By Neena Bhandari
Ha Noi/Hoi An, Viet Nam (IDN) – Pham Thi Kim Viet is up before the rooster heralds the crack of dawn.The rice on the cooker is beginning to boil as she tosses freshly chopped vegetables and fish in a wok. She then hurries to wake her two daughters, 12 and four-years-old. At 7 a.m., dressed in laundered uniforms, she takes them to school on her trusted old scooter and proceeds to Hoi An, 30 km from her home in the mountains of Dai Loc district in central Vietnam, to report for work as a freelance tour guide.
“Each day is a struggle to make ends meet. I work between 10 and 12 hours a day during the high tourist season to earn 20 dollars. During the low tourist season, there is very little work and I constantly worry about paying bills and putting food on the table,” says Viet, who has been coping with mental and financial abuse from her husband. The physical violence ended, when he moved out, but he drops in anytime, sometimes to demand money.
Many of her female friends are in a similar situation.
Viet Nam has a high prevalence of domestic violence. An assessment of the situation of women in the criminal justice system in Viet Nam prepared by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that 58 percent of women in Viet Nam experience some type of emotional, physical or sexual domestic violence during their lifetime, but only 13 percent of abused women sought help from the justice system.
The country is ahead of many others in the region in terms of a legal framework guaranteeing gender equality. It has ratified the international conventions prohibiting violence against women in both private and public places, and introduced national laws, such as the 2006 Gender Equality Law that requires gender mainstreaming in all laws, and the 2007 Law on Prevention and Control of Domestic Violence.
“But the problem is with turning these laws and policies into accessible services,” UN Women’s Vietnam Country Representative, Shoko Ishikawa, told IDN. “Programmes have limited impact and reach because there is lack of political will, expertise and gender mainstreaming capacity in the government, and restriction on non-governmental organisation (NGO) activism influences policy discussions and outcomes. Besides, strong traditional social norms and attitudes, where men are considered the bread-winners and the woman’s place is in the home, further disadvantages women.”
The country has a highly skewed sex ratio at birth (113 boys to 100 girls in 2013) because of sex selective abortions in preference for sons. “There is a law that the doctor shouldn’t reveal the sex of the foetus, but there are many ways of going around it and many clinics are available for abortion,” adds Ishikawa. “Abortion by teenage or adolescents is very high because of lack of sex education and the perception that girls shouldn’t know about sex.”
UN Women has been supporting the revision of many laws to bring them into line with international human rights standards. The Marriage and Family Law now covers de facto union and has removed prohibition of same-sex marriage. Revision of the Penal Code (to be adopted soon) will expand the definition of rape. The revised Labour Code includes a six-month maternity leave provision and recognises domestic work as formal work. The government’s new National Project on Gender Based Violence, developed with UN input last year, addresses gender-based violence in schools and sexual harassment and sexual violence against women in public spaces.
Phuong Le, who is in charge of UN Women’s community-based violence prevention project in Da Nang, was horrified when one evening while returning home from work, she was accosted by a man who suddenly stood in front of her and began flashing his private parts.
“I was shell-shocked and gripped by fear as I was alone on that small stretch of road between the bus stop and my home. My first thought was that he might be mentally ill and may harm me so I began running. Fortunately, my home was only metres away,” says Phuong, 36, who has come across women from all walks of life who have been subjected to verbal and physical sexual harassment at least once, if not more, at some stage in their lives.
A study of 2064 women and men conducted by Action Aid in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City revealed that 87 percent of women and girls had encountered sexual harassment and 89 percent of men asserted that they had witnessed acts of sexual harassment against women and girls.
Phuong, who leads a group of experts providing training to parents and children in prevention of sexual abuse against children says, “We worry about young girls when they go to school or to play in the park. They are often target of men’s lurid comments, groping and/or receiving pornography via text messages. I also worry for my two sons as sexual abuse against children is also common.”
Viet Nam ranks 115th out of 188 countries in the 2016 UNDP Human Development Index. Today, it is a middle-income country and one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies following the government’s Doi Moi economic reforms of December 1986. But rural and ethnic minority women and those in informal work have not really benefited from this economic progress. There is a relatively high rate of child marriage in ethnic minority communities and 46 percent of women still work on small-scale farms with low productivity in rural areas.
“The gender stratification of occupations is very much here,” says Ishikawa. ”Women haven’t been able to take advantage of the new technologies. Our study found that the earning gap widened from 13 percent to 20 percent between 2004 and 2012. One of the factors contributing to that has been the decline in the share of women with technical qualifications. Industrialisation has opened opportunities for women to go out from rural areas and work in factories, but these are routine, low-paid, low-skilled jobs, available only to women mostly in the age bracket of 18 to 25.”
Few women rise to senior government positions. Currently, women occupy 26.8 per cent of seats in the parliament. The National Strategy for Gender Equality for 2011 to 2020 has included an ambitious target of 35 percent women in parliament.
UN Women has been advocating for better access to assets and resources, training and skills building opportunities, and better social protection coverage for women.
According to Ishikawa, “we are surfacing issues such as the burden of women’s unpaid care work and the limited reach of child and family care services, gender-bias in education and vocational training, and limited reach of agricultural extension services. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take us far beyond the Millennium Development Goals that singularly focused on gender parity in education to reach gender equality because SDG Goal 5 gets to the core of gender inequality.”
As gender targets have been set for every other SDG – poverty, education, water and sanitation, employment, peace and security, safe cities and health – Goal 5 will be the key to achieving the 2030 UN Agenda in Vietnam. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 April 2017]
Photos: Pham Thi Kim Viet, a tour guide, shows visitors the map of Huế, a city in central Vietnam which was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors. | (Middle) Women at a vegetable market in the ancient town of Hoi An. Credit: Neena Bhandari.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate
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