Just as Vietnamese Women’s Day celebrates the contributions of women in our daily lives, so too International Women’s Day (IWD) highlights women’s achievements and the adversity they still face worldwide in gaining access to work, equal pay, education and health care.
For expats like myself, though the struggle Vietnamese women face is mostly hidden, I do hear many examples from my adult female students when they talk of trying to rise within their workplace; blocked by a traditional bias towards male leadership and a reluctance to allow women into positions of control.
Writing about IWD a few years ago, I mentioned famous women (some Vietnamese) as examples of women going places. With more thought, I now feel IWD is more about highlighting the needs of women going nowhere, or those who are permanently stuck in one situation. Let me give an example.
There’s a charming young lady called Dung who runs a small restaurant in Hoi An along a narrow street near some hotels on my side of town. It’s a cute little place with original artwork, decent night lighting and muted music. She married in her early twenties as many do here and will soon give birth to the couple’s first born. Dung is skinny and plain, as is her husband, both of them living half of their lives in the one café with a small bed in the back to sleep on.
Starting out life with poor access to education, Dung was fortunate enough to get the help of foreigners to learn as much English as she could. A diligent student, she now speaks better than many university students I’ve taught. She was also trained in restaurant service by those amazing older female expats who produce real change among the poor. Although they have a small business, a prolonged illness has left them struggling with their bills since they rent the land on which they have built their simple café.
It’s only Dung’s personality that makes the business work. She’s one of those extraordinary people that are impossible not to like. She radiates cheerfulness, and takes genuine delight in meeting and helping her customers. Had she lived in the countryside, her chances of a better life might have been very slim. Unfortunately, hers is a story repeated by millions of women across the world, and we can only change the world when we can reach out to all of it.
While it is not the reality everywhere, what we invest in a woman’s future spreads advantage far wider than most people think. Improving the quality of life for women benefits their children as well.
To share with one half of the world’s population as much justice and opportunity as you expect for yourself may truly answer the question; ‘Why are we here?’. Photo: Suong Nguyen
The simplest example is of women able to work and make enough money to feed themselves and their children, with access to education for both, regardless of marriage, divorce, being widowed or coming from the lowest levels of society. In this example, everyone ‘wins’.
Violence against women (and children) is still rampant around the world and legally enforceable protection based on the idea that women have the same human rights as men is poorly observed in more than 60% of the world.
One of Vietnam’s greatest achievements has been the high number of women educated and participating in the workforce. What still needs improvement is their acceptance in roles of leadership across all levels of government. Already, Vietnam’s economic expansion includes a 30% participation rate by women and increasing that number helps Vietnam’s economic targets.
The National Assembly, for example, still has an overwhelmingly male membership. More women in decision-making roles, especially at the provincial and local levels would bring a more balanced and diverse range of opinions and ideas. Vietnam has tried however; female participation in government has increased considerably although it is not clear what effect this is having on social empowerment for Vietnamese women.
The future of Dung, her child and the fate of millions of women lie in our continued push, by both men and women, towards a fairer world where women do not live in fear for their physical safety and future.
There’s too much to cover in such a short article yet one idea is simple enough...
To share with one half of the world’s population as much justice and opportunity as you expect for yourself may truly answer the question; ‘Why are we here?’