Countries that embrace gender equality and promote diversity tend to be peaceful and prosperous, while societies that subjugate women are far more likely to be violent and unstable, as countless studies and research have shown. Having equal access to education, diversity in the workforce, and political representation is simply a smart strategy to having a more successful and fulfilled society.
On this Vietnamese Women’s day, let’s celebrate Vietnam’s gender equality achievements.
- Women’s participation in the workforce at 79% is one of the highest in the world, compared with 86% of men, a figure higher than all but three members of the OECD.
- The maternal mortality rate has fallen significantly from 2.23% in the 1990s to 0.58% in 2016.
- Vietnam has high primary school completion rates for both boys and girls.
- Vietnam ranked 25th best place to be a women entrepreneur in the 2020 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs with 26.5% of business owners being female.
- 36% of senior management teams in Vietnam include women, the second highest in Asia.
Vietnam’s Historic Strong Matriarchal Heritage
Women’s rights and access in Vietnam comes from a strong matriarchal heritage. Historically, Vietnamese women were better treated than their counterparts in other comparable Asian cultures, particularly before the introduction of Confucianism. In general, Vietnamese women have always enjoyed a high status in the family household structure, participated in trade and economic activities, and were also active combatants in historic warfare and the fight for independence.
Hai Ba Trung Sisters
This historic celebration of women is hard to miss. Every major city in Vietnam has a street named after the Hai Ba Trung sisters. The Trung sisters are regarded as Vietnamese national heroes for leading an uprising against Chinese rule and establishing a brief autonomous state. Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were born in North Vietnam while it was under the rule of the Chinese Han Empire. Their father was a Vietnamese lord of one of the Han-ruled districts; high-born and accomplished, the two women were in line to inherit his lands and titles. The elder sister, Trung Trac’s husband, Thi Sach, was assassinated for plotting to overthrow the Chinese by the Chinese General, Su Ding, known for his cruelty and tyranny.
Trung Trac then took it upon herself to assume leadership of the movement. Joined by her sister Trung Nhi, the two of them gathered an army of 80,000 people, most of whom were women. Under the Trung sisters' leadership, this Vietnamese force remarkably managed to overthrow the Chinese overlords in 65 citadels. For a brief period of three years, the sisters ruled over a small Vietnamese nation, before it was once again conquered by the Chinese.
This brief interlude of independence in the thousand year rule by the Chinese is said to have formed the bedrock of resistance and Vietnamese spirit against Chinese, French, Japanese, American domination - without which there would be no Vietnamese nation today.
The Cultural Value of Women
This compelling narrative of female achievement in Vietnam is an explanation of why women have played an important role in Vietnamese society for centuries. In turn, this is at times misleadingly used to imply that gender equality has been achieved in Vietnam. While in fact, according to Confucian thinking, merchants and traders were considered lowly professions; thus women were allowed to engage in economic trade while men engaged in more noble pursuits. This meant women were responsible both for earning income for the families and being the primary caretaker of young and old dependents (viec cua dan ba). Due to a long history of constant warfare, Vietnam had to mobilise women. While included in the ranks, women were often relegated to less formal units and less important roles. This nuanced view of the historical context allows us to appreciate the fact that while women have always been valued in Vietnamese culture, we too have to acknowledge the historic discrimination.
Efforts Towards Gender Equality in Vietnam
Socialist Policies and the Vietnam War
Decolonisation and the Second Indochina War (1956 to 1975) set the stage for modern gender equality norms in Vietnam. Even in Vietnam’s Constitution of 1946, it is stated that women and men are equal. With the partition of Vietnam into North and South Vietnam in 1954, the Communist Party of Vietnam focused on nation building, industrial development, and supporting the war efforts. Thus, the Communist ideology of equality and the necessity of women in the workforce drove women’s rights. Laws such as the 1960 Marriage and Family Law were passed, which banned forced marriage, child marriage, wife beating, and concubinage. While the Women’s Union encouraged women to join the industrial and agricultural workforces in support of formal quotas of all workplaces requiring at least 35% female participation.
Milestone Legislature Protecting Women’s Rights
Since reunification, legal and social infrastructure aimed at improving women’s rights continued apace along with efforts from the International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Women, civil society, non-profit organisations, and individuals.
The Vietnamese government has made significant and notable progress in promoting gender equality. The Constitution, the Civil Code, and the Penal Code all have provisions that protect the equality between genders. Legislative milestones include the 2000 Marriage and Family Law that affirmed women’s equal right to property, the Law of Gender Equality (2006) and the Law on Prevention and Control of Domestic Violence (2007).
The Value of Education
A special focus on access to education, and subsequently workforce participation has also fostered improvements in gender rights. Since 2008, the Vietnamese government has been spending 20% of the national budget on education. Intrinsically part of Confucian thinking, education is valued highly by Vietnamese parents. Vietnamese households contribute a high proportion of total education spending, higher than the OECD average. This focus on education in turn increases the quality of Vietnam’s human capital and women’s participation in the workplace. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), ‘out of the total women who are active on the labour market, 10% have completed tertiary education, while the share for young men is 5%. The share of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is currently 37%, and growing’.
Room for Improvement
Gender bias, from birth and throughout a lifetime, continues to persist in Vietnam, exacerbated by income levels, urban-rural differences, sanitation and healthcare access, and belonging to different ethnic groups. UNICEF noted the sex ratio at birth shows a preference for boys (112 boys to 100 girls) from 2016 data, particularly in rural areas of Vietnam. Female students, especially ethnic minorities, still have a greater challenge accessing and completing education, particularly after primary school. Vietnamese women then have limited access to formal employment, and make up a disproportionate 69% of those in vulnerable employment in 2012. In marriage, 3 in 5 women experience some form of domestic violence from their intimate partner, according to UN Women. The ILO reported that on average, women spend twice as many hours on unpaid household work than men, while facing similar working hours outside the home, making it difficult for women to advance in their careers.
