Dr. Nguyen Bao Thanh Nghi, Section Head and Lecturer of Skills and General Knowledge at Hoa Sen University was invited by LIN ( The Center for Community Development) to present a workshop on “gender and contemporary issues of Vietnamese women” on September 25, 2012.
The focus of the workshop was:
• Labor force participation of women in the family and society
• The issue of gender inequality on sexuality and family relationships
• Where Vietnam is progressing in terms of gender equality.
Labor force participation of women in the family and society
The process of industrialization and modernization of the country has created conditions and opportunities for women to participate in the labor market. Although the proportion of women participating in the labor market is high, they always suffer from disadvantages regarding gender inequality in education, in housework, in the workplace and income, in promotion, and in the retirement age policy, etc.
According to Dr. Nghi, women in general are less educated than men. At the primary and secondary level, the percentage of female students is lower than that of male students, especially in poor and minority areas. Moreover, in the rural areas parents often choose males to invest in education and boys often have a greater opportunity to return to school than girls. The reasons for fewer girls going to school are that they have to stay home to help their family with domestic work, that boarding schools are far away from home, or that the custom of early marriage has existed for a long time. In urban areas, it appears to be more equal especially after the liberation in 1975; there are compulsory and adult education programs for all citizens. In recent years, women have invested more in education especially at the college level; 53.9% of the students are female . The investment in education for women will bring many benefits to both women and their families as well as for social development; women with a higher education will know how to take care of themselves and be independent, know when to marry, when to have children, how to care for the children, how to manage time and finance, and most importantly how to obtain stability and sustainable development [2, 4, 5]. Compared with the United States, Dr. Nghi said that there are more female students attending school than male students; this concerns many American educators about the trending high proportion of male-pupil drop-outs .
Regarding housework, women generally take care of the children, cooking, cleaning, etc.
Vietnam is part of an Asian culture in which the patriarchal system is very popular. Therefore, there is inequality in the family division of labor. Due to social changes, women today have to work outside the home as well as do the housework. The dual role burdens are on women’s shoulders and they are not treated fairly. They are inferior to men and do not become involved in making important decisions in the family. Making comparisons between rural and urban areas or between the south and north, between the young generation and the older generation, there are many differences between labor and family units. In rural areas, there is clearer division of labor by sex than with those living in urban areas. People in urban areas are more involved in housework than those in rural areas. Between the northern and southern regions are also differences. Literature shows that northern men are more involved in doing the housework than men in the south. Concerning the generation gap, the young people today have different notions about a reproductive division of labor; the tendency for sharing housework between husband and wife seems to be higher. However, due to the ideological and cultural influence of Confucianism, many young women are still mainly responsible for housework .
In terms of employment and income, women account for over 50 percent of the country's population and make up more than 47% of the social labor force; the rate of female participation in economic activity accounts for 83%, roughly equivalent to the males at 85%. The proportion of female government officers is 30% and employees are 61%. A female labor force is present in almost all areas and industries, including a high proportion of females in agro-processing, education, health care, textile, and areas of engineering and technology (34%). In urban areas, women work as government workers, as self-employed workers, and as unskilled workers. However, their wages are not equal to that of men. In rural areas, women work both in the field and sell merchandise on the sidewalks. The status of female workers who are not trained is very commonly at 90%. Generally, rural as well as urban women are performing womens’ jobs such as textile and garment, agriculture, and forestry work. These are all unskilled labor sectors, and are heavy labor with low productivity and high vulnerability. They earn low incomes work under harsh working conditions, and they are at a very high risk of losing their jobs. Although women’s participation in the labor market is at a high rate, statistics show that the income of female workers makes up only 75% of that of male workers. As the economy changes, especially when there is an urgent need to lay off workers, females are the first to be considered as “the top priority" to be laid off. The simple reason is that they have no particular skills or they have little training, which gives them no chance for accessing other choices toward high-paying employment opportunities. A distinct cultural characteristic of Vietnamese women compared with other Asian or Western countries is that they earn less money, however, they manage “the money box” in the family .
