Walking the tightrope of female sexuality

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Illustration: Trịnh Lập/Vietnam News

Last month, our 16-year-old cousin from America visited Viet Nam. She had been here many times before when she was a child. Yet in this visit, as a teenager with a fully grown female body, she was in for a surprise. The girl wore scanty tank tops and very short shorts as she walked around. People stared. Intrusively. Rudely. Which made her very uncomfortable. We were at a loss, not knowing how to respond to this sexually charged cultural crossroads. The girl enjoyed wearing what she wore, it was her taste, her choice, her freedom, her right. At the same time, people couldn’t help staring either.

In the West, choice, freedom and rights are often the catchwords. For about 150 years, spearheaded by Western feminism, women all over the world have been fighting for the right to be equal with men. We have gained access to education, politics and whatever sphere of life we desire. In terms of sexuality, we have made great strides. We can marry, divorce, have sex and give birth at will. We can wear whatever we want. At least in theory.

Yet, after the solid progress that has been made, today we still hear about blatant sexual misconduct committed mostly by men against women such as those revealed by the ongoing international #MeToo movement which reminds us of the lasting patriarchal psychology underwriting predatory acts. The social media movement, which borrowed the phrase “Me Too” from activist Tarana Burke who has helped underprivileged sexual abuse victims out of the limelight for years, started in the glitzy world of Hollywood, with Harvey Weinstein, a film mogul hailed for producing award-winning flicks such as Shakespeare in Love, before his downfall.

As a Vietnamese woman, I’m not surprised. This movement started in the West and captures the worst of Western culture which many feminists have long criticized as deeply patriarchal. Western culture is relentlessly mediated and visual and often treats women as sexual objects. Take, for example, Woody Allen, a quintessential male artist steeped in a cynical and arrogant culture that vaults the idea of individual male geniuses at the expense of ethical or communal values. In Match Point, Allen’s hero has to choose between his sexual passion for a girlfriend and his marriage with a wealthy wife. What does he do? He has sex with the former then kills her! (While fooling his wife of course).

Does this theme of sex and violence sound familiar, not just in the movies, but in the real rapes and murders against women and children that we hear in the news these days? In our Westernized cinematic age, when life is conflated with the stage, it isn’t surprising that women everywhere are being harassed in reality as they are in the movies. And actresses who work in showbiz and put themselves out there are inevitably more exposed to sexual misconduct than nuns who live a cloistered life. There is a difference in degree in everything, including women’s exposure, and men’s misconduct.

Philosophically speaking, when women fight for the right to be equal with men, to join the men’s stage and game, to be “represented”, they should be aware that equality is a double-edged sword. There is another value besides equality: difference. For instance, after being able to free myself from male-imposed ideas of sexuality based on beauty, visuality and quantity (rather than quality), the last thing I want to do is to come up with my own ideas of sexuality and get even. I’ll stay away from sexuality for a change.

From a non-Western and particularly Buddhist perspective, this doesn’t sound as strange as it may in hypersexual Western culture. For a Buddhist, everything starts with the mind and life is a logical loop of desire. Life is not a stage. It is rich and pure, without exaggeration. After her trip to a southern beach where people stared at her sexy swimsuit too much, our cousin adjusted. She said intelligently, “I’ll never wear this swimsuit here again.”

That said, many Vietnamese women are mistreated.

According to a recently released report on gender equality conducted by the non-profit Swedish Fojo Media Institute, over 27 per cent of 247 surveyed female journalists (and 2 male journalists) said they had been harassed, although the number may well be higher. Perpetrators include sources, colleagues and superiors.

Tran Thi Thuy Binh, a journalist at Ha Noi Television who has researched gender for years, says sexual misconduct is often covered up because victims feel they aren’t protected and society blames them for courting what happens. The Vietnamese legal system doesn’t sympathize with victims and tends to dole out light punishments for culprits. Many cases, even cases against children, are processed slowly.

Binh has interviewed 13 executives of the state-owned Voice of Vietnam (VOV), one of the two largest national broadcasting organizations, and found that sexual harassment also happens there as it rampantly happens at every other office in Vietnam, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and the International Labor Organization. Sensitive jokes related to female body parts and sex are perceived as normal and funny, and unwanted touching is acceptable.

