Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur, Oxfam in Vietnam country director
By Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur, Oxfam in Vietnam country director
Realising women’s rights towards gender equality, why is progress so slow?
According to the Global Gender Gap report 2018, which benchmarks 149 countries on their progress towards gender parity on a scale from 0 (disparity) to 1 (parity) across four thematic dimensions—the sub-indexes Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. If current rates were to be maintained, the overall global gender gap will close in 61 years in Western Europe, 70 years in South Asia, 74 years in Latin America and the Caribbean, 135 years in Sub-Saharan Africa, 124 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 153 years in the Middle East and North Africa, 165 years in North America, and 171 years in East Asia and the Pacific.
Vietnam ranked 77th overall in 2018 ahead of Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia and China, but behind the Philippines, Laos, Bangladesh and Thailand. Vietnam also dropped eight points compared to 2017. Women in Vietnam fare best in economic participation (rank 33), but badly in political empowerment (99), educational attainment (101), and health survival (143).
These figures signal it will take a long time for the world and Vietnam in particular to achieve parity, so what happened? Why such slow progress, and what can we do to make a transformational leap?
The Oxfam report ‘Public Good or Private Wealth’pointed out that the majority of unpaid care work is undertaken by women in poverty. Policies and practices need to radically change to make freeing up women’s time a key objective of government spending, and women must have a say in budget decisions. All essential services should be designed in a way that works for those with little time to spare.
Inequality is sexist, and economically unequal countries are countries where women and men are more unequal too - societies in which the gap between rich and poor is much lower are those in which women are treated more as equals. There is an urgent need to re-think the current economic model that primes economic growth above all.
Social norms and attitudes keep women subordinate and unable to take advantage of educational, political and economic opportunities. Research commissioned by Oxfam entitled Gender stereotypes against female leaders revealed there are many barriers constraining women’s ability to reach leadership positions. One of those is a stereotypical attitude toward female leadership, which may have resulted in the low percentages of women in elected bodies including the National Assembly and People’s Councils. Voters use double standards when deciding whether or not to select a female candidate, expecting a good female leader to first fulfill her role as a mother and wife before taking on work responsibilities. They also have a view of what a successful woman should look like in contemporary Vietnamese society, that is, only female leaders who can handle their dual roles and responsibilities both in families as traditional women and in the workplace as modern women are considered ideal.
Corporate attitudes have improved in a number of places, but a lot more needs to be done with more dedicated resources committed in companies to develop comprehensive gender policies within their organisations as well as in business operations. Oxfam has carried out numerous researches (and a quantification) that demonstrate time and time again that global economic prosperity is dependent on the huge but unrecognised contribution made by women through unpaid care work. If all the unpaid care work done by women across the globe was carried out by a single company it would have an annual turnover of USD10 trillion, 43 times that of Apple.
Vietnam is a case for international donors to decide where and how they can maximise their continuous support to achieve gender equality. For decades, gender work in Vietnam has been largely externally funded bringing external expertise as well as investing in local capacities. Vietnam has made great advances both in gender policies and practices, and the gender equality law of 2005 is one of the most progressive gender laws in Asia. But this trend has been weakening with reduced funding and other support, or investment only in economic empowerment. This has gone hand in hand with an overall regression of the progress made, and gender development practitioners and specialists fear the gains made are being lost.
To sum up, I issue a call for the youth of today, who will be tomorrow's policymakers, entrepreneurs, economists, journalists and so on, to rise up as active and responsible citizens, taking concrete actions, to achieve social justice through gender equality.