Vietnamese Women: An Epitome of Empowerment among the Emerging Asian Countries
My encounter with Vietnam goes years back to 2009. By that time I had only aware of the name of this country, but after that my involvement with Indo-Vietnam Solidarity Committee, various programmes, seminars, workshops, and delegations related to Vietnam made the foundation of my knowledge of this country. I have already spent quite a few months in Vietnam as an academician teaching English in Diplomatic Academy, Hanoi. It took me a few steps closer to the common Vietnamese. I have many Vietnamese friends who belong to different classes; from students to teachers, taxi driver to food vender, painter to bicycle repairer, academician to farmer, businessman to common man and even young to old. I roamed many parts of the country, sometimes alone and sometimes with my friends and learnt that common Vietnamese are helpful. The more I roamed, the more I bowed down before this beautiful country with respect. Taking this opportunity I thank each and every Vietnamese whom I met, who made my stay in Vietnam comfortable and above all I, hereby, express my gratitude to all of them from whom I learnt about this beautiful country, Vietnam and its culture and heritage. And this paper is a tribute to all of you.
During my stay in Vietnam, I was highly impressed by the status of Vietnamese women and this article is my study and impression of them which could be a model to many Asian countries in terms women empowerment.
Vietnamese women, I find, are much liberated now in comparison to many Asian countries. Vietnam got independence in 1945, but was divided into two parts, North and South Vietnam and it got unified in 1975. Like any other country Vietnam faced many problems in post-independence era. If we consider the condition of women of that time, it was really very precarious. But Vietnamese women are now liberated, they have their freedom, they are free to choose their life partners, they can wear any types of dresses even minies and micro-minies, they are having the career of their choices, they are earning their money and are independent, they roam any place of their choices even alone if there is no companion, they prefer to do their work themselves even if it’s mid day or mid night etc. I have seen women in bikini at the sea shores; they enjoy life and no one bothers to stare at them. From independence to till now Vietnam has passed through various changes and has successfully provided all the basic facilities to its citizens like house, education, healthcare, employment and in true sense Vietnamese women have become empowered.
I am deeply impressed by the freedom women are enjoying in Vietnam. During my short stay, I was blessed with friends from different stratums of society and it helped me to know more about their social life. I feel lucky that many of my friends opened their hearts before me and as a result, I came to know their real personality. We shared our happiness, misery, ambition even cracked jokes and spent quality time. First of all, women don’t have to face the problems of arrange marriage or more specifically the mental torture of the interviews by the boy and his relatives before marriage. They choose their own life partners. They do not have the social evil called dowry, so girls are not treated as burden on parents. They are given equal opportunity of growth like boys. Though a male child is highly desired by a couple and by their in-laws, they don’t abandon a female child if they are blessed with one.
Almost all women are independent in Vietnam. Some of them earn their bread by working either in government or private sectors; those who do not work, they do some kinds of business for their living. As a result the middle class women have increasingly become more involved in the workforce sector outside of the house, with 83% of working-age women being involved in the labour force. The middle class business has now been dominated by the women folk though the high class business is still in the hands of the male society. They respect all kinds of work, no work is considered as low and give utmost respect to the person who earns her livelihood by doing some work. They are very sincere and punctual, never cheat their work. Furthermore, women in contemporary workforce and economy experience much higher wages than the generations before them. However, research has shown that many inequalities for women still exist, with women still receiving uneven employment benefits compared to their male counterparts.