I was once subjected to unwanted touching. I was reporting on a musical show with an older male colleague. We were sitting next to each other in a dark theatre. Suddenly the man put a hand on my thigh and squeezed it. I was stunned.

My mind raced: “Oh. What is this? Is it what I’m thinking it is? Where did it come from? Did I encourage him?” My body felt numb and dull. I didn’t make a move. The man didn’t advance. Moments passed… The show ended. I stood up. The man smiled patronizingly, seeing me as an innocent piece of wood. I breathed a sigh of relief and wished never to see him again. And I never did.




Study finds sexual harassment hamper women at media company

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Sexual harassment happens in every office in Vietnam and is linked to job promotion. Victims are mostly women and staffs of the harassers. Illustration: Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs.

In a study conducted in 2015-16, Tran Thi Thuy Binh, a journalist currently working for the Hanoi Television, finds sexual harassment to be a big barrier preventing women from advancing to top positions at a major media company in Vietnam.

In the study titled “Sexual Harassment – A Hurdle of Female Promotion,” Thuy Binh analyzes in-depth interviews with 13 executives of the state-owned Voice of Vietnam (VOV), one of the two largest national broadcasting organizations, and concludes that sexual harassment also happens at VOV as it rampantly happens at every other office in Vietnam, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and the International Labor Organization.

Though women account for nearly half of all VOV staffs, they only make up 22.7% of VOV directors, which is a “quite small” number, indicating women’s subordination at the management level, Thuy Binh writes in her study. The journalist argues that sexual harassment poses a major challenge to women’s career advancement. At VOV, sensitive jokes related to female body parts and sex are perceived as normal and funny, and unwanted touching is acceptable.

Sensitive jokes often happen at unofficial meetings which are considered vital to building social networks and supporting career development. At these meetings, female staffs are expected to drink with men and accept men’s flirtation. A female vice director is quoted as saying, “I’m fine with official meetings because I understand my work and I can answer my colleagues’ questions. I dislike unofficial meetings. These meetings are crucial for career development in Vietnam…They affect promotions. When a woman refuses to join these meetings, her working capacity is underestimated.”

As part of the wider context in which the Vietnamese legal system doesn’t provide an official definition of sexual harassment or mandate clear punishment for aggressors, VOV doesn’t have a code to regulate sexual harassment. Victims thus normally keep silence and harassers aren’t punished. The managers interviewed by Thuy Binh were also reluctant to talk about sexual harassment and call it for what it is. According the journalist, this attitude reflects the interviewees’ family and education backgrounds as well as the patriarchal Vietnamese culture which subordinate women and tolerate sexual harassment against them.

The International Labor Organization defines sexual harassment as any unwanted behavior of sexual nature that affects people’s dignity. It includes three forms: physical action ranging from touching to rape; verbal action such as comments with sexual overtones; and non-verbal action such as unwelcome gestures and suggestive body language.

Before conducting this study, Tran Thi Thuy Binh had also carried out two other relevant researches that bring to light the pernicious impact of hegemonic masculinity on female leadership at media companies in Vietnam, and stereotypical gender representation on state-owned Vietnam Television (VTV).





Closing curtain: the last and tragic days of Hanoi’s beloved movie theater

The news that a beautiful art house will have to shut down to make way for a shopping mall has broken and also hardened hearts.


A view of the French-style courtyard of the valuable independent film venue Hanoi Cinematheque one early morning. Photos: TMH.

It’s raging everywhere. A visceral conflict, a conflict of first principles, between money and tasteless consumption on the one hand, and quality and intellectual pleasure on the other hand. A tension between one group and another in society, and within our own breasts.

Many of us go about life today compromising, conforming and prostituting ourselves to money and everything that it can buy until something personal suddenly hits us in the face, reminding us what a trashy age we’re living in and that we are still proud and decent enough to feel insulted, and forcing us to turn back and choose a course that is more honest.

In Hanoi, it is what hard-core cinema fans feel upon hearing that Hanoi Cinematheque, the lovely, only full-time “art house cinema” in Southeast Asia will soon be shut down, to make way for yet another shopping mall.

Hanoi Cinematheque, which was opened 14 years ago by American film historian and director Gerald Herman, will have its last day on November 30. On the closing night, faithful members and audiences will be offered two American classics, Howard Hawks’ 1948 western Red River and Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white drama The Last Picture Show, a poignant and fitting choice.

