Happy Women’s Day, Vietnam: what are we celebrating?

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This Thursday, March 8, people will be celebrating International Women’s Day all around the world. Vietnam is no exception—there will be numerous events arranged by the Government, donors, mass organizations, NGOs, colleagues, and husbands. But what are we celebrating—and how will we celebrate the event?

Last year I went to a celebration of women’s day here in Vietnam where the women’s male colleagues had written little poems about how beautiful and sexy the women looked and how the men appreciated their beauty and femininity. This was such a new and intriguing way of celebrating Women’s day to me.

I come from a place where Women’s day is about manifesting and celebrating women’s economic, political and social achievements and fighting (sometimes very loudly!) for our rights. Most advocates of women’s rights in my country would be outraged by an event that highlighted beauty as the most important “achievement” for women rather than their political engagement, intelligence, compassion, or ambition. They would see it as a way to reduce women to an object for men’s enjoyment and a way to make women more concerned with their physical appearance than with their skills, behavior or personality.

I am sure others would argue that we all like to be appreciated and that feminism has gone too far if a genuine, warm celebration and appreciation of women is not valued just because it highlighted the women’s beauty. There is no right or wrong, and I remember the event as a fun, happy day that all participants enjoyed. It was, however, interesting for an outsider like me to watch. It made me reflect on what we see as the role and purpose of International Women’s Day.

While there is plenty of reason to celebrate the beauty of Vietnamese women, I do think we have so many other interesting things to celebrate in relation to Women’s achievements in Vietnam, which I would prefer to highlight. I look around my office, at the World Bank’s Government counterparts and at Vietnamese society at large, and I see so many incredibly committed, strong, smart, and hard working women.

And if we look at Vietnam as a whole, the country has made impressive progress in relation to promoting gender equality. There have been strong gains in reducing child and maternal mortality (e.g., maternal mortality dropped from 233 per 100,000 births in 1990 to 69 per 100,000 births in 2009). Enrollment rates are now about the same for girls and boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education. The employment rates for men and women aged 25-64 are fairly close at 93.8 percent and 87.8 percent, respectively. Women leaders are more and more prominent in public life as well as in private companies.

Nevertheless, important challenges still remain in Vietnam (you can also read more in the recent Vietnam Country Gender Assessment). Women’s wages are only 75 percent of men’s wages in general and in the informal sector, women only earn 50 percent of male wages despite similar working hours, education levels and seniority. Women still have less health insurance coverage than men. And while the 2003 Land Law has promoted the inclusion of Women on Land Title Certificates, the majority of Certificates still do not include the woman’s name. Gender based violence also remains an important issue and is rising.

So let’s celebrate International Women’s Day in Vietnam (in whatever way you choose to) knowing that there are so many capable, strong, intelligent and fantastic women in Vietnam, but also remembering that more work is needed to ensure that Vietnamese girls and women have the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts. According to the World Bank’s 2012 Development Report on Gender Equality and Development, this is not only important as a development objective in itself, but also because it is ‘smart economics’ for a country. Happy Women’s Day!

How do you usually celebrate Women’s Day in your workplace/home and your country? Let me know.

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