Vietnamese are health conscious. As a result they are fit and slim. Their healthy life style has not only made them fit, but they have become beautiful. Earlier they were wheatish in colour, short in height, and a little fatty, but the habit of eating half boiled food, less spicy and less oily that was incorporated by President Ho Chi Minh during the liberation war is still in practice and this years of practice has brought them in shape. It is surprise to see that during pregnancy, Vietnamese women do not gain much weight, the belly only looks bigger rather than all parts of the body but they give birth healthy babies and after the delivery they come back to normal shape. The normal day to day activity of common Vietnamese are they get up early in the morning, have their breakfast by 6:30am, take lunch between 11:30 to 12:30, take early snacks in the afternoon and supper by 7:30pm. By the time they go to bed, the food is easily digested which prevents many health problems. Another important thing I want to mention here is that at most of the work places people get two hours lunch break. During this time some of them go back to their home, cook (their cooking takes very less time as they take half boiled food), have their food, take some rest and then come back to work; some of them have it at the office (some of my colleagues where I was working had divided days among themselves, each one had one day to bring food for rest of the group members and in this way one had to bring food for all once in a week), take some rest at their respective chambers and resume the work when hands of the clock reach at the schedule time. Exercise tools are widely available in many of the public parks in Vietnam and I have seen people using it frequently. It shows how health conscious they are! Now-a-days they are highly interested towards Yoga. It has become a part of the life of many of the Vietnamese. They are practicing it either at their home or at yoga centers. As yoga is a part of Indian culture, it could be taken to further strengthen the cultural relations between the common people of both the countries.
Sex related things and information are not taboos in Vietnam. People have minimum knowledge about it. Rape cases are very few because people are free to choose their own partners. Women are free to wear clothes as per their wish and that is not a cause to get raped. They move on bikes with short pants throughout the night. A tree flourishes when it gets various nutritions and its root is strong; exactly there is no doubt that Vietnam would be in the list of developed countries in fifteen to twenty years ahead as it is growing with the growth of its common mass.
Most of the adult women have their own bikes in Vietnam, some of them have cars also. Women cab driver is not a new thing in Vietnam. One of my Vietnamese friends recently got her license as a four wheeler driver and now she is earning well by driving cabs. She even bought her own four wheeler vehicle on loan from the bank and now she is paying off the loan from her income.
I have witnessed women resuming their work just after six months of the birth of their baby. They drop the baby at baby care centers in the morning and pick them up at the afternoon when they return from work or in some cases arrange nannies at home. Household chores are not the sole responsibility of women only; now as husband and wife both are working, household chores are shared equally. They both take care of the baby. Sometimes fathers take paternity leave to support the baby in the absence of the mother. No child is considered as illegitimate. Giving birth to a baby before marriage is not considered as good, but if a baby is born before marriage, it is not discarded by the society. Both parents and society accept it. Even only mother’s name is enough to get the child’s admission in a school. By and large Vietnam has a two child policy. Now also some families are there who want at least one boy child, but would prefer two boys to two girls. And men’s participation in family planning practice, however, remains modest.
Overall literacy rate in Vietnam is high with relatively equal status between males and females. However, regional differences are still there, especially amongst the mountainous northern regions. For example in one study, the region of Lai Chau was found to have a literacy rate double in men in comparison to their women counterpart. Furthermore, the percentage of women attaining a higher education is still lower than that of men; women ages 15 or above who never attended school is nearly triple that of men.
During the liberation war of Vietnam, many Vietnamese males died in the independence struggle and widows of many of them conceived babies from other men to support the family, to retain the family name and to take care of them in old age. In the nineteen fifties and sixties, it was not common in Asian continent, but Vietnamese women took this bold step. Though initially they were criticized for this act, later on were accepted by the society and those children were assimilated in the main stream with all-round dignity.
Most Vietnamese women are fashion conscious. They like to wear latest designed dresses, mostly women of the cities. And another thing, common Vietnamese people wear clean dresses and to assume their status from their costume is almost impossible. They are modern and broad-minded. They do not force children to do anything. When the children refuse to have more food, they stop feeding them. They do not pressurize children in matters of food, study etc. I want to say here that elementary education is compulsory in Vietnam and it is devoid of examination.
There have been many advances in women’s rights in Vietnam such as an increase in women representation in government. In 2012 there were 24.4% women representatives in Vietnam parliament which have been increased recently. The creation of the Vietnam Women’s Union in 1930 also propagated women empowerment which is still functioning with full force. The prominent example is currently, H.E. Ms. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan is the Chair Woman of the National Assembly of Vietnam and H.E. Ms. Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh is the Vice State President. Both of them hold their positions in March and April 2016 respectively.