Then afterwards, the cinema and the area in which it is located, 22A-B Hai Ba Trung Street in Hoan Kiem District, will be cleared out for the construction of a shopping mall. The high-end shopping center Trang Tien Plaza is right next door.

This new project is developed by a local company. It will have 4 underground floors, and 6 floors above the ground – the same height as Trang Tien Plaza.

With more and more luxurious hotels and shopping malls being built one after another, the future of downtown Hanoi is sealed.

As Gerald Herman, who is better known Gerry puts it, “nothing is secure in Hanoi these days.”

Gerry said in an email that though many people had begged him to move Hanoi Cinematheque to another location, he would not accept the risk. “We could find another place and spend a lot of money to make a new theater, and then be thrown out in a year or two,” he said.

Gerry said his appeal to the developer to let him stay for some more time had been turned down, even though construction will not begin for at least another year and possibly longer.

In an email sent out to Hanoi Cinematheque’s members, Gerry described the developer as “too powerful and reckless and heartless” and that “there is simply no room for us in the New Hanoi.”

The imminent fate of Hanoi Cinematheque is plunging expats and locals into melancholy and frustration. Over the years, Gerry’s 9,000 DVD-strong collection has offered Hanoians an invaluable taste of world cinema.

Hoang Da Vu, a former film theory and criticism student and now a lecturer at the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema, said she was shocked to hear the cinema would be closed. Though she is too busy to go to the place now, it was her second home during college.

A decade ago, there were few sources of world cinema classics for film students in Hanoi to turn to so Hanoi Cinematheque filled in the gap.

Vu and her friends frequented the theater to watch great, well-known old and contemporary foreign films. The cinema, nestling in a deep, old-style alley in the heart of Hanoi, was a cozy “cinema paradise” for the students.

The technical quality of the 89-seat theater was superb and the students were always offered special treatment, either free screenings or very low prices. (The cinema is a non-profit club which operates on annual membership fees and donations per screening.)

Gerry, who also taught world cinema history at the Academy, became a teacher and a companion who inspired many students. Many film courses, events and international film weeks were held at his cinema and the students were given the priceless opportunities to interact with filmmakers and other cinema lovers.

“This place, filled with inspiration and memories, will soon become history,” Vu lamented.

On social media, many people are also expressing warm support for Hanoi Cinematheque, hoping that if not this cinema, then in the future, authorities and investors will show more mercy toward precious cultural values. But this sounds a bit naïve and hypocritical. Capitalist development is a powerful force which is all the more powerful because it has slithered its way into the hearts of many of us. Few are innocent. Corruption is likely just a matter of degree.

Cinema itself is a modern artifact, a form of mass entertainment and delusion, a macho celebration of technical virtuosity, an art of spectacle that exaggerates life. So there is no reason for wishful thinking. If we are really serious about trying to curb our exaggeration and excess, each one of us can start right where we are.

For cinema fans, the best way to carry on Gerry’s mission of promoting art house cinema would include a few things.

First, we should just stop watching wasteful, meaningless commercial cinema altogether. Consumers’ acquiescence is what drives development in the first place. And since independent film venues like Hanoi Cinematheque are now even harder to find, we can use the Internet as a learning tool to get updated on many of the best known classics.

Another channel for watching great classics in Hanoi these days, especially for young audiences, is to join film clubs or public screenings offered by film schools. The true perk of attending public screenings may not be the availability of having a bigger screen than one’s laptop. Rather, it is to have the opportunities to discuss cinema with others.

Film schools often offer lively, engaging discussions after screenings. The Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema screens classics every Thursday afternoon. The Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities screens movies by themes every Friday morning. The Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD) also has themed screenings every Friday evening.

Audiences who once in a while want to catch the best and latest films, whether artistic or commercial, by Vietnamese or international filmmakers, can wait for periodical film festivals. Though big film festivals are often held once every year or less frequently, these events offer cinema lovers intensive, rewarding watching: You can watch a great number of films during the several days a festival takes place and this may be enough to provide a bird’s eye view of cinematic development.

