On International Women’s Day, March 8th, Viet Nam News reporters Khanh Chi and Thu Trang spoke to women’s specialists about the role of Vietnamese women, especially regarding the pressures they face in modern life and within the context of deeper national integration in the region and internationally. The interview also discussed responsibilities Vietnamese men should assume in their families.
How do you see the role of Vietnamese women at present, particularly when Viet Nam is furthering its integration in the region and internationally?
Khuat Thu Hong
Dr. Khuat Thu Hong, Director of the Institute for Social Development Studies:
Vietnamese women play an increasingly important role in the nation’s development, especially at present and in the future. When we look back at the development of Vietnamese society, particularly economic development, women hold a key position, as they directly participate in the national labour force and in paid labour. For instance, in agriculture – one of the country’s key sectors – women make up some 70 per cent of the labour force, and in production alone, they make up not a modest workforce in export-oriented industries, such as garment and textile, footwear, light industry, and seafood processing.
Also, women’s economic roles will be much more significant in the future as Viet Nam more deeply integrates into the world, while these industries continue to spearhead the economy.
I do hope policymakers in Viet Nam are aware of the role of Vietnamese women in the economy, so they make appropriate policies to further support, empower and reward women equally. Society should look at women through their contributions to the economy, rather than as something secondary besides men.
In many other countries, men are the families’ breadwinners, but in Viet Nam women make money at the same rate as men, or even better. Apart from economic fields, women also play a key role in building a happy home life. Saying so, I want to emphasise that society, though praising women’s role, has not fully recognised women’s monetary values, as well as psychological, spiritual and cultural values brought about through their contributions. This is unfair.
I’m also not comfortable with all of society thinking that family affairs are women’s work and responsibilities. In Viet Nam, it is commonly thought that if women are unable to manage their family affairs, they will be nothing, no matter how successful they are in society. In other words, women’s achievements in careers, politics, economics and education will be disregarded if they fail to perform their roles as wife and mother. That way of thinking discourages women from opportunities to move forward, study further, develop their careers, as well as participate in social and political activities.
Men can sacrifice their families, but women are not allowed to do so. Saying so, I don’t mean to encourage women to give up their families for careers, but I call for a more equal outlook, and if women can’t take leading positions, it doesn’t mean they are incapable of doing so.
If women only stayed at home caring for their families, the country’s history would have been written in a much different way. So many beautiful words have been spoken to praise women’s roles as wife and women, so that women themselves think that “it’s right that I need to sacrifice my education, career, and strive for male siblings, husband and children” and that “my greatest priority is family”. That always makes women more slow-paced than men.
In many areas, higher education plays no role at all. For example, many men who have a high position in society or have only finished first grade in education think alike in believing that the position of women must remain “inside the kitchen”. It is often thought that men are born stronger and can go here and there, whilst women should stay at home taking care of children. Yet, women in Viet Nam do all the work, including going to battle fields in wartime, but they are always considered inferior and underestimated. If we do nothing to change this situation, it will remain as it is forever. As I mentioned earlier, upon Viet Nam’s deeper integration into the world, if inequality still exists women will bear much heavier burdens.
Shoko Ishikawa, UN Women Representative in VN:
In Viet Nam we see a lot of women who are very active. The participation of women in Viet Nam’s labour force is quite high compared to other countries in the region. Women are also advancing in their educations, so they are starting to be recognised in society.
But for Vietnamese women, the challenge is the traditional understanding and expectation of women’s role in families, which have not changed along with women trying to enter into society, even as women are very burdened by trying to balance their being part of the work force and continuing their educations, and taking care of their families.
I see that women are at the crossroads of modern ideas and traditional ideas, and that remains a burden for them.
Vuong Thi Hanh, former deputy chairwoman of the Central Committee of Viet Nam Women’s Union and now director of the Centre for Educational Promotion and Empowerment for Women:
Vuong Thi Hanh
Women have a very important role in the country’s development, especially during the integration period. They make up nearly 50 per cent of the total work force and are present in all fields, including the economy, culture, society and politics. In two important fields, economy and education, women make up more than 60 per cent of the total work force. If society does not consider women to be a main factor in development, it will not uphold women’s contribution.
Viet Nam has had a lot of policies for women, such as about gender equality. This is a foundation for women to develop, but the policies should be applied widely in their lives. If not, women’s lives will continue to be confronted by many obstacles.
Under such circumstances, what pressures are facing Vietnamese women? And how can they overcome them?
Hong: Women are facing double pressures. On the one hand, Party and Government policies always encourage women to participate in economic and political activities. On the other hand, not only the Party and State, but all of society encourages women to be capable of handling their housework. This is a heavy burden for women. The concept of “capability” today is much different from that of tens of years or 100 years ago. In the past, children were born and grew up quite naturally, but now women are expected to give birth to healthy and good-looking children. They have to look for foods that help their children grow up to become smart, and look for good schools, as well as extra music, martial arts, English classes, and so on.
