Research Intern at Jindal Centre for the Global South
O.P. Jindal Global University
Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country, sharing land borders with China, Laos and Cambodia.
In the late-90s, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world. The two-decade long Vietnam war that ended in 1975 had ravaged the Vietnamese economy, disrupting supply and demand lines, creating production issues, rising inflation, and plunging the country in debt. Vietnam was also economically isolated from the rest of the world. In 1986, Vietnam introduced ‘Doi Moi’, a series of economic and social reforms that pulled the country back from the brink of an economic collapse. (Vanham, 2018)
In 2019, Vietnam was projected as the fastest growing economy in the world, overtaking India and China (Locus, 2019). Vietnam economy benefits from huge Foreign Direct Investments into its processing and manufacturing industries from some of the largest economies of the world such as South Korea, Japan, USA, China and Germany.
According to updates from the World Bank, Vietnam’s economy is expected to grow from 2.6% in 2021 to 7.5% in 2022. Today, Vietnam is a prospering lower middle-income country in the world, aiming to achieve high-income status by 2045. (The World Bank, 2022)
Women in the workforce in Vietnam
Another trend that puts Vietnam in the spotlight is the massive participation of women in the workforce. Compared to its neighbours as well as the advanced economies of the west, participation of women in the workforce has been steadily increasing over the years. (Banerji, Gjonbalaj, Hlatshwayo, & Le, 2018)
According to a 2018 IMF report, Vietnam has succeeded in maintaining 70% of women in the labour force consistently for two decades. This accounts for almost three-fourth of the working-age population of women in the country.
Women in poverty
Poverty rates in Vietnam have been steadily decreasing over the years.
Women have been a major contributor to the economic growth and development of Vietnam. This influencing participation of women in the country’s workforce along with the rising economy of Vietnam would imply that women are economically in a good position.
However, it has been noticed that women in Vietnam constitute most of the country’s poor. Poverty is the primary factor that brings down their quality of life, especially in less-developed rural areas. Let us look at how women’s poverty has been till pre-COVID times.
The feminization of poverty is defined as the rising inequality in standards of living and access to basic facilities between women and men due to gender bias. Feminization of poverty has been recognized by international institutions as a global issue. According to estimates by UN Women, UNDP and the Pardee Centre for International Futures, by 2022, 388 million women and girls will be living in extreme poverty compared to 372 million men and boys globally. (UN Women, 2022)
Factors that trap women in poverty in Vietnam
Societal mindset: Vietnamese society is patriarchal in nature. This mindset is not limited to men alone as many women too believe in conservative notions. As in many parts of the world, there is a preference for male progeny. Therefore, even though women participate in the workforce, they are also expected to shoulder the responsibilities of childcare and housekeeping.
Vietnam has a ‘gendered structured’ economy where the prevalent belief is that men are the primary workers in society while the work performed by women is secondary.
Although women and men are granted equal rights under Vietnamese laws, there is a stark difference in how these rights are exercised on ground. In 2015, United Nations acknowledged the gender inequality and violation of women rights in Vietnam during the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Lack of Education: Due to government and non-governmental projects, there has been a rise in the enrolment of girls in primary education centres. However, there are low attendance rates.
In rural areas, this is due to a lack of infrastructure and transportation facilities. Lack of access to drinking water forces women and girls to travel long distances to fetch water, leaving them no time to attend school. Damaged roads and safety concerns dissuade families from sending girls to far-off schools. Additionally, poor families prefer to send girls to work. Even if a girl manages to complete primary education, the rising costs estimated for later levels of study results in them dropping out altogether.
Gender-based Violence: The 2019 National Study on Violence Against Women in Vietnam conducted by the UNFPA and the Vietnam government reported positive changes in gender-based violence against women. However, the data also indicated increasing levels of sexual violence against women, especially from intimate partners and acquaintances.
Domestic violence is another major issue. Since Vietnamese society believes in the notion that men can “discipline” their wives, domestic violence is not publicly condemned as a major crime.
Many rural pockets of Vietnam have shown disturbing levels of human trafficking and sexual exploitation targeting women. Women are sold off as commodities from Vietnam into countries like China as brides, surrogates, prostitutes, or slaves.
Lack of access to Healthcare: Economically disadvantaged women and girls face poor health conditions due to unclean drinking water, shortage of nutritious food and living in poor sanitary conditions.
Women have a need for additional healthcare with respect to their reproductive system. Lack of knowledge about basic reproductive health and contraceptives results in health disorders and a high number of children. The inability to provide for these children add to their economic disadvantage, trapping families in the cycle of poverty.
Vietnam has largely succeeded in reducing maternal mortality rates over time (Malqvist, Lincetto, Du, & Burgess, 2013) . However, access to safe maternal healthcare has been skewed as women from ethnic minority communities, and from poor households are unable to access quality healthcare (Goland, Malqvist, & Hoa, 2012).
The Prevalence of communicable diseases among women is greater compared to men. However, the stigma and discrimination associated around diseases like HIV prevent women from seeking out timely healthcare.
Disparity within the workforce: Even as the labour force and labour market participation are high, there are issues with how women are involved in the market.
Women are mostly found in lower paid sectors or in vulnerable employment whereas men go for formal industries such as IT, engineering and architecture. Despite legal guidelines to ensure employment without gender bias, companies, especially the formal sector continue to prefer men over women.
|Total||By sex||Total||By sex||Total||By sex|
|Unpaid family worker||15.5||10.1||21.2||14.8||9.8||20.3||14.0||9.2||19.4|
|Member of cooperative||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0|
It has been observed that just over a fifth of the women employed are trained for the job. One out of every four male workers receives training for the job in contrast to one out of every five women who are trained.