At present, there are three major, highly interesting and successful film festivals in Hanoi: the Hanoi International Film Festival organized by the culture ministry, the European-Vietnamese Documentary Film Festival organized by the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) and the Vietnam National Studio for Documentary and Scientific Film, and the Hanoi Docfest featuring European and Southeast Asian documentaries and experiment films organized by the documentary and experimental film center Hanoi Doclab and the Goethe Institute.

One last note of caution: Today we often see the coupling of corporate money and culture to create what can be called “cultural brands.” After profiting from more ordinary kinds of goods, the rich and powerful deem it fit to invest in high-minded items such as art and earn the extra respect of being cultural sponsors and pioneers, whitewashing any previous bad deed that might have been committed against genuine thinkers and cultural values.

But we should remember that money, and what often goes with it, scale and glamor, aren’t criteria to judge quality and greatness. If possible, and if we have to choose, we should always choose to support what has quality but is smaller and more modest and what thus needs our support much more than corporate cultural projects. And real thinkers and artists should fight the temptation to be hyped-up and become brand names themselves. Hopefully, we can fumble our way out of this society of spectacle.

Mediocre governance performance highlights need for change in Vietnam


One of many banners hung on lamp posts on Hanoi streets urging citizens to vote on May 22. Photo: Thuy Linh.

Annual survey PAPI found growing concern about corruption and the government’s willingness to fight corruption.

A much worse performance in transparency is just one of quite a few disheartening results released last month by the 2015 Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI).

Timely released right before Vietnamese citizens go out and vote for those who will represent them in May, the 2015 UNDP-sponsored index provides last year’s results as well as an overall picture of government performance since 2011 when the annual national survey was first carried out.

The 2015 survey interviewed about 14,000 people across the country about national and local government performance.

Out of six categories examined, the 2015 results show the sharpest drop of 7 percent in Transparency, in part because of less public awareness of local lists of poor households and less confidence in the information provided.

As high as 46 percent those surveyed believe that truly poor households are not included in the official lists to receive government support. Meanwhile, almost 41 percent, which is higher than in previous years, said the households categorized as poor were in fact not.

There has also been less publicity about local land-use plans in the past five years. Just over 11 percent people interviewed said they knew about local land-use plans in 2015. Of those who knew, only 3 percent were offered opportunities to voice their opinions before the plans were issued.

Corruption and bribery

In the Corruption category, people show more concern about corruption in the public sector and less confidence about the government’s willingness to fight corruption. Only 37 percent said their local government was serious about fighting corruption.

Over 44 percent of respondents paid bribes to get a land use rights certificate, compared to just 24 percent in 2014.

It is also services related to land use rights certificates that have been the worst performer every year since 2011 in the Public Administrative Procedures category. Over 22 percent said they had to wait for more than 100 days, not 30 days as mandated by law, to get the land use rights paperwork they requested.

The 2015 index also features a new question about the three most important issues respondents believe Vietnam is facing. The answers are: poverty and hunger; jobs and employment; and roads.

Other major concerns are corruption, law and order, and the East Sea dispute with China.

There are also stark differences between female and male concerns. Women are more worried about poverty, education, jobs and health. Meanwhile, males care more about the East Sea dispute, corruption and transport.

Gender, ethnicity, mass organization membership and education are factors influencing voter participation. Women, ethnic minorities, people with less education and people who are not members of mass organizations are generally less likely to vote.

Top performers

In terms of provincial performance, five provinces, Nam Dinh, Ha Tinh, Quang Tri, Da Nang, and Long An have consistently been the top performers in PAPI.


Hồ Kỳ Minh, vice chairman of Da Nang, speaks at a conference in Hanoi on April 12, 2016. The city is one of the top PAPI performers. Photo: Thuy Linh.

The poorest performers are found along the northern border and in the south-central and Central Highlands regions.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are in the bottom half.

Speaking at the release of the 2015 index, UN Resident Coordinator Pratibha Mehta said the new National Assembly and People’s Councils could use this index as a tool to assess government reform over the past years and benchmark future performance.

So far, 26 provinces have responded to PAPI, issuing resolutions and plans to address citizens’ needs identified by the index.

Tunisia and Malawi also plan to follow this initiative from Vietnam.

Technology is another important feature of PAPI. The 2015 survey was conducted on tablets, rather than traditional paper-based questionnaires, allowing for direct, real-time interactions with respondents.

Provinces and anyone interested can also access detailed information about the index on its website.

