In 1999 on my visit to Hanoi Phung Thu Thuy was my guide, interpreter and driver, taking me to my appointments on the back of her Honda motorcycle. She had graduated with a social sciences degree, including a minor thesis in Australian studies. When we met she was working in the Vietcom Bank as well as managing her household: a husband, a daughter and a son. Recently, Phung Thu Thuy has been engaged in training and consultancy work around the country. As a result, she has employed one of the young women who have come from the countryside in recent years to seek their fortunes in the cities. She wrote to me:
My helper came from Xuan Truong in Namdinh province. She is older than Hang [the daughter, a teenager] by one year. My family and I treat her well, trying to fill the gap between the household and the helper. I consider her like Hang and encourage my children to be friendly with her. But as you know, I am still the best cook in my children's thinking. They enjoy the meals that I cook. It is a lovely time when we have spare time to sit round the table with my daughter and my son.
I asked Phung Thu Thuy to write an opinion piece on the future for women in Vietnam, particularly discussing generational differences, as the country grapples with doi moi, or 'economic renovation'. This is a move away from socialist principles of economic production and social life to a more capitalist economy and a more open society.
A flavour of the challenges and opportunities confronting women in the 'new Vietnam' can be found in an extract from a letter Phung Thu Thuy sent me in February 2001. She was responding to a copy of Dolly magazine that I had sent to her daughter:
You are very happy, I think. You have many choices for your life and your work. You can travel from city to city easily and be busy on your projects. I must be jealous of your life. As we discussed during the time you were in Hanoi, I will send you my paper on women in Vietnam and you can edit it to publish in your journal. … As you know, it is the first time I write an article in English with the hope of seeing it in a foreign journal and to exchange my ideas with others who are interested in them.
Here then are her thoughts on women's life in Vietnam.1
Since 1945, when the French colonial rule ended, the Vietnamese government has tried to improve Vietnamese women’s status, not only in the society but also in the family. Women were encouraged to take a part in social activities, operating businesses, and even in parliament. People came to understand the concepts 'woman’s rights' and 'women can be equal to men'. However, it was hard work because Vietnam was a feudal nation with more than 80 percent of its population in farming. Feudalistic customs had limited woman’s abilities and their freedom. However, women’s status has really changed since the doi moi program was launched in 1986. As a result, Vietnamese women have played a more important role in society and business management.
Doi moi is a program in which Vietnam has reformed from a state economy into a market economy. Vietnam faces many difficulties in meeting the requirements of the new economy. There are many opportunities and challenges for women. On the one hand, they have been liberated from old ideas that prevented them from fulfilling their capacities and desires. They have access to higher salaries, more education, and it is easier to find good jobs in the new economy. Young women take up these chances and they have more options. They are much more dynamic than their mothers' generation. Recent research on family and gender shows that women hold important positions, both in social and political life.
On the other hand, these changes bring risks to women, overshadowing the traditional values of Vietnamese society. They have to work harder, spend more time in their paid work, and still take care of children and family. As a result, family stability has loosened. The divorce rate has increasing rapidly in the past ten years. When a wife is always busy in her work, she cannot spend enough time with her family. It sometimes makes her husband angry and he looks for another woman, sometimes the younger woman his wife has hired to help with the housework and childcare. Sometimes the result is divorce or monetary compensation for the husband's girl friend. Married women do not anticipate such an outcome after years of effort. Furthermore, many children have left their home for the streets. Before doi moi, we never saw children selling newspapers or polishing shoes on the streets. These changes seem to be like those which have happened in western countries. Those people who wish to preserve traditional values express concern at the changes in family structure and the loosening of parental control.
Younger women tend to be more independent from men than older women are. This new equality occurs, not only between husband and wife in terms of work and childcare, but also in fashion, consumerism, politics, sex and so on. In the past, women had to do housework alone and stay inside the home. They now ask their men to share the responsibility of childcare and housework and they spend more free time outside the home. They join fitness clubs, or go dancing or shopping with their friends. They enjoy spending more money on fashion items than did their mothers' generation. They want to be attractive even though they are married. Once they earn higher wages through hard work, they demand higher quality goods and then they themselves change our customs. Fashion shops and supermarkets are booming in the large cities. A new style of entertainment has been devised for young women. You can meet many of them enjoying café bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Young women can select their own husbands rather than depending on their parents’ attitudes. They can live alone or share an apartment with a partner. Many young women want to affirm themselves. They want to live alone, especially graduate students. But it is not our tradition. This is very strange to the older generation. It seems women have broken out of tradition.
Family is not considered so important that women will sacrifice their chances for promotion at work. Many decide that their job, including wages, is more important than being married. Ten years ago, an urban woman aged 25 was considered too old to marry, with 20 being considered too old in rural areas. Today, however, women consider how much money they can earn a month and the life they may have with this money rather than wanting a married life. This is true of young women from both the rural and urban areas. Rural women have poured into cities in recent years. They find jobs in sales, domestic help or as waitresses in com bui [small restaurants].
These changes also worry critics. They argue that these shifts have destroyed our traditional values. Either husbands or wives in provinces near cities go away to earn money when the harvest is over. Lacking education, poor living conditions in the cities often lead them into troubled situations. Some men became addicts, some women become prostitutes, either willingly or by being sold by their relatives. It is not so different from China, Thailand or India.
On the other hand, it is argued that "Vietnam will develop from an economy where agriculture accounts for 24 percent of value added and 60 percent of the labour force, to an industrialized economy by 2020".2 It is argued that in the developing nations, many women in patriarchal households and poor areas will be left behind, unless perhaps they can work in factories or operate small business such as selling vegetables, fruit or some such things in the growing nearby urban markets. Vietnam needs to develop the manufacturing sector in both rural and urban areas. Especially in rural areas, industrialisation will attract people away from the land and low-paying jobs.
However, the gap between rural and urban well-being is widening. This threatens social cohesion; it particularly affects women and children. While young urban women with good education are seizing new opportunities, rural women are either poorer, or at least not much better off. The standard of living has been improving in some large cities such as the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang. But life remains difficult for people in the hard areas. Women in those areas still suffer prejudice. They have to obey and to be dependent on their husbands. Their lower standard of living and education mean they have limited chances to compete in the new environment. These problems continue, despite assistance programs offered by the government. This means the assistance of international organizations through the project named Xoa doi giam ngheo [reducing poverty] is very useful. For example, In Ha Giang, a mountain province, women can borrow money at low interest rates for two years. The fund lends each poor family money equivalent to a cow. In addition, the project builds a clean water system for each hamlet. Women have been trained to farm using new technology and have learned how to raise their children better. They have access to evening classes. Many can now read and write in Vietnamese. This gives them access to more information on modern life and allows them to change their fate.
According to the World Bank, "Vietnam is now facing a difficult economic situation that threatens its remarkable economic success over the last decade".3 This means women are facing many difficulties in the coming years. However, today women can move faster if they come from the right background. Many of them are holding highly responsible roles in government or parliament or in the social sphere, assisted by Vietnamese Women's Union projects.4 I believe that many of us will contribute our ability more and more effectively to building the country in the future. We want to be really equal to men in both the office and the family. The contribution of women is very important in developing Vietnam, where over a half of the population is female. Thus we women need experience, advanced education and help. We are willing to receive assistance from others and learn of your experiences because we can not solve the issues alone. We do desire to gain better things for our life and our community.
1. For further discussion of the changes Phung Thu Thuy reflects on see Stephanie Fahey, 1998. ‘Vietnam’s women in the renovation era’ in Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens (eds.) Gender and Power in Affluent Asia London and New York: Routledge.