I was born and raised in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. From my angle of a young female person, gender inequality is still a social problem in Vietnam; women are still considered inferior to men and the sad thing is that women believe and accept it unconsciously.
Vietnam is a country deeply influenced by Confucianism and Confucianism has a really strict view on women. Women have to practice three obedience and four virtues. “Three obedience” means a woman must follow her father as a daughter, her husband as a wife and her son in widowhood. And the four virtues are diligence, modest manner/appearance, proper speech, and morality.
The modern Vietnamese society somehow still look at women through the lens of these three obediences and four virtues. Women are supposed to stay home, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids while men are busy taking important responsibilities.
In modern Vietnam, you can see at the end of the day, women have to rush home to prepare dinner for the family while men go straight to drink beer after work. In family gatherings, women are always the ones preparing and serving food. Men will sit at a separate table with other men or with respected elders. And women will eat after the men have been served. In the past, in some traditional families, women even had to eat the leaf-overs.
In the society, women are advised not to study high or to have high status because it will be hard for them to find a husband. Why? Because men do not want to get married to someone equally or more intelligent, successful and eminent. Men prefer women to be housewives rather than businesswomen or politicians.
Even I, myself, have received advice like: “Girls don’t need to be too smart or have a high degree.” And marriage sometimes is a burden for Vietnamese women. When a woman reaches the age of around 26, 27 to 30, if she doesn’t have a boyfriend or doesn’t get married soon, there are problems with her.
And sometimes, the pressure to get married is too high that young women agree with arranged marriage or just prematurely choose someone close to her. After marriage, there comes the pressure to have children. So being a woman in Vietnam is like being constantly under pressure and under the judgmental lens of the society.
I am lucky to be born in the capital with access to education, opportunities and many other privileges, I am lucky to be in this minority. In rural Vietnam, women can rarely go to college. It can be for several reasons, their family cannot afford the tuition, they get married early, they have to work and earn money, etc. Especially in Vietnamese countryside, young women don’t want to live in poverty or do farming, so they see getting married to foreigners as a way to move abroad and have a better life.
One time, I came across an article about a trend in China, finding a Vietnamese wife. There’s even an advertisement saying: “Vietnamese wives, cheap, hardworking, obedient and don’t run away.” As you know, China had the one-child policy and the gender gap is prolonging so it’s nearly impossible for young men in China to find a wife. So with around $5000 paid to match-making brokers, they can have a Vietnamese bride. And there have been countless numbers of articles on the tragedy of Vietnamese wives in foreign countries, especially China, Taiwan, and Korea.
I was and I am still extremely angry. How can they see women as some kind of goods for trading and buying like that? But I am also sad because those Vietnamese women are gullible. If only they had had learning or working opportunities, things would have been different. I cannot judge them, they just want a better life for their family and themselves.
There are 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam, each has its own culture and language. I just told you the stories of women in the majority, what about those in ethnic minority groups? They face even more and bigger adversities.
I used to work with a group of ethnic minority people in a mountainous area up North Vietnam. Girls normally drop out at the age of 9, either because their families don’t see the point of education, it’s a waste of time, money, etc., or they prefer the girls to stay home, do farming, take care of younger siblings or sell handicrafts to earn money. And girls often get married at a very young age, 15, 16.
They have the tradition of “kidnapping wife”. So young boys will literally pull a girl from the street back to his home and keep her there for 3 days. I call it “kidnapping”. After 3 days, the boy will go to the girl’s home and talk to her father, and it’s time for money talk. If the father agrees with the dowry that the boy is going to pay, the girl is considered married.
There was one time, one of my students was kidnapped. She’s 15 and she asked to go back and visit her family and later that day I received a text message: “Miss Hanh, they got me. I want to die.”
I panicked and started yelling and making phone calls. My friend and I were all ready to go to her village and try to bring her back, we were even ready to be aggressive or violent if needed. But the locals acted like it was something that happened every day.
I asked for advice from a local friend and she said there’s nothing we can do, if we go there, we can make the boy’s family go berserk and we can ruin the relationship between the girl and her father. What’s even worse is that the boy used to marry the sister of my student, but she ran away and that’s his revenge.
We then had to meet with her father and convinced him to let her stay at school. There was also the interference of a lady from the Local Women Union. Thanks to their support, my student is now back to school.
So you see there is still this gap between men and women and Vietnamese women still have a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome to really achieve their deserving position equal to man and get acknowledged for that. Having said that, I see changes for a fairer future for women.
Vietnamese women now start to be part of major decision-making in their families. Husband and wife start to share housework and the responsibilities of childcare or the upbringing of their children. Women are starting to have a voice, firstly in the family, then in their community, their workplace and in the society.
I see young women starting to break the social norms, taking lead of their own lives and succeeding in various fields. My generations have opportunities that the generations of my mother or grandmother didn’t have.
I believe that young women will use those chances to prove themselves and find their standing. I think to be able to achieve equality and progress, men are also no less important than women in the journey towards gender equality.
A global issue
Gender inequality isn’t just present in Vietnam. It is a global issue nowadays in modern society. And everyone needs to change their mindset and stop tolerating sexism; start considering men and women as equal and embracing the beautiful differences both genders have.
At work, I often have long conversations and debates on gender equality and women empowerment. We often discuss whether gender equality and empowerment start from men empowerment or women empowerment. “Men empowerment”, you probably have never heard of it. People only say “women empowerment” because we women are the “weaker” gender. I say women are already empowered, men need it more.
Since we were born, the societies that we live in put pressure on us, cram into our head all kind of prejudices, judgments, stereotypes so we become “functional” in the whole societal system. Societies teach us to put down women, that women are inferior and weak. No, women are beautiful, wonderful and powerful creatures. People are just stuck in their own mindset and they just can’t see it.
A male friend of mine once told me: “Women create life. They are the ones who should be respected.” How many of you can say this? Sadly even women sometimes they allow men and society to treat them like they are secondary and they accept it.
Once I almost cried when I looked into a saving book of a family, they set aside a small amount of money every month for their one daughter and one son. They are saving for their son’s education and their daughter’s marriage. And this is just one in a million examples that we can see every day.
You have probably heard of things like, “Oh girls shouldn’t be too smart otherwise she won’t be able to get a boyfriend”, or “Girls are supposed to do this do that etc…” How heartbreaking it is to see how we are raising girls this way, teaching girls to feel bad, ashamed of themselves, to endure how poorly people treat them, and most of all, we are accepting and tolerating this.
I have been so lucky to have met so many strong and independent women who dare to take lead of their lives, to refuse to listen to what others tell them and to reach out and achieve things they want in life. I also have met sensitive and understanding men who respect women and treat women as they deserve, with love, care, and admiration.
I read somewhere a quote: “The woman is the reflection of her man.” Guys, just think about all the women in your life, your mothers, sisters, daughters, how would you want them to be treated? And to all my beautiful amazing women, you should be cherished, respected, understood, cared for, adored and most of all, loved.