(This article was originally published on Thanh Nien News on Wednesday, April 13, 2016.)

Renowned mathematicians welcomed like rock stars in Hanoi

Two prestigious Fields Medal winners in 2010 Ngô Bảo Châu and Cédric Villani have made math sound quite sexy.

More young fans showed up at Ngô Bảo Châu’s and Cédric Villani’s talk at the French Institute in Hanoi (L’Espace) last August than its conference room can accommodate.

Some were invited to come and sit on the stage behind the speakers.

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Many people come and sit on the stage behind the speakers as the number of audience exceeds L’Espace’s conference room accommodation. Photo: VietNamNet.

Let’s make this a rock concert, said Eva Nguyễn Bình, L’Espace director, who invited the world-renowned mathematicians to deliver a talk on how to inspire youths to study math.

Ngô Bảo Châu and Cédric Villani, who both studied math at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, made quite attractive figures, drawing laughter and applause from the audience.

Still in their early 40s, both sounded brilliant, with Cédric Villani, dubbed the “Lady Gaga of Mathematics” looking a bit more flamboyant, more French with his own stylish way of wearing a tie.


Professors Ngô Bảo Châu (L) and Cédric Villani during a talk at the French Institute in Hanoi on August 24, 2015. Photo: VietNamNet.

Both Châu and Villani said, to inspire young students to study math, teachers should be passionate about the subject themselves.

Passion, or motivation, is even more important than ability, said Villani, who is the director of the Henri Poincaré Institute, known as the Sorbonne of math, in Paris.

The second thing teachers can do, Châu said, is to give students problems that aren’t too easy, but just a bit difficult, to challenge them and make them feel satisfied once they figure out the solution.

As for what these two can say to encourage people to pursue math, it is the fact that math is applied everywhere in this age of technology.

Châu said hedge funds are also looking for candidates with PhDs in math to analyze economic data. The field of defense is another fertile soil for mathematicians.

Villani cited a Wall Street Journal study that consistently ranked “mathematician” as the best job in the world today.

Math applications are in fact so ubiquitous that Villani’s institute plans to open an applied math museum in the next five years to inform the public of this cultural aspect of math.

Châu said Vietnamese-French professor of physics Trần Thanh Vân also has a plan to build a museum of science in Vietnam and will reserve a room for math.

Yet, when it comes to the ultimate, private reason for loving math, Châu said for him, it is because with math, he is able to create his own world, just like writers do with their characters.

As for Villani, math feels most familiar because in math, the solutions depend on himself only. He doesn’t have to rely on other people or the outside natural world to test whether his thoughts are right.

With math, we can test things ourselves.

(This article was originally publised on Thanh Nien News on Tuesday, August 25, 2015.)

Vietnam’s ambitious education reform plans come in for praise

The education ministry’s plan to transform general education from a system that provides knowledge into one that develops capacity is necessary but not sufficient, experts say.

Dao Ngoc Thach's photo

Elementary students in an English class at a school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Đào Ngọc Thạch/Thanh Nien News.

A draft plan to overhaul general education (Grades 1-12) that the education ministry has been developing for the past three years envisages the most drastic and positive changes to education since 1945, Dr. Phạm Thị Ly, an educationist has opined.

Ly, dean of research programs at the International Education Institute, Vietnam National University – HCMC, said a consistent philosophy governs the draft and is embedded in every detail and element rather than just expressed as an empty statement.

This is a major change from previous reforms, she said.

The overarching philosophy does not ask the question, “What do we want students to know?” as in the past but “What can students do and how?” Ly told a conference organized by the NGO Center for Research on Development Communication (RED).

The conference was part of a bigger project to use the media to encourage citizens’ participation in policymaking, which is sponsored by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

The conference, attended by numerous media outlets, sought to bring together officials, educators who penned the draft, independent experts and stakeholders – school managers, teachers, and parents who represent students’ interests.

Ly said the draft’s philosophy is embedded in such details as the qualities and abilities that students need to develop, flexible curriculums that give space for electives and follow an interdisciplinary approach at the lower levels and an individual, career-oriented one at the high-school level and a pedagogy that combines both lectures and activities.

But Ly had reservations, especially about the quality of teachers. She said the education ministry should not underestimate the tremendous challenge of (re)-training teachers to change a way of thinking that has been entrenched not just for decades but thousands of years: teachers read, students take notes.

