Ms. Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam, discusses gender issues and their impact on women in Vietnam.
In August I traveled with colleagues to An Giang province in the Mekong Delta to visit beneficiaries of an innovative project that is helping 200 Cham ethnic minority women learn embroidery to earn incomes. We were inspired by the positive change the small amount of money invested in the project is bringing to the lives of these women and their families.
The 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 improve economic opportunities for Cham women through the traditional art of embroidery.
“This training and job creation project has helped a group of women earn stable monthly incomes of more than VND2 million (about $100) without leaving their homes,” Ms. Kim Chi, a local female entrepreneur and leader of the project, told us. “This means they can still take care of their children and look after their homes. 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 lifestyle and support each other when needed.”
While we were all excited about the successes of the project, a bit more reflection reminded me that unless cultural norms that 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 that are rooted in culture, religion, and societal norms and are therefore hard to change. To do so we need to be aware and attuned, sensitive to the 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 on gender equality in Vietnam is the strong preference for male children, with couples engaging in sex-selective abortions as a result. 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 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. A decree from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, which lists 77 jobs that are legally prohibited to women, was introduced in 2013 to “protect women from jobs that are considered dangerous”. 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 to participate on an equal footing with men in the labor market. In spite of this, we see that women account for more than 40 per cent of scientific researchers in Vietnam. Nevertheless, only 19 per cent 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.