Vietnam launches action plan for women
By Reihana Mohideen
The women of Vietnam have been described as showing a greater sense of independence than women in other south-east Asian countries.
During the war of national liberation, first against French, then US imperialism, women worked at every level of Vietnamese society. They fought in the war and carried ammunition down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, worked on the farms and in the factories and taught in the schools.
This started to break down traditional cultural prejudices about the "role of women". Today, women in Vietnam are conditioned by a long history of the "woman warrior".
Women play a major role in Vietnam's economy, accounting for nearly 52% of the work force. They make up 70% of the agricultural labour force, around half of state enterprise workers and more than half of the work force in the non-state sectors. Even in heavy industry, women make up around 30% of the labour force.
The Vietnam Women's Union (VWU), formed in October 1930, has more than 11 million members. It says that more than 60% of its members attend VWU activities.
One of the central tasks adopted at its last national congress in 1997 was to launch a major education program to raise awareness about women's issues. It aims to reach 70% of all women with the program, and 40-50% of all ethnic minority women in the mountain provinces.
The VWU's structures reach into the smallest communes. It publishes a weekly newspaper and an international journal, and has a women's publishing house and its own programs on radio and television.
The deputy head of the VWU's international department, Tran Thi Hoa, explained to me the importance of the organisation's education program: "At first we focused our education on women only. But we realised that ... this is not enough. So we started to organise workshops to include male participation at all levels." This includes the leaders of the government and the party.
I asked if there is any resistance to the program. "Maybe we are luckier than other countries. We get assistance and backup from the government.
"It's also reflected in our constitution and in our laws, where equality between men and women [is enshrined]. There is also the enforcement and the implementation of these laws and policies, unlike in some other countries. So gender awareness is very high in Vietnam today."
The Vietnamese government has adopted a national plan of action around women's rights, to be completed by the year 2000. It is modelled on the recommendations of the United Nations' 1995 Beijing conference on women. Vietnam is one of the few countries attempting to implement some of the conference proposals.
The plan, which focuses on strengthening the economic rights of women, has been made law. It includes reducing unemployment amongst urban women workers to less than 5% and reducing underemployment among women workers by 50%.
It calls for equal inheritance and property ownership rights, as well as equal access to land use. Because land in Vietnam is distributed by the state to each adult worker, women's access to land is far higher than in countries such as the Philippines, where land is distributed to the "head" of households, invariably a man.
The plan also instructs the State Bank of Vietnam to extend more cheap credit to poor women, based on "collateral trust" from the VWU.
In the social sphere, the plan instructs the government's personnel and organisation departments to conduct "training courses to promote gender awareness, especially for men and high-ranking managers".
It sets quotas to increase the number of women students at all levels of education, and integrates subjects on women's rights in to the syllabuses. It places special emphasis on vocational training for women workers.
The plan also outlines an affirmative action program based on quotas for women representatives in state institutions. It stipulates that "elected bodies ... should have 20-30% of women cadre" and that "the government ... must have 15-20% of women cadre" at all levels. "Ministries and branches with a women majority must have women leaders", and "agencies and enterprises in which 30% or more workers are women must have women as the head or second head".
All government departments are instructed to support the activities of the VWU, and the ministry of finance has been instructed to increase funding to it.
In the programs of the VWU and the government there is a lot of emphasis on maintaining the family unit. The family unit does play a conservatising role, tying women to principal responsibility for household chores. However, state-funded facilities such as child-care mean that the majority of Vietnamese women have greater choices than women in the Philippines, where more than 50% of rural women do unpaid work in the family house and farm, or even Australia, where child-care is being privatised and is very expensive.
According to Hoa, "We have day-care centres, creches and kindergartens in every commune, in every district ... The service is provided by the government; the teachers and carers are provided by the government. The parents have to provide the food for the children."
So, despite the emphasis on the family, government policies and the work of the VWU increase the leading role of women in society, rather than driving them back into the home.
The contradiction between the glorification of the family and the VWU's main aim of equality for all women will eventually have to be dealt with as the VWU continues its strong campaigning for women.
[This article was researched during the writer's visit to Vietnam in November.]