Editor’s note: UK Ambassador Gareth Ward writes this piece in celebration of Vietnamese Women’s Day, October 20.
This weekend we celebrate Vietnamese Women’s Day. After a year in Vietnam, I would like to share with you some views about gender equality and why women’s empowerment is important for the whole of society, including men.
Let me start with a few examples from my experience. When I started my career in the British Foreign Office in 1996, the number of female ambassadors was less than 20. This year there are around three times as many. During that period, the proportion of female senior leaders in my organisation has risen from 5% to 30%. The proportion of women in the UK Parliament has also doubled from 15% to 30%. When I started work, there were questions about whether female diplomats could be effective in countries where women’s rights are constrained. But those questions have been answered, as female British diplomats have successfully promoted UK interests in around the world. Of course, we have much still to do. I am the 16th British Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – all have been men so far. I am confident that soon that record will change. This week, I welcomed our first female Defence Attaché to her post in Hanoi. There is now a strong consensus in British society that eliminating gender bias is good for us all.
During my first year as British Ambassador to Vietnam, I have seen women leaders in a variety of roles. In Quang Tri Province, I admired the work of a demining team. All of them are female, working hard to provide safety for local people in places contaminated with unexploded munitions. Recently, I met a team of female doctors and nurses at the Hanoi Children’s Hospital, saving thousands of children’s lives through the Newborns Live Support programme, a UK-Vietnam charity initiative launched by a British woman who is passionate about improving the survival of newborn infants. I also met a group of female peacekeepers who will represent Vietnam in one of the most dangerous UN operations in South Sudan, contributing to global peace and security. I enjoy discussing foreign policy with the spokesperson of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a female leader who has worked at the Vietnamese Embassy in London and is now representing Vietnam to the world.
On Vietnamese Women’s Day, I would like to highlight those women who lead the way in professions traditionally occupied by men. The development of the economy and the health of society depend on harnessing the potential of all. According to the IMF, Vietnam has successfully maintained a female participation in labour force rate of nearly 75% for over two decades. This is a very impressive figure as it outstrips many advanced economies, including the UK. Vietnam’s success in recent decades has a lot to do with women’s contribution to sustainable growth. That is why the UK advocates for gender equality in all our development programmes around the world including Vietnam.
I am also glad that Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice and Supreme People’s Court are discussing the revision of laws to tackle sexual harassment and gender-based violence. This is very important, because according to a recent national survey, 58% of married women in Vietnam have experienced domestic violence at least once, but only 10% have sought help from the authorities. Around the world including the UK, many domestic violence victims remain silent. In the UK, we aim to make it easier and safer for victims to report on violence and seek support. Domestic violence can be experienced by men or women, but the majority of victims are women because they often lack access to financial and legal support mechanisms or are suppressed by social norms regarding gender roles which cultivate an acceptability of gender-based violence. The same applies to human trafficking – 90% of human trafficking victims in Vietnam are women or children. Earlier this year, I was happy to launch a campaign to raise awareness about human trafficking together with the actress Bao Thanh. I am also pleased that we have worked with the Ministry of Education and Training to train 400 teachers about child protection measures. Our societies can only flourish if women and girls are safe, and if men stop perpetrating or tolerating abuse.
Last weekend was the international day of the girl child. Around the world 130 million girls are still out of school. Fortunately, this is not a widespread issue in Vietnam, where men and women graduate at roughly the same rate at the secondary level. However, data show that over 63 percent of working women in Vietnam are self-employed and family labourers. In the formal sector, women dominate certain types of industrial work, such as garments and automobile parts, which are associated with low wages and a high risk of replacement by automation. This is why we have rolled out a series of training courses on STEM education to girls which can prepare them for higher-paying and more impactful jobs. Increasing accessibility to education for girls will boost economic growth. It is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.
Lastly, I am a father of a son and daughter. I felt equally blessed when each of them was born. I believe that both of them deserve fair opportunities and will grow up contributing positively to the society they live in. The current gender ratio at birth in Vietnam has reached 116 boys born to every 100 girls. This imbalance is the result of parents aborting daughters to try for sons or of gender pre-selection methods. It is an issue which is not only sad on a personal level, but will also lead to difficulties for both men and women in the future. I say to all future fathers out there – don’t let old-fashioned views about the role of women cause you doubts about having a daughter. A daughter will bring pride and joy just as much as a son.
I wish you a happy Vietnamese Women’s Day and I look forward to more progress on gender equality in the next decade so that all our daughters can enjoy living in a fair, equal and better world.