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In Vietnam: Women’s Leadership Essential to an Equal Society

October 17, 2007

In Vietnam, women’s status is determined by a complex interaction of social, family, economic, and cultural factors.

In recent years, the Vietnamese government has taken some positive steps to promote gender equality, including supporting policies and programs aimed at increasing women’s participation in public decision-making and political life. While these efforts have been quite successful in increasing the number of women who hold public office, little effort has been made to build capacity of women to be effective once in office. As a result, even when women do manage to enter the political arena, they often find themselves marginalized in the male dominated culture, with real power remaining in the hands of a select group of men.

The newly adopted Gender Equality Law, which went into effect July 1, 2007, is aimed at addressing critical issues of concern to women and reducing gender discrimination in existing laws. It also clearly supports women’s advancement in the formal workforce. It remains unclear, however, what the impact of this progressive law will be on rural women, who although account for 62% of the formal agricultural workforce in rural areas, nonetheless confront entrenched customs and attitudes that perpetuate their marginalization and continue to relegate them to subservient status and roles. Thus, while progress has been made in passing laws and policies intended to benefit women, they are particularly difficult to enforce in rural areas.

Women face an uphill battle in achieving gender equality. Confucian ideology and traditional preference for sons combine to favor boys over girls. Men are considered highly desirable for their social, symbolic and economic value, their role in continuation of the male family line, and the importance of their role in honoring the tradition of ancestor worship. Men have the advantage of being conferred with a powerful “double role”, one as head of household and the other as religious head of household for ancestor worship. Further, inheritance of land and property, as well as associated wealth and power, continue to pass through the eldest son. Many poor families force or “convince” girls to drop out of school early to earn money to support the education of their brothers.

Gender stereotypes that favor males over females are often reinforced in school textbooks and other educational materials. A recent review of the Citizen Education Textbook of 9th Grade, carried out by donors in Vietnam, seemed to illustrate the disparity in the status of women and men. For instance, female characters in the textbook included an unhappy girl who marries early, a girl who engages in premarital sex, a female worker who illegally leaves the job, and a woman who does not repay her debt. In contrast, male characters are depicted in positions of power and leadership, such as a director of enterprise, a head of county ward, an outstanding teacher, a famous scientist and a medical professor, among other notable careers.

Perpetuating negative stereotypes for girls and women has significant ramifications not only for women, but for society as a whole in Vietnam. According to the Population Change and Family Planning Survey in 2004 -2005 conducted by the Committee for Population, Family and Children (which merged with the Ministry of Health in 2006), there are indications that the popularity of choosing to have children on the basis of sex is increasing. Their strong preference for sons combined with the availability of technology to simply and inexpensively detect the sex of the fetus encourages early terminations of female fetuses. Sixty percent of women terminating their pregnancies prematurely are married, and although the data is not conclusive, some sources show increasing gaps in the sex ratio at birth in some provinces and districts. For example, in Ha Tay province the male-to-female birth ratio is 128 males to 100 females (in April 2006, the normal male-to-female birth ratio was 109 males to 100 females). According to this survey, some districts within Ha Tay province — especially in urban centers ” have a ratio as high as 175.5 males to 100 females. In October 2006, the government responded to this alarming trend by issuing a resolution making it illegal to help determine the sex of a fetus or abort it for gender reasons. However, this resolution has not been effectively enforced.

The Gender Equality Law has been instrumental in empowering some Vietnamese women and reducing gender gaps in urban environments. However, enforcement of these laws, in the complexity of long-standing Vietnamese culture and tradition deeply rooted in rural areas, will take time. Essential steps include raising awareness among Vietnamese men of women’s equality and fostering an enabling environment for women to be able to be full participants in political, economic and social life. To counter negative gender stereotypes, women’s leadership must be promoted to enable them to assume positions as elected and appointed leaders at all levels. This must be accompanied by efforts to build their capacity to be effective in their positions. Indeed, women leaders can and must play a key role in achieving gender equality and opening opportunities for future generations of girls and women in Vietnam. More needs to be done to support women leaders, particularly in rural areas.

To Kim Lien is a Program Officer for The Asia Foundation in Vietnam.

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