In August 2015, I traveled with colleagues to An Giang Province in southern Vietnam to visit beneficiaries of an innovative project that is helping 200 Cham ethnic minority women learn embroidery. Selling their embroidery, they earn incomes for themselves. We were inspired by the positive change that the small amount of money invested in this project is bringing to the lives of these women and their families.
This project, with funding from the 2013 Vietnam Women’s Innovation Day, supported by the Vietnam Women’s Union, the World Bank, and other partners - private and public - has helped improved economic opportunities for Cham women. All through the old traditional art of embroidery.
“This training and job creation project has helped a group of women get a stable monthly income of more than two million Dong (about $100), without leaving their homes. This means they can still take care of their children and look after their homes,” Kim Chi, a local female entrepreneur and leader of the project, told us. “Women participating in the project not only learn embroidery skills, which preserve Cham traditions, but also provide opportunities to share experiences in raising children and living a healthy life style, and support each other when needed.”
While we were all excited about the successes under the project, a bit more reflection reminded me that unless cultural norms which require Cham women to mainly work from home, are addressed, it will be hard for projects like this, no matter how well designed, to have a lasting impact in helping Cham women realize their full economic and social potential.
Efforts to address gender imbalances in all societies, including in Vietnam, often run into hurdles created by entrenched gender stereotypes—stereotypes that are rooted in culture, religion and societal norms and are therefore hard to change. To change these norms, we need to be aware and attuned, sensitive to culture and the individual, and recognize the limiting effect these norms may have. Usually, change will come from within and be gradual, while also requiring creativity and a willingness to think outside the box.
One cultural norm negatively impacting gender equality in Vietnam is the strong preference for male children (boys). As a result, couples engage in sex-selective abortions. This has created a skewed sex ratio at birth (defined as the number of boys born for every 100 girls). From 2006 to 2013, the sex ratio at birth rose dramatically, reaching nearly 114 to 100 in 2013—compared to a normal ratio of 105 or 106 to 100. This places Vietnam—with India and China—among the countries of with the highest sex ratios at birth globally. This imbalance will result in a large surplus of men, which may have a significant effect on Vietnamese society. And how can we begin to think of empowering girls if they are missing in society - not allowed to be born - because society prefers boys?
A second issue is stereotypes around the sorts of professions that women can or cannot engage in. The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affair’s decree —which lists 77 jobs that are legally prohibited to women—was put in place in 2013 to “protect women from jobs that are considered dangerous” to us. But, it reflects stereotypes of what are appropriate professions for women. Furthermore, young girls are often discouraged from going into areas such as science, technology, engineering or math, which are considered academically challenging and therefore more “appropriate” for boys and men. These stereotypes clearly hamper women’s opportunities and limit us from achieving our potential and participate, on an equal footing with men, in the labor market. In spite of this, we see that women account for more than 40%of scientific researchers in Vietnam. Nevertheless, only 19% of key national science and technology programs are conducted with women as scientific leaders or with a high percentage of women researchers. This means that a big portion of Vietnam’s talent is not being tapped. These women represent an important asset for Vietnam in its work to build the critical mass of highly qualified scientists needed to increase productivity--essential for rapid sustained growth.
There are also negative perceptions about women’s abilities to lead - whether in public sector, in business or in politics. Leadership, particularly in politics, is seen as a role for men. Only 24 percent of current National Assembly Delegates are women - the lowest in the last four terms. Vietnam has also lost ground globally in women’s political representation. The country’s ranking has slipped from 9th in 1995 to 36th in 2005 to 50th in 2014. In 2014, only 9% of the 200 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam are women, and only one provincial government leader out of 63 is a woman.
The difference in retirement age, where men retire at the age of 60, while women retire at 55, also exacerbates the low participation of women in leadership positions. The early retirement age for women compresses the period of time women have to gain experience and qualifications necessary to advance to senior positions. In practice, it means that fewer women are able to rise to leadership levels in government and in business.
These aspects of gender equality in Vietnam will need to be addressed. Changing cultural norms and gender stereotypes is a collective responsibility and will need the participation of all Vietnamese. This is not the job or responsibility of policy makers alone. Yes, policy makers need to recognize these stereotypes and must themselves be willing to change their views and perceptions. But coalitions are needed across society to mobilize the support needed for success. This will take time, but judging from experiences in other countries, it is possible to achieve, with persistence and determination and credible champions who lead by example.
Today, as we celebrate Vietnamese Women’s Day, I hope you will find a way to contribute to changing those gender stereotypes or cultural norms that limit opportunities for Vietnamese women, so that we, together, can work towards a society that provides equal opportunities for men and women.