She also suggested prioritizing an increase in teachers’ salaries, which are relatively low now, to give them the incentive to work before investing in infrastructure or teaching equipment.

If public schools’ budgets are limited, the government should focus on ensuring the best possible living standards for teachers and having the best curriculums rather than infrastructure, she said.

Parents who want better facilities can send their children to semi-public or private schools, which have more financial resources.

Pham Thi Ly

A photo provided by RED shows Phạm Thị Ly, dean of the research programs at the International Education Institute, Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City. Ly praised the draft’s overarching philosophy but cautioned that (re)-training teachers to put this philosophy in practice would be a formidable challenge.

Assoc Prof/Dr. Đỗ Ngọc Thống, deputy director of the ministry’s secondary education department, said however that increasing teachers’ salaries is a major issue that involves the Ministry of Finance and several other agencies, not just his ministry.

For its part, the education ministry is particularly interested in getting public feedback on curriculum-related issues such as what the specific mandatory and elective subjects, especially in high school, should be; how to develop new types of exams, tests and assessment appropriate for the new plan; and how the (re)-training of teachers will be conducted.

Ly and Teacher of Merit/Dr. Nguyễn Tùng Lâm, chairman of the Hanoi Education Psychology Association, said another challenge the education ministry needs to address is to give schools autonomy and specify how.

Nguyễn Tùng Lâm emphasized that schools must be clearly classified and given autonomy in all three aspects: administration, finance, and curriculum. Only with autonomy can school principals come up with creative ideas to lead their schools.

Nguyễn Thị Thuận, principal of Tô Hoàng Secondary School in Hanoi, said now schools cannot choose their teachers, whose employment is decided at various levels of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Nguyễn Huy Cường, journalist and head of Sơn An Film Studio, which develops visual and creative teaching methods, said to do the colossal amount of work needed to reform Vietnamese education now, one must approach problems from a new, “creative” way.

According to Cường, for instance, if one sees 15, the age of 10th graders, as an age when students are very sensitive to other issues besides schooling and are easily influenced by outside sources of information, when they are interested in sex and prefer playing to studying, etc., the education system should not force them to spend more time than necessary to learn even some basic, important things, and design their curriculum accordingly.

Cường cited teaching swimming at school as an example of thinking outside the box. A shocking reality at Vietnamese schools is that physical education teachers teach many sports but not swimming, he said.

Since swimming is too difficult to teach and pools are too expensive to build, he said one must change one’s philosophy about swimming.

Swimming, in Cường’s opinion, should not be understood as teaching students to swim well and in various styles, but merely as being able to float on one’s own for 10 minutes since, based on general rescue statistics, if people in danger can float in water for an extra 10 minutes, the possibility of their being rescued increases by 70 percent.

As for building swimming pools, public schools can invite private investors to build and run them as businesses at non-school hours when schools don’t use them, he said.

Võ Trường Toản High School in HCMC’s District 12 has such a pool, which brings the school a precious VND50 million a month in revenues.

Public feedback about the draft can be mailed to RED at chinhsach@red.org.vn.

According to Trần Nhật Minh, RED’s CEO, the Canadian government-sponsored project finances around 15 studies of drafts and policy issues.

Each study will go through five steps: Choose a policy to study; invite experts to analyze and break down into problems; use the media to inform the public; collect public feedback to incorporate into a petition; and send the petition to relevant authorities.

The public can then continue to follow the process and voice more opinions through RED’s website and two Facebook pages.

(This article was originally published on Thanh Nien News on Wednesday, November 11, 2015.)

Chained to chores, Vietnamese women remain unequal to men: study

Study finds Vietnamese women undertake 12 out of 14 domestic tasks, ranging from cooking to caring for family members.

Rigid traditional attitudes that confine women to the exclusive role of domestic caregivers while freeing men for everything else are the basic cause of gender inequality in Vietnam, a new study finds.

Speaking at a conference to announce the findings of the study about social factors determining gender inequality in Vietnam, the director of Hanoi-based Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) shared a telling anecdote.

When asked what tasks his wife do at home, Khuất Thu Hồng recalled, a man can give a long list. When asked, “What do you do then?” the man responds, “I’m the pillar of the family.”


