In Viet­nam women do most of the un­paid do­mes­tic work, and there is no word for fem­i­nism. Chang­ing this is vi­tal to the coun­try’s eco­nomic fu­ture

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Clifford Coo­nan in Hanoi Read Clifford Coo­nan’s sec­ond re­port from Viet­nam in the World pages of Mon­day’s Ir­ish Times

In AD 40, the war­rior sis­ters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a host that de­feated the Han Chi­nese dy­nasty try­ing to dom­i­nate Viet­nam. Two thou­sand years later, a head­stone in Truong Son ceme­tery re­mem­bers Phan Thi Lan, a 20-year-old killed on the Ho Chi Minh trail in 1972 dur­ing the con­flict known as the Amer­i­can War.

Af­ter the United States fled Saigon in 1975, women re­built a coun­try that had lost three mil­lion young men. All over the coun­try there are tes­ta­ments to the achieve­ments of Viet­nam’s women.

To­day, women in Viet­nam face a dif­fer­ent bat­tle, against thou­sands of years of Con­fu­cian tra­di­tion that places women be­low men in the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy. This is a global prob­lem, and Viet­nam has made great ad­vances in rais­ing the sta­tus of women through leg­is­la­tion, but still they are left with the main bur­den of un­paid care work, such as cook­ing, clean­ing and child­care.

“It is taken for granted that un­paid care work is a woman’s job. ‘I’m a man so I don’t need to do these nitty-gritty things, I need to take care of big things,’” says Hoang Phuong Thao, coun­try di­rec­tor of Ac­tionAid Viet­nam.

A com­pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate, Thao her­self is the daugh­ter of vet­er­ans of the Amer­i­can War, which came soon af­ter fight­ing the French and was fol­lowed by a bit­ter fight against China, none of whom man­aged to de­feat Viet­nam.

“Our pro­gramme and part­ner­ship is a strong con­fir­ma­tion that un­less we work on women’s rights, poverty and in­jus­tice will never be erad­i­cated. Un­less un­paid care work is shared and ac­knowl­edged, more and more women will be poor, not hav­ing time for paid work or ed­u­ca­tion. It’s a strong mes­sage for us,” says Thao.

Even so­phis­ti­cated Hanoi, the an­cient and re­stored cap­i­tal which bears many el­e­gant ar­chi­tec­tural and culi­nary traces of French colo­nial times but has an en­ergy that is en­tirely con­tem­po­rary Viet­nam, has sim­i­lar is­sues to the rest of the coun­try when it comes to un­paid care work.

Two-thirds of peo­ple liv­ing in poverty in the world are women, and recog­nis­ing women’s con­tri­bu­tion through un­paid care work is central to im­prov­ing the lives of mil­lions in Viet­nam, Thao says at Ac­tionAid’s head­quar­ters in Hanoi.

Un­paid care work

In most parts of the world, for fam­i­lies to func­tion, women do most of the un­paid care work or “no-name work”, while men spend more time work­ing for money.

Ir­ish Aid, work­ing with Ac­tionAid Viet­nam, has co- funded a pol­icy doc­u­ment called Make a House Be­come a Home, con­ducted in nine cities and prov­inces in Viet­nam. Work­ing an es­ti­mated five hours a day – more than dou­ble the hours worked by men – Viet­nam’s 22 mil­lion work- age women spend 110 mil­lion hours a year on un­paid care work, equal to more than 13 mil­lion work­ing days. All of the women and girls sur­veyed se­ri­ous suf­fered gen­der stereo­types in labour division.

“Part of the prob­lem is there is no real word in Viet­namese for fem­i­nism,” says Thao.

All power flows through the Com­mu­nist Party, so any fem­i­nist “move­ments” are sup­pressed. Re­build­ing Viet­nam af­ter the war has been a pri­or­ity but chang­ing work pat­terns and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion have seen more women tak­ing part in the work­force.

Viet­nam has been one of the best-per-

Un­less un­paid care work is shared and ac­knowl­edged, more and more women will be poor, not hav­ing time for paid work or ed­u­ca­tion

form­ing economies in south­east Asia, with expansion driven by ex­ports of low- end man­u­fac­tured goods, from Gap shirts to Nike sneak­ers to smart­phones.

Viet­namese peo­ple are ea­ger to share in the ben­e­fits of an im­prov­ing econ­omy, and ev­ery­one pitches in whether it’s trav­el­ling to the cities to work in the fac­to­ries or set­ting up a stall sell­ing gluti­nous rice on the road cir­cling Hoan Kiem Lake.

