As a 108-year-old global event, it's well known and respected, at least in most modern and progressive cultures – but how much has it aided women's lives in Vietnam?
Vietnam celebrates the value that women add to their culture twice. As part of the movement highlighting women's issues on March 8th and then later on October 20th celebrating the nation's women in a softer fashion, a little like Valentine's Day although on both occasions feminine achievements in science, culture, education and other contributions, charity work for example, are awarded.
All good and well, I suppose, but are the local lasses better off yet? Vietnam has been pretty good on the legal front with the 2007 Law on the Prevention and Control on Domestic Violence, which has been upgraded twice to include more robust definitions of violence to aid prosecutions. However, domestic violence is still a very serious issue, often hidden behind family dynamics and the common local perception by men that it's all right to belt a woman to 'keep her in line'. Many Vietnamese men I've spoken to are surprised that it's considered a bad thing.
Like so much of this nation – attitudes and behaviors are going to take a long time to modify and a lot of this depends on an education system still struggling to upgrade itself to the demands of the twenty-first century vs the traditional ways that are still enforced in local communities and households. I suspect that this and the next generation, through education and changing social attitudes, thanks to social media, TV and local training, will learn to give women more respect.
The 2006 Law on Gender Equality has also helped women gain entitlements in the workplace and ownership to land and businesses as well. Yet that's only half the story. The gender pay imbalance is still every bit as bad as some Western countries despite Vietnam having one of the highest rates of participation in the workforce. In the informal work sector – working from home, small businesses (not to mention all the little street stalls!) women actually outnumber men but sadly earn about half of male incomes. Keep in mind that the gender pay difference is even worse in a number of other Southeast Asian countries so the fact that there's any improvement in Vietnam should be a positive thing.
There are hundreds of projects operating across the nation to alleviate and improve female lives. The UN, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank fund a huge amount. A lot of these projects are organized by the Vietnam Women's Union, founded in 1930.
As part of this year's celebrations, the union is planning a campaign: 'safety year for women and children focusing on educational efforts in the areas of school, family, work, social networks, food safety and hygiene'. The Ministry of Public Security also pledged to assist in the enforcement of the laws protecting women and children as part of the union's project, particularly domestic violence and human trafficking.
The union also hosts the annual Kovalevskaya Award, which honors scientific achievements over the past year. Both events kick off just before March 8th to gain media awareness ahead of the main events which are largely ceremonial.
An intriguing project I discovered by accident from a Facebook comment is a local one in Hoi An (where I live) involving waste management disposal and giving jobs to poor local women, including supplying bicycles and equipment. Funded out of a United Nations small project grants fund and operated with the help of the Hoi An Women's Union, the project has reduced the waste by 70% to the local landfills by sorting out recyclables and other waste. It might not seem like much but this again is yet another example of locals helping locals.
It's estimated that if women could fully participate the world economy in all countries, it would create a mindboggling 16 trillion dollars in newly created global wealth. Equally, although less acknowledged, are all those unpaid contributions to our lives by women – mothers, carers, bread-winners and the support they give communities. All our lives depend on the women around us.
There's a lot I haven't covered in this story – the 'MeToo' issues, women's health, educational access (especially higher education), ethnic women and lots more – still that means lots more to discuss and write about. So even if I've skimmed over a lot, these issues won't be ignored, by me or others.
Also I'd like to acknowledge the work of the foreign women in the Quang Nam area who also contribute to the women (and kids) of Vietnam. Jackie Wrafter at The Kianh Foundation, Tanya Carmont and others at SwimVietnam, Mai McCann at Hearing and Beyond (deaf kids), Linda Burn at Children’s Education Foundation and Karen Leonard at Lifestart.
So on this coming Women's Day, ladies everywhere, I salute your cleverness, bravery, patience, innovation and ability to keep going, even when it's heartbreaking hard. Happy International Women's Day!
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