely to remain poor for generations.” The organization suggests that freeing up women’s time must be a key objective of government spending moving forward. Specifically, the Oxfam report highlighted troublingly rising trends of unpaid care work preoccupying women in poverty.
In terms of reform, the Vietnamese government has committed to many guarantees regarding women’s rights but does not have measurable results to show for it. According to the Global Gender Gap, which indexes 149 countries’ progress toward gender parity, while women in Vietnam fare well in the economic sector, their involvement in national politics, higher education and overall health trends leave much to be desired. As President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Karim Lahidji laments, “Vietnam has made extensive legal commitments to guarantee women’s rights on paper but has taken no steps to enforce or protect them in practice. Thirty-three years after Vietnam’s ratification of CEDAW, Vietnamese women and girls are still relegated to the status of second class human beings.”
Challenges to Gender Equality
Among the many obstacles to substantial reform in women’s rights in Vietnam are the persistent patriarchal attitudes and normative stereotypes regarding gender roles and responsibilities. The U.N. Committee noted that the presence of such bias in media, education and its perpetuation in the nation’s mainstream consciousness would have far-reaching consequences for the country’s future.
Of particular concern is how media bias continues to hamper women’s educational, economic and political opportunities. Media representation is a significant roadblock hindering women’s rights in Vietnam and severely limits leadership opportunities for women. According to Oxfam, mainstream Vietnamese news media set aside “pet topics” for female sources where their feminity was supposedly needed, such as elderly issues, children/ family and women’s rights. On the other end, such female voices were mostly absent in correspondence in areas that often weighed more heavily on the government’s administration, such as national security, foreign relations, economics, science and technology. Such marked exclusion of women from primetime news and political commentary has cultivated a public consciousness without prominent female voices. Captive audiences may believe that women do not have the authority nor qualify to be in positions of power in the national media spotlight.
Perhaps more troubling are well-known concerns that media representation is pigeonholing women into following an impossible set of standards. Female leaders must juggle both traditional responsibilities as family matriarchs and their roles as businesswomen to be considered successful. Simultaneously, media outlets report any deviance or dereliction from fulfilling both duties as negative indictments on their savvy and leadership acumen. The double standard is primarily perpetrated by mainstream Vietnamese journalism, which acknowledges that gender equality is still little more than an idea in the workplace and readily touts and reinforces narratives that prop up only men as having values congruent with leadership.
Education and Gender Inequality
The Vietnamese government recognizes that it faces an uphill battle. While most of its energetic population is literate, there are many small, underserved pockets throughout the country that contend with high illiteracy rates. Moreover, while national attendance rates are in primary school, chronic absenteeism issues begin to manifest more frequently as women get older, especially among those of minority ethnicities. Dr. Le Quoc Phuong, the Deputy Director-General of Vietnam Industry and Trade Information Center, says such troubling trends indicate Vietnam’s pervasive societal attitudes toward gender and education. The doctor argues that there are still many areas where women must first tend to the home rather than to their learning and futures.
Instead of sending young women to school, Dr. Phuong is concerned that many impoverished families send their girls to fetch water and perform household duties instead. This attitude reinforces a cycle of poverty not easily broken, especially as women without access to education are also most likely to lack the representation to change their current predicaments. In other words, they cannot express what they need because they are uninvolved in the male-dominated decision-making process. As Dr. Phuong suggests, “Such lack of representation and lack of schooling might be one factor of poverty, but poverty simultaneously limits children’s access to education, which makes them unqualified for well-paying jobs, thus remaining poor.”
Programs to Improve Women Empowerment in Vietnam
The Vietnamese Women’s Union (VWU) is working to help women secure positions in Vietnam’s various government branches. Originally founded during the country’s toppling of French colonialism, the VWU has helped thousands of women living in poverty rebuild and reintegrate into the workforce following the Vietnam War. The VWU has developed partnerships with banks to provide microloans to women living in poverty so they can pursue higher education and vocational training programs. The union has set lofty goals, eyeing significant increases in female representatives occupying seats in the country’s legislative bodies, but such outcomes, in reality, remain elusive.
Education continues to be a source of hope for women’s rights in Vietnam and one the country is banking on to take them into the 21st-century global market. In terms of education, women are making meaningful strides in Vietnam. The literacy rate among women is 93%, which is nearly commensurate with the country’s overall literacy rate of 95%. Women earn almost half of the undergraduate degrees granted by Vietnamese universities. However, enrollment, retention and completion rates for women in master’s and Ph.D. programs continue to be a work in progress.
The benefits of diversity and women in STEM fields are well-documented, and there are several organizations with boots on the ground that are working to leverage more opportunities in STEM fields for Vietnamese women. Nonprofit programs like BUILD-IT are hosting conventions in Vietnam, developing innovation initiatives, raising scholarship funds and providing networking opportunities to further women’s STEM contributions. BUILD-IT also attempts to establish collaborations between universities and private businesses so that women enrolled in their STEM programs can gain hands-on experience in their fields.
The Vietnamese government has also partnered with the UNESCO Malala Fund for Girls’ Right to Education to develop the Gender Equality and Girls’ Education Initiative in Vietnam, a program invested in providing women with a platform to raise awareness and fight for their rights. The initiative offers crucial leadership training and lobbies for gender equality in curriculum mapping and educational program development.
Fighting for Gender Equality in Vietnam
The fight for equal rights for women in Vietnam today is at a crossroads. Confronted with the CEDAW committee’s finding, Vietnamese government officials claim that any shortcomings are temporary delays due to financial constraints. In contrast, the evaluatory committee argues that the real roadblock to women’s rights in Vietnam may lie in the governing party’s lack of political will. In any case, much work lies ahead as the country grapples with how best to make its plans for women’s rights in Vietnam into measurable realities.
– Andrew Giang