Also, women are expected to keep themselves good-looking, smart, and well-dressed, or their husbands might make light of them and look for another woman. Women’s lives have been improved markedly, and women have many chances to dress up, make up, and go on holidays. However, behind such lives hide numerous unknown pressures. All these pressures are a result of modern society, which were not seen previously. Obviously, there are similar pressures to be wife and mother but, nowadays, such pressures have multiplied ten times.
To some extent, you can control your pressures. But being a member of society, when people around you, like your husband, children and family, suffer from certain pressures, these pressures will affect you, also. No matter how strong your mind and how wide your knowledge is, it is difficult for you to control all these pressures.
I often tell my young female staff that they must exercise great self-control. I mean they must be economically independent. You don’t need to really be somebody. It is important to perform your job well, even if you are a farmer or a sanitation worker, to have a standing in society. All societies need good workers, either men or women.
Family is essential to each individual, particularly women. If women are economically independent and can live on their own labour, they can make decisions or join negotiations in family affairs. Of course, it will not be enough if women are unaware of their rights. In reality, not only in rural areas, even in urban areas, many women can make money better than their husbands, yet are unable to negotiate or to jointly make decisions with their husbands. Now, they need to learn about behaviour skills that are rarely taught in schools or families. In most cases, women grow up learning that they should be obedient, to withstand sacrifices and hardships, and to make concessions. They need to understand their rights and protect these rights properly, and should not make concessions.
I also think women should support each other to help themselves change their thinking, to seek strength and progressive thinking. But it’s not easy. In a group of women, if an influential person has progressive thoughts, other group members will gradually be influenced and empowered. On the other hand, group members will continue to develop their traditional thinking if the group leader pursues such ways of thinking.
Shoko: The pressure is that women not only try to earn an income, but also advance their education and their careers. The difficulties are not really something that are women’s alone, but is an issue for the overall society. It’s necessary to change the mindset at the family level, in terms of sharing the responsibility. For instance, men should be able to take maternity leave to be at home to help mothers when newborns arrive.
Companies should be more accommodating so men might take maternity leaves. The stigma which challenges men is that men are always working, not taking care of the family so, at the grassroots level, it should be changed and at the policy level their needs to be a better environment to encourage men’s maternity leaves. Currently, such leaves are five days, but in other countries it can be extended to 90 days or hundreds of days for men to take leave. That means women’s burdens are reduced and women can come back to work earlier and build their careers.
Hanh: In any period, women have had many pressures. They are the members of their family who take care of the family, and they also a contributor to the family’s incomes. They must work to earn a living, whereas there is only 24 hours in a day.
Additionally, household violence and other social evils, such as gambling and games on the internet, cause women to worry about their children. The women have so little time for themselves, for their education, studying and improving themselves.
They also must overcome obstacles to study more to become involved workers.
In your opinion, what should Vietnamese men do to help their women balance life and work?
Hong: I hate to use the words “help” or “share”. Family is both for men and women, so a man must understand his responsibility towards his family, and not as if he is doing this for somebody else. Nowadays, both men and women take part in economic activities, so the point is how to make women have less housework. When men and women have similar roles in dealing with family affairs, women will have more time for their careers and for themselves to relax and do as they like.
It could be said that 100 per cent of national policies, strategies, programmes, and projects have so far aimed to promote gender equality and women’s advancements, as well as to liberate women. Women themselves, including those in rural areas, have made remarkable progress in terms of concepts, awareness, codes of conduct, and behaviours to make life more equal. In other words, social efforts have empowered women, but done nothing to influence men. This is due to a common conception that women are inferior to men, so women should be paid special attention to. Consequently, men’s ways of thinking stay the same. Women have had a progressive outlook, while men have not.
That’s really dangerous and a side effect, psychologically speaking. Witnessing women become stronger and more progressive seems to be a challenge for men. They increasingly want to showcase their traditional “superiority”. Also, men’s unresolved pressures and problems have resulted in increased violence, in both families and society.
I think it’s time to change and to influence men. Policies, actions, programmes and interventions should target men, forcing them to change their awareness, thoughts and behaviours. Here, I would like to emphasise that support should continue to be given to women, but men should also be “rescued”.
Shoko: Men are becoming more a part of the family and involved in child care. The society and workplac of men should understand and policies should be put in place to encourage them to help.
It’s really at various levels. At personal levels, men have to change their mindsets. And at policy-making levels there should be sensitive policies so we can support the balance between men and women. I’m very fortunate that I have a very understanding husband, sharing everything in taking care of the children. He plays games with my children on Saturday when I have to work, and if he has to work late, I come home early.
We have many conservations about how to share the responsibility that we have for the family, which very much helps, and I hope that other families in VN are encouraged to do the same.
Hanh: Men should think that building a happy family is the responsibility of both men and women. The family is the foundation for their love and their children. Their responsibility is not only making money, but also teaching their children.
Social activities should also focus more on gender equality to change men’s awareness.
Women should also arrange time to improve their knowledge and social understanding to confirm that they are a part of the development. They should create good conditions for their husbands and children to share their household work, so that each member of the family is aware of their own responsibility for the family.— VNS