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How Is Gender Equality in Vietnam?
Gender equality is also among the focal points for contemporary communist propaganda. For example, The Communist Review, the mouthpiece of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), claimed that Ho Chi Minh was the first Vietnamese thinker to promote gender equality. They quoted Ho Chi Minh in his writing: “If we don’t liberate women, we won’t liberate half of the human race.”
While it is true that Marxism has a strong feminist tradition, the definitive claim that Ho Chi Minh was the first to promote gender equality is very questionable. Regardless of this propaganda attempt, it is clear that the VCP wants to brand itself as a strong advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. The VCP went as far as saying that “women’s liberation” has been achieved since the triumph of the VCP in the North against the French in 1945.
What is the reality of gender equality in contemporary Vietnam, then? Is it as ideal as the VCP makes it out to be?
Women in Vietnamese society
At first glance, Vietnam seems to be a very progressive country regarding women’s rights.
Going back in time, Vietnam has the myth of the Trung Sisters (Hai Ba Trung) as the female soldiers who fearlessly fought and defeated Chinese invaders. In popular history, some even claimed that Vietnam was a matriarchal society before Chinese colonization. Though some historians have questioned this, it remains a popular narrative.
However, as a country with a solid Confucian and patriarchal tradition, women are restricted in many aspects of everyday life.
According to the late political scientist Jayne Werner, even as the VCP tried to reform during the Doi Moi (Renovation) period in the 1980s, the State failed to achieve gender equality. Wener argued that contrary to the formal institutions supposed to empower women, Vietnamese women continued to defer to men in everyday life.
In quantitative research conducted by Oxfam Vietnam, it was found that most Vietnamese women and men surveyed believe that unpaid domestic work is the woman’s responsibility. Activities like grocery shopping are even viewed as emasculating when Vietnamese men do it. Vietnamese households also prepare their daughters to take over the domestic chores.
Overall, on an everyday basis, gender equality does not seem to be the reality for many women. But what about at the institutional level?
Women in modern Vietnamese politics
Unlike the progressive image that the VCP tries to project, women are not very well represented in the political elite. As a previous article points out, the most powerful VCP members are men. Even when women occupy higher office, their positions are usually symbolic or have very little de-facto power.
The “four pillars” of the Vietnamese political system (the party secretary, the prime minister, the president, and the chairman of the National Assembly) are almost always exclusively men, with one recent exception of Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan in 2016.
In 2018, when President Tran Quang Dai passed while in office, the vice president at the time, Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, became the interim president for around a month before Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong took over the role. Simultaneously occupying two roles in the “four pillars” has been unheard of since Ho Chi Minh passed away in 1969, creating a political norm that has never been broken. While the role of the president in Vietnamese politics is mainly symbolic, the Party seemed to agree that it is better to have a powerful man in that position than a woman.
Meanwhile, the vice president's role has always been to women since 1992. This is seen as a way to appear to be giving women a voice in politics, but in reality, the role has no actual political influence. As the precedent in 2018 shows, even if the president passes away while in office, the position of president will not permanently go to a female vice president.
In a research paper, lawyer Wendy N. Duong argues that gender equality in Vietnam has never been a separate movement from socialism and nationalism and that gender equality in the country is largely an illusion. In other words, national liberation and building socialism do not necessarily lead to gender equality, despite what the VCP said in its propaganda.
Because the Party is suspicious of advocacy that does not conform to the Party's ideological line, advocates for gender equality in Vietnam have been unable to advocate for a radical break from the status quo.
Although her research was conducted in 2001, her assessment of gender equality in Vietnam is still accurate today. This is a problem that Vietnam also sees with LGBTQ+ advocacy as activists walk a tightrope between trying to change policies and not challenging the state.
Similarly, while it is good that Communist leaders such as Ho Chi Minh acknowledged the role of women in Vietnamese society and politics, it is not enough to say that socialism will eventually lead to gender equality. Instead, it is questionable whether gender equality could be achieved in a male-dominated authoritarian system where socio-political advocacy is viewed with suspicion.
Cu Huy, Ha Vu. “Meet Vietnam’s New President: The Communist Party Chief.” The Diplomat Magazine, 24 Oct. 2018, thediplomat.com/2018/10/meet-vietnams-new-president-the-communist-party-chief.
Duong, Wendy N. “Gender Equality and Women’s Issues in Vietnam: The Vietnamese Woman—Warrior and Poet.” Washington International Law Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, January 2001. UW Law Digital Commons, digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wilj/vol10/iss2/2.
ILGA Asia. Dare to Dream: The Ongoing Voyage From Invisibility to Community Empowerment, and Foray Into the Region for LGBTIQ in Vietnam. International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), June 11, 2021, www.ilgaasia.org/publications/2021/6/11/lgbtq-rights-report-vietnam-dare-to-dream.
Illing, Sean. “Do Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism?” Vox, December 12, 2018, www.vox.com/identities/2018/12/12/18125659/women-sex-socialism-feminism-kristen-ghodsee.
Kelley, Liam. The Ancient Vietnamese Matriarchy and Western Theory. March 21, 2014, leminhkhai.blog/the-ancient-vietnamese-matriarchy-and-western-theory.
Nguyen, Ngoc Ha, and Thi Van Tran. “Applying Ho Chi Minh’s Thought on Women’s Liberation in the Cause of Comprehensive and Synchronous Renovation, Integration and Development of the Country.” Communist Review, 9 Sept. 2021, www.tapchicongsan.org.vn/web/english/focus/detail/-/asset_publisher/FMhwM2oQCZEZ/content/applying-ho-chi-minh-s-thought-on-women-s-liberation-in-the-cause-of-comprehensive-and-synchronous-renovation-integration-and-development-of-the-count#.
Oxfam Vietnam. [Báo Cáo] Công Việc Chăm Sóc Không Lương: Thực Trạng Và Lượng Hoá Giá Trị. 5 Dec. 2019, vietnam.oxfam.org/latest/policy-paper/báo-cáo-công-việc-chăm-sóc-không-lương-thực-trạng-và-lượng-hoá-giá-trị.
“Vietnam Has One of the Highest Shares of Women in Work in the World.” The Economist, June 7, 2019, www.economist.com/asia/2019/06/08/vietnam-has-one-of-the-highest-shares-of-women-in-work-in-the-world.
Trinh, Huu Long. “Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress: Women Have No Place in Politics.” The Vietnamese Magazine, translated by Ha Thanh, 17 Feb. 2021, www.thevietnamese.org/2021/02/vietnams-13th-party-congress-women-have-no-place-in-politics.
Werner, Jayne. Gender, Household and State in Post-Revolutionary Vietnam. 1st ed., Routledge, 2010, www.routledge.com/Gender-Household-and-State-in-Post-Revolutionary-Vietnam/Werner/p/book/9780415590198.