Khuất Thu Hồng, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies, which conducted a large-scale study on social factors determining gender inequality in Vietnam from 2013-2015. Photo: Thuy Linh.

According to the study, which surveyed about 8,500 women and men countrywide from 2013-2015, women undertake 12 out of 14 domestic tasks, ranging from cooking to caring for senior or sick family members. Men primarily do one or two — maintaining and fixing household appliances, and representing the family in contacting local authorities.

To achieve gender inequality, the study suggests women must be freed from their endless domestic tasks without sacrificing families’ well-being.

The study has found that it is partly the prescribed caregiver role internalized by women themselves that prevents women from matching men in education and employment.

Women are more likely than men to have a lower secondary school education or lower, while less likely to have upper secondary school or higher levels of education. Young women are expected to sacrifice their formal education for the benefit of their male siblings and tend to give up their formal education to perform family caregiver roles.

More than 20 percent of the women surveyed did not work because of household chores, compared to only 2 percent of men.

Women are also less likely to get promoted or given a chance to improve their professional qualifications, and the number of women promoted to a higher position is less than half the number among men.

In property ownership, an important factor of bargaining power, it is again the men who often own the most valuable property, including production facilities and vehicles. Almost 50 percent of women do not own residential land and only one fifth of women own land or houses, while more than half of men are sole owners of land or houses.

When it comes to sexual relationships and domestic violence, married women are far less likely to initiate sexual activities and are less satisfied with their sexual activities than men. Double standards tolerating men’s freedom in sexual activities while blaming women for the same conduct are still prevalent among 50 percent of the respondents.

Women also report significantly greater levels of all forms of domestic violence than men, with almost 99 percent of domestic violence cases sinking into silence, reflecting the belief that domestic violence is a private matter and should be kept behind closed doors. Many also still believe it is natural for men to commit violence because they have the right.

Women’s care-giving role and the common assumption that men are better as leaders also limit women’s abilities to take part in social-political activities. The percentage of women who are party members is less than half that of men, and of women working in local government is only one third that of men.

In general, there is little awareness of gender-related laws such as the Law on Gender Equality, the Law on Marriage and Family, and the Law on Control and Prevention of Domestic Violence, with only up to 6 percent reporting they have a clear understanding of the laws.

With these and other findings, the study suggests women and men seek alternatives to traditional gender roles; existing laws that promote gender equality be enforced; and key social services such as childcare and elder care be improved to reduce the burden of housework on women.

Hồng said what is happening in Vietnam and to Vietnamese women and men is the tension between positive government policies and long-lasting patriarchal Confucian values, between ideals and practice.

Her observation is reflected for instance by one finding in which though most people surveyed hold relatively equitable gender attitudes on the value and roles of sons and daughters, in reality there are still couples who apply common scientific and medical methods to have a male child.

Hoàng Tú Anh, director of Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, particularly emphasized the media’s role in promoting gender equality.

She cautioned about the negative influence of tabloid media coverage which often portray women as commodities that can be bought, mindlessly repeat and perpetuate sexist views.


Hoàng Tú Anh, director of Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, has cautioned against gender-insensitive media coverage that perpetuates sexist views about women at the conference announcing the study’s findings. Photo: Thuy Linh.

In response to another observation that women’s domestic labor should be included in GDP calculation, ISDS’s Hồng said this is an issue that is being discussed a lot worldwide, but there is yet any comprehensive research about the subject.

Some efforts have been made to quantify women’s domestic labor in Vietnam, and amounts paid to professional domestic workers can be used to estimate the monetary value of women’s domestic work.

Yet, Hồng said, there remain things that cannot be calculated in monetary terms, such as all the love that a woman puts into her work.

The study’s recommendations indeed include raising public awareness about existing laws, such as the 2014 Law of Marriage and Family, which regards housework done in the family by a spouse as income-generating labor.

The study also recommends conducting more research on the other side of gender issues — men and masculinity — to help develop a comprehensive picture, since most efforts have been oriented towards women.

We assume that men have no problems, but they do, Hồng said. Most victims of traffic accidents or street violence, for instance, are men, she said.

ISDS’s study was sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Oxform Novib and the Australian Government. The full study can be found at www.isds.org.vn.

(This article was originally published on Thanh Nien News on Tuesday, March 08, 2016.)