Concerning promotion and advancement, women are less likely to be promoted to senior positions in institutions for many reasons: mental ability (or lack thereof), culture, social stereotypes, a person’s personality traits, gender characteristics, lack of a specialized female staff, lack of attention paid to the capacity and forte of women for promotion, or the legal framework and policies are barriers to women's advancement. Therefore, in Management, the cadre of women leaders is also very low compared to men. Recently, the proportion of women to potentially become leaders has been gradually increasing, however, it is not strongly commensurate with the development of the current female labor force .
Finally, the retirement age policy is not consistent with reality, especially for intellectual women and women in the field of business and administration. Women have to retire up to 5 years earlier than men. This has a huge impact on promotion, advancement, staff planning, training opportunities and women’s wages. There have been numerous discussions and debates about raising the retirement age of women to be at par with men, however, we are still awaiting decisions from Congress .
The issue of how gender inequality affects sexuality and family relationships
According to Dr. Thanh Nghi, the problem of gender inequality affecting sexuality and family relationships is characterized by culture. Women are still at a disadvantage due to Confucius ideas of gender. For example the issue of virginity, for some young people in urban areas may seem old-fashioned; it has caused a huge mass media debate in recent years.
The Xuan Thuy case is an example: she married the richest man in the Mekong Delta; however, she was forced to return home because her husband thought she had lost her virginity prior to their getting married. This phenomenon created a frantic wave of comment by the press. The language used in the media discourse such as “Lost Virgin Bride' or ‘Many Mekong Delta Women Like Xuan Thuy’, indicated gender discrimination and disadvantage for women. Most articles about Xuan Thuy, the bride, were in light of the scandal that she had lost her virginity before marriage even though she only had sexual relations with him prior to marriage. Only a few articles voiced sympathy toward Xuan Thuy, however, their words seemed very weak. This indicated that the public has different perspectives about virginity and sex. Young people are still wondering which values they should follow: what is right, what is wrong, and where did gender bias lay in this case .
Along with society development, integration, and globalization, there is an increased tendency of the phenomenon that teenagers love and have early sexual relationships. Many parents and teachers have employed strong measures to prevent acts of instinctive sexual relations, but all of these measures seem not to have yielded the expected results. In this information and technology era, according to Dr. Nghi, teenagers can easily access all kinds of information on the Internet such as Facebook, twitter, zing, movies etc. The information on the internet provides everything, including wrong, right, in-between, etc.
During the journey of discovery and age development, Vietnamese teenagers wonder how their views on sex compare with those of teenagers in other countries, whether their views are accepted, how they should dress, and whether they think appropriately while dating during high school. For example, High School Musicals or Glee Clubs clearly depict students at ages 13, 14 and 15 dressing quite comfortabley and dating each other. In Western culture, it is normal, but it is not acceptable in Vietnamese culture. Although Vietnamese teenagers are more reserved than their international friends, they are more likely familiar with the images of Western culture and movies and are affected to some extent.
Consequently, the gap between the younger and older generations is becoming increasingly distant especially with parents and grandparents. The older people find it unacceptable that the younger generation is moving in a wrong direction. The older generation cannot forbid their children from using the internet or seeing movies, especially western ones which are often sexualized. Although sexuality and sex education has been discussed and has its ups and downs, the discussions have as yet not come to an end and they have been inadequate. Many parents still believe that sexuality is a sensitive issue and sex education should not be provided too early for teenagers. Some parents are of a different opinion and feel that older people should remind their teenagers of important sexual key points and give them freedom of choice. In the meantime, the majority of the other arguments are that we need to be gentle but firm and not allow them to love because their duties are to study and build their future. Dr. Khuat Thu Hong, who recently presented at a workshop on sexuality, raised the issue as to whether older people should “show the way for the deer to run or should they blind them about the sexual issues”. If we do not guide teenagers about sexual issues, they still explore them and go astray. Therefore, children would be better off if we provide them with fundamental sex education. If they are misled, we know where to further guide them [1, 6].