The re­port breaks down the dif­fer­ent con­tri­bu­tions made by men and women in Viet­nam. Men have 76 min­utes more each day to spend on en­ter­tain­ment and so­cial­is­ing, and on av­er­age, women spend five hours every day do­ing un­paid care work, which is two hours more than men.

“If the govern­ment takes a se­ri­ous look at how the labour mar­ket is be­ing af­fected by au­to­ma­tion and mi­gra­tion and home care, those as­pects will cer­tainly change the whole labour mar­ket,” says Thao.

Un­paid care work is a hot topic glob­ally right now. The Swiss govern­ment reck­ons un­paid care work would ac­count for 40 per cent of Switzer­land’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) if taken into ac­count.

“If un­paid care work is recog­nised in Viet­nam, then the whole un­der­stand­ing about GDP and how it re­lates is changed,” says Thao. In 2015, un­paid work con­trib­uted more than 20 per cent of GDP in Viet­nam. Recog­nis­ing un­paid care work would mean a big im­prove­ment in bud­get al­lo­ca­tion for pub­lic ser­vices like ed­u­ca­tion and health­care and trans­porta­tion.

“We are quite lonely in this strug­gle as we are the only NGO work­ing on this and we are grate­ful for Ir­ish Aid in help­ing us,” she says.

Gen­der equal­ity and fem­i­nism are trou­ble­some con­cepts, of­ten not widely un­der­stood. One of the fig­ure­heads of the coun­try’s eco­nomic rise is Viet­nam’s first woman bil­lion­aire, Nguyen Phuong Thao, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Vi­etJet, a bud­get air­line that features young, bikini-clad women as flight at­ten­dants danc­ing for the pas­sen­gers. Rev­enue rose 39 per cent last year.

And yet, far away from the cabin-crew women in their un­der­wear, on the streets of Hanoi, there has been a ma­jor crack­down on street ven­dors, aimed at stop­ping stalls sell­ing steamed gluti­nous rice, crois- sants or cof­fee spilling out on to the pave­ment and spoil­ing the city’s im­age.


Many of the op­er­a­tors of these stalls are women, and they face the brunt of the crack­down. About 19 per cent of del­e­gates to the coun­try’s par­lia­ment are women, down from 24 per cent, and fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in ed­u­ca­tion needs to be boosted.

“The root cause is not ad­dressed. It’s just a mat­ter of num­bers. Be­cause if we have about 50 per cent of girls go­ing to school at pri­mary, that will stay at 30 per cent in high school and about 10 per cent will get to univer­sity. We can see it very clearly,” says Thao.

Le Khanh Luong, deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral of the gen­der equal­ity depart­ment at the min­istry of labour, in­valid and so­cial af­fairs, ac­knowl­edges the challenges of tra­di­tion and cul­ture.

“The man is al­ways head of the fam­ily and the woman takes care of the fam­ily most of the time. This is a woman’s job, not a man’s job. There­fore there is dis­crim­i­na­tion be­tween men and women in so­ci­ety and there are sep­a­rate jobs for women and men,” said Luong.

Walk­ing through the min­istry build­ing, a stun­ning ochre-coloured French colo­nial ed­i­fice, Luong says the re­search done in the re­port, com­bined with the govern­ment’s own work, has been sup­port­ive in ef­forts to im­prove pub­lic ser­vices and lessen the bur­den on women.

“This can mean im­prov­ing wa­ter pro­vi­sion, so women don’t have to pick up wa­ter in the vil­lage, or in­tro­duc­ing kin­der­gartens or ser­vices for the el­derly. There are poli­cies in­tro­duc­ing pa­ter­nity leave and also to pro­vide do­mes­tic help,” said Luong.

De­spite the challenges, Thao re­mains op­ti­mistic, mostly be­cause she sees signs of hope in the next gen­er­a­tion.

“I am quite op­ti­mistic be­cause I am a woman and I see the changes and I see my two daugh­ters al­ready chal­leng­ing their fa­ther on this. It’s not just au­to­matic that un­paid care work is a woman’s role. But in some ar­eas I am quite pes­simistic be­cause the re­sponse is slow by the govern­ment. I am mixed,” says Thao.

This ar­ti­cle was sup­ported by a grant from the Si­mon Cum­bers Me­dia Fund.

Viet­nam’s 22 mil­lion work-age women spend 110 mil­lion hours a year on un­paid care work, equal to more than 13 mil­lion work­ing days; Far left: Le Khanh Luong, deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral of the gen­der equal­ity depart­ment at the min­istry of labour, in­valid and so­cial af­fairs in Hanoi; left: Huang Phuong Thao, coun­try di­rec­tor of Ac­tionAid Viet­nam.


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