COVID-19 Impact Unfairly Shouldered by Women
The impact of COVID-19 has been felt by the entire country, but has been unfairly shouldered by women, making the playing field even more unequal, as documented in a report by USAID. Women have taken up the lion’s share of household work and family obligations resulting from stay-home orders. A significantly higher proportion of women, compared with men, reported exhaustion from domestic duties, resulting in reduced physical health during COVID-19. Employers, knowing the unpaid obligations women have, are even more reluctant to hire them or promote them into managerial positions. Vietnam’s gender digital divide, whereby women are less likely to own a smartphone and to use the internet, twined with COVID-19 social distancing regulations, have meant that women’s access to information, networking opportunities, and building technical skills are even more restricted.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only further limited the opportunities and access that women have. Throwing light on these issues, as well as recognising the divide between legislature and ground realities, gives us the chance to bridge the gap and do better by women. This is the spirit behind the Vietnamese Women’s Day that is celebrated annually on 20th October.
Vietnamese Women’s Day - 20th October
Vietnam has a nationally designated day to celebrate women in addition to International Women’s Day every 8th March. On 20th October 1930, the Vietnamese women’s group against imperialism was created - the organisation that eventually became the Women’s Union. In celebration of women and in acknowledgement of the role in nation building, 20th October has been selected as the Vietnamese Women’s Day.
People in Vietnam celebrate this day typically by giving women flowers or gifts. We are marking this special occasion by spotlighting three remarkable Vietnamese women.
Linh Thai - Investor and Entrepreneur
Perhaps best known as Shark Linh on Vietnam’s Shark Tank, Linh Thai is an astute investor, entrepreneur, and mentor with over 20 years of experience in finance, operations and communication. Linh’s prior roles include being the CEO of VinGroup Ventures, a corporate venture capital fund; Head of Strategy and Operations at VinaCapital, one of the leading asset managers in Vietnam; and Director of Investments at DFJ VinaCapital, one of Vietnam’s first venture capital funds. While she was at VinGroup Ventures, Linh led the charge investing in firms that help improve the lives of people in Vietnam with the US$100 million fund.
Linh’s interest in growing businesses in and for Vietnam extends to her own entrepreneurial clothing line Rita Phil, which brings highly skilled Vietnamese custom tailoring to online customers, mostly from the US and Australia. Innovating the change from a production-line to a production-team model, Rita Phil produces high-quality slow fashion pieces while paying their team better wages. With bespoke tailoring, Rita Phil has eliminated the problem of fit while online shopping, reducing waste and changing the landscape of fashion.
Nguyen Thi Thu Trang - Conservationist and Author
Nguyen Thi Thu Trang was honoured as one of BBC’s 100 Women in 2019 - an annual list that asked what the future would look like if it were driven by women. Trang was also included in Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2020. One of the most inspiring women, Trang is known for her environmental advocacy. Growing up in Vietnam, Trang saw monkeys chained up for sale on streets and bears held for bile extraction, and she was determined to change the situation. To combat such actions, Trang obtained a PhD in Biodiversity Management and founded WildAct, a non-profit organisation that helps authorities monitor illegal wildlife markets. In 2018, WildAct launched Vietnam's first-ever master's course in combating illegal wildlife trade to help train the next generation of conservationists. Recently, Trang has written two children’s non-fiction books on wildlife conservation. The books are illustrated by Jeet Zdung, who mixes traditional Vietnamese art with manga. The first book ‘Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear’ was published in September 2021, and the next is due in 2022.
H’hen Nie - Top 5 Miss Universe 2018 and Ethnic Minority Champion
H’hen Nie was born and raised in Sut M’Dung Village, in the central highland province of Dak Lak, in the Ede ethnic minority group. In 2017, H’hen won the Miss Vietnam crown, the first Miss Universe from an ethnic minority background; she then went on to be part of the Top 5 of Miss Universe 2018, the first Vietnamese contestant to do so. H’hen made a splash with the audience with her articulate interview answers and for not fitting into the beauty mould of past winners. With her then-short cropped hair, darker skin, and different upbringing, H’hen defied traditional Vietnamese beauty standards. Many Vietnamese women and ethnic minorities celebrated this as a personal win. H’hen donated most of her winnings to provide education scholarships, build community houses, preserve Ede people’s art of handwriting, and provide fresh water and electricity to Sut M’Dung village. H’hen noted that it was very important for disadvantaged ethnic minority girls to continue their studies, saying to VNExpress that ‘my mum did not force me to get married early so I had the opportunity to go further on my career path’. H’hen continues to use her platform to champion ethnic minority welfare and improve living standards.
‘As long as I have my voice, I am still alive.’
We end off with a quote from poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s international bestselling novel ‘The Mountains Sing’, where a grandmother tells her granddaughter their family’s history intertwined with the history of the Vietnam War - a story of hope, endurance, and the strength of women. Throughout Vietnam’s history, Vietnamese women have played an invaluable role and displayed incredible fortitude. Today, hurdles are still in place preventing many girls and women from reaching their full potential.
This Vietnamese Women’s Day, let us embrace Vietnamese women and their voices, listen to them, amplify them, support them. Ensuring gender equality to self-determinism, access, and mobility on all aspects is the only way forward.