Another fact is the alarming cases of child sexual abuse, rape, unwanted pregnancies and abortions of teenagers that have grown dramatically. The reason is that sex education in schools has not kept up with the development of society and that young people are not properly informed about the issue. Sex education programs in schools are very sketchy in-as-much as teachers are especially hesitant to talk about this sensitive issue and many people are not fully aware of the importance of this subject. At the national level, views on sex education have not been clearly defined. The hesitance and resistance has made sexuality a sensitive topic to discuss [1 6].
Domestic violence is common and quite complex, which presents itself in different forms. Normally only "visible" violence is seen and very few studies have been conducted on the acts of “invisible” violence. According to Dr. Thanh Nghi, gender stereotypes still exist in Vietnam such as that men must be strong while women must be gentle and submissive. Often times, married women have an attitude of resignation toward violence. Their great stoicism proves that they make sacrifices for the family which matches with the true image of a Vietnamese woman. Literature indicates research that has been conducted about the resignation of Cambodian women based on religion. Analysis of the findings has shown that battered women accept it as their fate. Their previous life caused the karma, so they are resigned to it .
In modern society, celibacy is not new and is recognized more than ever before. Many single women are now free to decide their lives, overcome social bias, live independently, be self-reliant, have a vibrant and meaningfull life and assert their celibacy as completely normal that is not contrary to the law of life. According to Nguyen Huu Minh at the Institute for Family and Gender, two reasons of celibacy are poor health (12.1%) and a relatively free life (12.6%). The low proportion of single people who aspire for a free life aspect reflects the difference between Vietnam and other Western countries .
In recent years, the status of women marrying foreigners, especially Taiwanese and South Korean men, has increased. Since 2007, 70,000 women married foreigners, making up four times the number of women immigrating for labor reasons. The main reason leading women to get married is the economic problem. One reason for Dr. Le Nguyen Doan Khoi’s research outcome is filial piety. Dr. Thanh Nghi claimed that due to the imbalance of wealth between nations, Vietnamese brides get married to grooms in richer countries. In many cases women can help their families after marrying foreigners. Many marriages have been successful through arranged marriages and matchmaking, the latter being very normal and accepted. Matchmakers can be parents, friends, or marriage brokers. A good point for matchmaking is to meet the needs of demand and supply of people who want to find love in different countries. Taiwanese and Chinese are not able to find love on their own, so thanks to matchmaking singles can come together. In contrast, the majority of Westerners may think matchmaking is not normal because it can be concealed under the guise of human trafficking [1,10].
Where Vietnam stands with regard to progress in terms of gender equality
Finally, Dr. Thanh Nghi pointed out that Western countries, such as Norway or the United States, have gender equality policies and laws. For example, the husband may also be on leave when his wife is on maternity leave. In addition the wage gap for women in leadership is very narrow; according to a 2003 Norway law, the rate of women holding a position on the Board of Corporate Committee must be 40%. With such a binding legal system, women are more equal. A 1941 study in the United States showed that people preferred boy babies over girl babies. Sixty years later, in 2011, the study was repeated and the finding also showed that the majority of men prefer boy babies over girl babies. This suggests that although there was a change in perception, there is still a tendency existing for preferring males over females even in Western countries .
How about Vietnam? The gender equality situation in Vietnam today has improved. In particular, Vietnam joined The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW), issued laws on gender equality, marital and family law, labor laws, etc. However, the general public's awareness of gender equality is not very high. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the involvement of individuals, institutions and organizations. There is also an urgent need for innovative sanctions and policies under the legal system in order to promote gender equality, raise awareness, and eliminate gender stereotypes about women and men in society. Implementation of gender equality is not only related to women but also relevant to men; if we achieve gender equality for both men and women, quality of life and new socio-economic conditions will be advanced.
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