Women’s status and importance in a family have also increased. Their consent is now taken in important decisions. They are not mere bread-eaters rather they have become the bread earners. Another important point to be mentioned is that Vietnam is free from the feudal system which is one of the major causes of the subjugation the women, but as it was abolished long ago in Vietnam women got the maximum benefits out of it. They have taken a lot of strains to reach this position and they deserve where they are now.
One of the major problems in Vietnam is loneliness of which mostly women have become the victims. Various reasons push them to the clutch of loneliness such as, death of the husband, not having children, not having a partner, not having healthy relationship with the husband, extra-marital affair of the husband, divorce, failure in love, failure to cope with the strong impact of westernization etc. The gender imbalance that followed the Vietnam War was also a cause of the rise of single women leading them to loneliness. One of my friends who was once upon a time a cancer patient, but now fully cured, is having the serious problem of loneliness. She wants to get marry and have a baby, but no one is interested to marry her because of her growing age (she is 40 now) and upon that the name ‘cancer’, even though she is fully recovered. She does not want to adopt a baby, rather wants to have her own. Sometimes she thinks of one night stand with a man and have a baby. She is independent and capable of rearing the baby herself without anyone’s help, but retreats thinking about the consequence of that person’s family if his wife comes to know about it. She is in utter stress and I am afraid if this condition continues, she would go mad any day.
Many single women who had preferred to remain single have no regrets of their decisions. Some women who are single by compulsion have now learned to live their lives and are enjoying it. Another of my friends, who is the single mother of a girl, is a teacher by profession and a writer by heart. She is famous in Vietnam as a suspense thriller and a travelogue writer. She is roaming all over the world, writing books about her journey and enjoying her life. In fact, I met in one such visit of her to India.
Nowadays many Vietnamese girls are marrying South Koreans and Taiwanese. It is estimated that the number of Vietnamese wives in South Korea has risen from 77 in 2000 to 7636 in 2011 and between the years of 1995 and 2003 Vietnamese girls marrying Taiwanese has sky rocketed from 1476 to more than 60,000 (the data that is available). In most migrant marriages, economy and security are the primary causes, but in many cases, they are deceived by them.
People of South Asian Countries even intellectuals except exceptions are almost ignorant about today’s Vietnam. The principal of my previous educational institution once told me, ‘Vietnam is a dangerous place to leave. War is going on there between North and South Vietnam making it a poor country’. I was surprised at his knowledge of current affairs and replied him that among the developing Asian countries Vietnam is like heaven and there is no war between North and South Vietnam. It has been unified since long in 1975 and the rate of its growth from unification till today is commendable. Ignorance about each other’s present situation has pulled us apart. To develop a relationship we should first know each other. We already have a very glorious past of brotherhood and friendship and now time has come to make it even stronger and social media could be best mode of transmission in this respect. It would be appropriate to say here, one recent study says that Indians are the maximum users of Facebook competing even with Americans with two to three crores of people above forty ages. The growth of Vietnam with the factual accounts, particularly its women empowerment should be highlighted and propagated in such a way that people, especially women in many developing Asian countries would be inspired, encouraged and would take their Vietnamese counterpart as their role models.
The status of women in Vietnam has, overall, improved a lot, though not fully. Still there, are certain aspects which need to be improved i.e. cent percent employment, equal wages to both men and women, growth in secondary education, open-hearted acceptance of female child, even if one or two, strategies to protect unprotected migrant marriages, strategies to make them overcome stress and loneliness etc. I agree, many aspects are yet to be enhanced, but still Vietnam is at the fore front of the developing countries in Asia. The way Vietnam has handled the post independence challenges and its rate of progress could be example for many developing countries not only in Asia but in Africa also.
* Educationist; poet; social activist; Secretary, Indo-Vietnam Solidarity Committee, Kolkata