|Happy days: Women in the central province of Nghe An exchange views on how to increase awareness and responsibility on taking care of their children. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Thuy
Nong Thi Tuoi, 16, in the northern province of Cao Bang, had to leave school to look after her five younger brothers and sisters. She is one of millions in the nation cursed by inequality and male violence in an outdated patriarchal system. Ha Nguyen reports
Many girls in her remote commune drop out of school, either to do housework or get married at a very young age, said Nong Thi Tuoi said.
"It's tradition. However, many of them go on to lead a terrible life of being heavily beaten by their husbands."
|Testing time: A woman works in a laboratory. Giving equal opportunities to women is necessary, not only on the grounds of human rights, but to make the best of their potential for the nation.
The 16-year-old, who lives in the northern province of Cao Bang's Nguyen Binh District, had to drop out of school in third grade to help her parents do housework and look after her five younger brothers and sisters. While her parents sent her two younger brothers to school, saying they would need knowledge in order to have families in the future, they did not view her education as a priority.
"I liked going to school very much, but we are very poor," Tuoi said.
"My parents are weak so I have to stay at home to help them cook meals, raise pigs and chickens and feed my little sisters. Sometimes, I work in the fields from early morning to late at night."
Citing the problem of domestic violence that has affected many of her peers, she said she hoped to stay single forever.
In Viet Nam - as in many Asian cultures - the patriarchal system continues to hold sway, despite society's increasing modernisation. Domestic violence has reached an alarming rate in many areas of Viet Nam, particularly rural places, said Dr Nguyen Bao Thanh Nghi, head and lecturer of Skills and General Knowledge at Hoa Sen University in HCM City.
Moreover, women today shoulder a dual burden: once expected to devote themselves exclusively to housework, they are now expected to work outside the home as well.
|More jobs: Industrialisation has created opportunities for women to work in factories and be independent. VNS
The domestic violence situation is particularly worrisome. Last December in the central province of Quang Ngai, several serious cases occurred within just a few days, said Huynh Thi Tuyet Nga, an official of the provincial women's association.
Hong Thi Nhiem was strangled to death by her husband, Truong Van Thuan, because she asked him for a divorce, while Phan Thi Trang was brought to the hospital for emergency treatment because her husband threw a hot teapot at her head, making her faint on the spot.
Trang's neighbour said she had suffered violence from her husband for nearly 14 years.
"Almost all of my body has been injured as my husband used a big stick to beat me and tore the hair off my head. Sometimes I had to lie on the bed for several days because I couldn't walk, but he still beat me," Trang said in tears.
According to Nga, almost such cases in Quang Ngai's mountainous areas were caused by men drinking. Too lazy to work in the fields or do housework, local men often gathered with their friends to drink and gamble, she said.
"Often they lose money and return home to ask their wives for more cash. If the wives refuse, they are beaten," Nga said.
|Under-rated: Women make up the bulk of the workforce in rubbish collection and processing. They also pit it with men on construction sites, but mainly as labourers, hardly ever as skilled workers.
Domestic violence has been on the rise in Quang Ngai for several years. Many of the most serious offenders are public employees, Party members and officials. Much of the damage is emotional, with their wives frequently saying they were so miserable that they couldn't even cry, said Nga.
One in three married women in Viet Nam experiences domestic violence, according to a UN report.
While Viet Nam's industrialisation and modernisation process have created many opportunities for women, many of them continue to suffer from gender inequality: in the home, in education and in the workplace, where income, promotion and even the retirement age are heavily skewed towards men.
Married couple Nguyen Thanh Hoa and Chu Hoang Tung graduated from the same university with excellent results. Both were recruited to work at a company.
After five years, Tung was promoted to company deputy general director - while Hoa is still an ordinary employee. After they got married, she spent most of her time doing housework, cooking and caring for her child.
"I didn't want to have a child right after our marriage, so I could have time to devote to my work, but my husband said a woman's main duty is to give birth to a child, look after him and do housework," Hoa said. "We discussed the issue time and again until one day I found that I was pregnant. Everything has changed since then. I have to do what my husband says. Sometimes, I have to stay at home for a month to deal with my child's illness."
|Classroom skills: Women outnumber men in the teaching profession in which they are treated as almost equal. Their leadership is expected to play a big part in gender equality.
There are signs of hope. Men in urban areas, particularly in the North, are more involved in housework than those in rural areas, said Dr Nghi. And among young people, the tendency for sharing housework between husband and wife seems to be higher. But due to the pervasive influence of conservative traditional culture, many young women continue to be responsible for housework.
This can have serious consequences in the workplace. A new study shows that if a woman runs her home without any help, she has less interest in scaling the career ladder because she is simply too tired.
"It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women's traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional success outside the home," said Serena Chen, a psychologist who co-authored the study.
"To realise true gender equality in both private and public spheres, our results suggest that women may need to at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders - and men must agree to share such decision-making."
The conflict between old-fashioned concepts of gender identity and more modern ideas can have disastrous consequences.
Phan Thi Hang in the central province of Nghe An committed suicide after her husband's family returned her to her own family, accusing her of having lost her virginity before getting married. Hang's father was so upset that his heart nearly gave out.
Many of Hang's neighbours sided with her husband's family, but others said their action reflected an old-fashioned view of the world that ignored contemporary reality.
"The problem of gender inequality affecting sexuality and family relationships is influenced by culture. Women are still at a disadvantage due to pervasive Confucian ideas of gender," said Dr Nghi.
As Vietnamese society grows more modern and globalised, sexual relations between teenagers have been increasing, said Nghi. And while many parents and teachers have attempted to keep this from occurring, they have had little effect because teenagers can easily access all kinds of information on the internet as well as in movies.
Asked about the current state of gender equality in Viet Nam, Dr Nghi said that while it has much improved since the country joined the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women and issued laws on gender equality, marriage, family and labour, public awareness of the gender problem was still not high.
"We need more innovative sanctions and policies in the legal system in order to promote gender equality, raise awareness and eliminate gender stereotypes," she said. "Gender equality is not only related to women but also relevant to men. If we achieve gender equality for both men and women, everyone's quality of life and socio-economic conditions will improve." — VNS