Weekly Insights and Analysis

In Vietnam: Discrimination Drives Trafficking

June 27, 2007

By Ann Hudock

In Malaysia, rural coffee shops offer Vietnamese brides alongside cups of coffee. In Singapore, a trade show displays a group of eligible young Vietnamese girls behind glass. In Taiwan, three Vietnamese women are put up for auction on e-Bay. In South Korea, five-day marriage tours to Vietnam allow men to choose wives from a line-up of Vietnamese women paraded at a karaoke bar.

And in Vietnam, one of the source countries for this relatively new but growing export, young women’s lives are shattered when these arranged marriages result in trafficking. Women believe they will marry one man only to be handed over to someone else when they go abroad. Or, they are deceived by the brokers who do not meet the terms of the financial agreements. Women end up sold into forced prostitution to pay off the debts to brokers for transportation costs. Since many women initially enter into the arrangements with brokers willingly, they do not recognize that they have been trafficked even when they suffer such abuses.

Brokers recruit poorer women from the Mekong Delta, bringing them to Ho Chi Minh City to meet prospective grooms. But it isn’t just doe-eyed innocents who are mistakenly putting their trust into the hands of increasing numbers of commercial marriage brokers. Educated, financially-better off young women migrate for marriage, hoping to take advantage of Vietnam’s opening borders resulting from the last two decades of political and economic reform.

In spite of Vietnam’s robust growth and women’s long tradition of active participation in the work force, women face considerable discrimination that pushes them to migrate for better opportunities. Unsafe migration leads to trafficking. One of the latest migration patterns to emerge is through arranged marriages, brokered by agents acting on behalf of men from Taiwan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Marriage between Vietnamese women and Korean men increased over the past two years, in part because of simple legal procedures for visas and marriage. The bride requires a certified curriculum vitae and a written agreement from her family in order to get a visa for Korea, and marriage certificates are issued in Korea.

While legitimate and happy marriages between Vietnamese women and Korean men do exist, in April, the Vietnamese press reported several arrests of illicit Korean brokers operating in Vietnam. These reports highlighted the growing number of 18-25 year-old-women falling prey to the brokers’ illegitimate schemes. Women often face degrading and inhumane treatment by brokers who parade them naked in front of prospective grooms and subject them to humiliating physical inspections for scars and evidence of fertility.

The question is why when Vietnam’s own economy grows at a rate of 8.5% per year would women risk so much to seek their fortunes abroad? The answer, quite simply, is that they ” like the foreign men who seek out the Vietnamese brides ” often fail to find what they are looking for at home.

Although social and economic indicators for women in Vietnam are higher than elsewhere in the region, when it comes to employment, Vietnamese women are distinctly disadvantaged compared to men. Women work longer hours for less pay, generally in less prestigious professions with few opportunities for promotion or skill development. Women fill unskilled jobs while men hold the overwhelming majority of leadership positions and higher professional qualified jobs, according to a recent joint United Nations/World Bank Paper. Vietnam’s National Council for the Advancement of Women has documented that women also spend 2.5 times longer than men every day doing housework and bear primary responsibility for care of the sick and elderly.  The “double burden” of work in and outside of the home combined with discrimination in wage and employment opportunities further disadvantages women.

Advertisements for government positions often list higher age limits for men than women. One reason for this is that legally women are forced to retire at 55 while men can work until they are 60. And although Vietnam’s new Law on Gender Equality will come into effect in July, the law fails to address discrimination against women on retirement age, and it remains to be seen how the law will be implemented in practice or whether it will have a meaningful impact on women’s standing in the labor market.

Improving economic prospects for women and ending gender-based discrimination are critical steps to combating the heinous crime of trafficking in women. Preventing migration that results in trafficking requires economic development strategies that link to regional and global development processes and provide women as well as men greater opportunities. Migration is an important option for poor and aspiring people to improve their lives, particularly women who make up almost half of all migrants.  But it is critical that safe migration be made a national priority so that women and other vulnerable groups do not end up as trafficking victims.

Dr. Hudock is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Vietnam.

Related locations: Vietnam
Related programs: Empower Women


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