With International Women’s Day coming up on Mar. 8, former executive director of the International Women’s Development Agency Suzette Mitchell, talks about the role of women in Vietnam
Vietnamese legend extols such female heroes as the Trung Sisters, the 17th century military leader Bui Thi Xuan, and the teenage martyr Vo Thi Sau. But even though the role of women has always been more respected in Vietnam than in many other developing countries, their lives remain difficult.
The struggle for a better deal for women is the driving force behind organisations such as the Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU), whose influence has become considerable. Today there are many more women in senior positions, and women are more visible in the formal economy and public office. But women still juggle the triple burden of unpaid work in the home and family, on farms or in offices and in the community.
For Vietnamese women, this productive and reproductive work often leaves little time for other community or business leadership activities, whether it means being on the local People’s Committee or joining a corporate board.
Vietnam, now that is has reached middle income status, perches between a culture of a Confucian belief system of the past and a modernisation which has yet to deliver equality for women.
Working on development issues for women is difficult — how do you measure change and evaluate how women’s lives have improved? It is much more than access to money, but without cash and assets, there are limits on what can be achieved. My time in Vietnam has been marked by the women who have traversed my life.
Although I have met many formidable and admirable senior women in government and business, it is the women who have not been recognised for their work who impress me deeply as their struggles go largely undocumented.
I met Tsai when she was 16 selling Hmong bracelets on the street in Sapa. I was a frequent visitor to Sapa and would always visit Tsai and her family; I still do but instead of taking rice, cash and MSG (which I was told was a suitable gift in the 1990s), I take clothes, toys and shoes for her six children.
On my last visit in November, when I was saying farewell to her before the journey back to Hanoi, I asked her if she had ever been to Hanoi. The answer was no, and so three hours later she and her baby were on the bottom bunk of the carriage with me, my partner and my daughter, with a bag of her wares. Three days later I packed her up for the return journey, with a bag of clothes for her kids and an album of photos of her standing in front of Hanoi’s sites, including her eating ice-cream in front of Hoan Kiem Lake, the first time she had ever eaten ice-cream in her life.
Khanh, the nanny who has cared for my daughter since she was three months old (she is now eight years old), also visited Tsai’s home with her daughter — the trip was Khanh’s first time to Sapa, first train ride, and first contact with ethnic minority people. During this visit Khanh, her daughter Ly, my daughter Veronika (Vy) and I all went to a local school and donated notebooks, pens and school supplies to a local Hmong school.
Khanh became Tsai’s tour guide in Hanoi, xe om-ing her through town, cooking Vietnamese meals for her and dropping her at places to sell her wares, talking to children in schools and giving cooking lessons (at Hanoi Cooking Centre for the staff). Khanh and Tsai’s lives are as different if they were from different countries, but the opportunity for them to share meals in each other’s houses developed a bond that will last as one of my fondest memories.
Every single day, Vietnamese women inspire me with their strength, bravery and resilience, whether it is a garbage collector pushing a trolley of rubbish double her weight up a hill in scorching heat, or a small vendor eking out a living from a food stall.
The stories of Vietnamese women need documentation, and I am currently working with Jimmy Pham, founder of KOTO, on documenting the stories of how girls from disadvantaged backgrounds grow into women of dignity, strength and success through the KOTO programme. These stories are magical, and for me they represent a context way beyond economic, one in which Vietnamese support Vietnamese in a culture of care, love, community/family and life skills which never leave them.
I have just interviewed Ms Dang Thi Huong from KOTO’s ninth intake of students (2006). When she joined the programme she had spent six years sleeping under stairs juggling selling xoi, housecleaning, attending night school and sending money home to the countryside, which she did on two hours’ sleep a night at the age of 13.
After leaving KOTO, Huong worked at the Intercontinental Hotel in Hanoi for two years, then returned, in KOTO style (Know One Teach One), to give back and pay forward by running the reception at KOTO and Café Hideaway. She currently lives in Melbourne thorough her third scholarship after winning the Victorian International Student of the Year Award in 2013 — Higher Education and Premier Award and the Premier’s Award for International Student of the Year. She is currently completing her Masters’ in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Swinburne University, still volunteering online for the KOTO trainee sponsorship, marketing and communications, which she has done for four years.
As I prepare to leave Hanoi and return to Australia at the end of June this year, I reflect on what I will miss most; cha ca, yoghurt coffee, the eclectic life of an expatriate, the art, the dynamism (the chaos of the streets, but not the vehicle horns) the constant surprises Hanoi life offers; but most of all, the women who help this country to be what it is in all its shapes and forms — from the Trung Sisters to Miss Huong.
Suzette Mitchell first came to Vietnam in 1998 as a volunteer for the UN, and ran the UN Women organisation in Hanoi from 2007 to 2012