In March 2021, the International Labour Organization (ILO) released a research brief on the Vietnam Labour Force Survey which revealed that the high labour force participation of women overshadowed the disproportionate problems and inequality faced by them. Women are more likely to be engaged in subsistence agriculture compared to men.
Women are ‘doubly burdened’. In addition to the work performed as paid employees, they are also expected to shoulder the responsibilities of unpaid household chores while men are reported being least engaged in these activities. This also leads to women working twice as many hours as men.
There is a pay gap between employed men and women. This gap exists despite women and men working comparatively similar hours and with similar qualifications in the same industry. This points to a pay gap that is caused by gender bias. Furthermore, women employed in the unorganized sector face a wider pay gap compared to women employed in less economically vulnerable jobs.
Women are less likely to hold leadership positions and other high-ranking titles within the workforce. In 2019, women accounted for 47.7% of Vietnam’s labour force but only 24.7% of them were in management roles. Even within managerial positions, there exists a pay gap between men and women. (ILO, 2021)
These are a few of the factors that lead to women being disproportionately impacted by poverty compared to their male counterparts. One thing is clear: women cannot be elevated from poverty unless gender inequality is addressed.
Recent Actions by the Vietnam Government
The Vietnam government has been active in introducing policies to uplift women’s position in society.
Vietnam adopted the National Strategy on Gender Equality for 2021-2030. The agenda of this plan includes increasing the participation of women in the workforce, reducing the time women spend on unpaid labour and providing access to support services for women affected by gender-based violence. (Nguyen, 2021)
In 2017, Vietnam enacted the Law on Support for Small and Medium-sized Enterprise’s (SME’s) which provides preferential support to women-owned SME’s. In 2019, these law were strengthened to include incentives for training women for the workforce.
Assisted by the ILO, Vietnam revised its Labour Code in 2019 which shifted its agenda from ‘protecting women’ to ‘empowering women’. Among other measures, the retirement age for women was increased and sexual harassment and the gender pay gap in the workplace were addressed. It also ensured job security for pregnant women and new mothers.
The Gender Equality and Girls’ Education Initiative was launched in 2019. This project aimed at reinforcing gender equality in the education sector, raising awareness in society to enable girls’ education and enhancing the capacity of education field workers. (Mesui, 2019)
The number of domestic violence cases registered has been increasing over the years. This indicates a positive shift in societal attitude towards such issues. International pressure on Vietnam has also played a role in this.
Lessons from other countries
The Vietnam government can also take cognizance of certain measures taken by other developing countries to reduce women’s poverty in their respective economies.
For instance, in Honduras in Central America, rural women are organizing themselves into groups that sell coffee beans and aloe vera. This is bringing additional income to families and decreasing levels of domestic violence as women’s standing and power within the family increased.
In West Africa, community leaders in Niger are organizing ‘School for Husbands’. This is an education initiative to create awareness about the benefits of family planning, maternal health services and reproductive health. (Diop, 2015)
In Thailand, external organisations have come in to teach women skills that they have been able to monetise. Example: sewing, rearing silkworms and cultivating silk. Once women are proficient in their ability to earn, they were trained and promoted to leadership positions to teach and guide others.
In Rwanda, reforms in land security tenure systems have encouraged women to increase investment in land. (Diop, 2015)
To raise women and girls out of poverty, gender inequality has to be eliminated. A big part of this is achieving gender justice. Gender justice is equality and equity between the genders at all levels such that women are afforded the same opportunities as men to take decisions and shape the structure of society.
Laws that are sensitive to women’s issues, including workplace-related laws must be strengthened. Women must be made aware of their rights, and these have to be protected by strong laws. It has been noticed around the world that the presence of women in politics helps put the spotlight on women’s issues and empowerment. The predominantly male-dominated government can allocate important portfolios to capable female leaders who will be able to tackle gender-based issues from an angle that may prove to be more effective.
Quality education should be made affordable and accessible to women. Initiatives must be introduced to ensure that women complete their studies as well as get into related workforces so that the knowledge gained is put to use. Some major issues that plague school-going girls in underdeveloped areas are the unavailability of proper roads, the absence of streetlights, transportation facilities, stationery shops, and related infrastructures. The local authorities have to fix these problems with the help of the government.
Trained patrol guards must be appointed in regions that are prone to disturbance and violence against women. Healthcare staff must be well-trained and sensitized to women’s health concerns. Hospitals must be adequately funded to ensure the usage of the latest medical equipment and modern medicines. Special focus must be on ethnic minorities as they are more susceptible to being excluded from social and economic benefits.
Bringing about a positive change in the mindset of society is important to open more opportunities for women in society. The children and youth must be the target population in this regard as it is easier to inculcate progressive values in them in contrast to an attempt to change deep-rooted patriarchal notions in the elderly. In today’s technologically driven world, social media can play a huge role in this aspect. The government can join hands with people and organizations that engage in gender studies and women empowerment to launch online programs for the youth.
Vietnam has made considerable progress in narrowing the gender parity gap through the implementation of women-centric projects, regulation of laws and government policies advocating for gender equality. However, the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum in 2019 showed that even though Vietnam had bridged 70% of its gender gap, it still ranked 87th among 153 countries. This shows that women’s poverty alleviation in Vietnam still has a long way to go.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.