by Roslyn Ericksen
Vietnam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Laos, Cambodia and the South China Sea. With an estimated population of 90.3 million, Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country.
The Vietnamese became independent from Imperial China in 938 AD. The nation expanded geographically and politically until the mid-19th century, when the Indochina Peninsula was colonized by the French. The First Indochina War eventually led to the expulsion of the French in 1954, leaving Vietnam divided politically into two states, North and South Vietnam. Conflict between the two sides intensified, with heavy foreign intervention, during the Vietnam War, which ended with a North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
Vietnam was then unified under a Communist government, but was politically isolated and impoverished. In 1986, the government initiated a series of economic and political reforms, which began Vietnam’s path towards integration into the world economy. Vietnam’s economic growth has been among the highest in the world since 2000. However, the country still suffers from relatively high levels of income inequality, disparities in healthcare provision, and poor gender equality.
Why Women’s Leadership is Important to Vietnam
Women in Vietnam played a significant role in defending Vietnam from 1945 to 1975. They took roles such as village patrol guards, intelligence agents, propagandists, and military recruiters. By becoming active participants in the struggle to liberate their country from foreign occupation, Vietnamese women were able to free themselves from centuries of Confucian influence that had made them second-class citizens. Historically, this character and spirit of Vietnamese women were first exemplified by the conduct of the Trung sisters, the first figures in the history of Vietnam who revolted against Chinese control. These traits are also epitomized in the Vietnamese saying: “When war comes, even women have to fight,” and its variation: “When the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting” (Vietnam, n.d., ¶ 1).
Vietnam’s political system consists of the unique Party, the Government and other social organizations such as Vietnam Youth Union, Vietnam Farmers Association and The Vietnam Women’s Union, which play a vital role in contributing to the country’s development strategy. Most of the projects regarding poverty reduction in Vietnam are addressed in grassroots ways by the Women’s Union because women know how to work effectively with their communities.
“In Vietnam, if you ask someone to hold the leadership role of women throughout the country, the answer is the Women’s Union,” says Tam (Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam), the Country Convener for this Project. “In the Vietnamese village, if you ask anyone who has leadership abilities of women, the answer is (a) representative of the Women’s Union.”
The Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU) was founded in 1930, and is closely aligned with the country’s pursuit of national independence and development. VWU is mandated to protect women’s legitimate rights and strive for gender equality. The Union has a network that operates at four administrative levels of central, provincial, district and commune, with a total membership of over 13 million women. The VWU has contributed to the achievement of National Renovation in the area of socio-economic development. The current areas of focus are “mutual assistance among women in household economic development, thrift for national construction and women actively study, creatively work and nurture happy families,” Tam says. The VWU is also involved in spreading propaganda and educating women to preserve and promote moral values and cultural traditions of Vietnamese women. Vietnamese women have a significant role in the development, formation and maintenance of Vietnam’s ethical values. One of the mottos in Vietnam is: “Where there is a woman, there is a unit of the union.” Women also play an important role in their family and society in finding the solution to poverty.
Biography of Convener Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam
Tam is a lecturer of public administration at the Ben Tre School of Politics, which trains key officials, managers and leaders who work for governmental agencies, political and social organizations in Ben Tre province, Vietnam. In this role, she has also cooperated with the Vietnam Women’s Union in the province to organize training courses for hundreds of female managers and leaders in the local area.
“It’s important that women have conversations about leadership and develop their leadership skills,” Tam says. “Women need to open their minds to the world. They should learn how women around the world develop their leadership in practice. I believe when women gain knowledge and skills, they will find the way to transfer it in their real life.”
Working in the school for seven years, Tam has trained provincial government staff to share scientific research regarding public administration with those working at the grassroots level. She also directed the Information and Foreign Languages Department and created a project called Applying Information Technology in Public Administration. She has volunteered to teach English for free to many civil servants.
In addition to her desire to be an excellent teacher and to work for pubic policy reform, Tam has a passion for community service. As a youth leader in the Vietnam Student Association in her university, she organized activities for youth in the Mekong River Delta in South Vietnam. In 2006, she was among outstanding young leaders selected to participate in the Ship for South East Asia Youth Program supported by the Government of Japan, which contributed to promoting and strengthening mutual understanding and friendship among the youth of South East Asian countries and Japan. “This program changed my world view and broadened my vision,” Tam notes.
In 2011, she was accepted as a Hubert Humphrey Fellow, a program supported by the U.S. Department of State. During this fellowship year, Tam engaged in graduate-level academic courses at the University of Washington, professional development activities, participation in many community activities and forums. She also had a successful professional affiliation at the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University in Seattle, which is how she came in contact with the Women’s Leadership Project.
In the Conversation Circles, the groups explored four questions:
1. What do you care about in your community and in what projects have you participated?
2. As you engaged in this work, what skills have you used?
3. What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?
4. How do imagine you might develop these skills?
1. Tam convened eight women ranging in age from 33 to 46, all of them having roles within the Women’s Union at the commune level of Ben Tre Province. The women in Tam’s conversation talked a lot about the roles and responsibilities of women to their families, communities, the workplace and as Vietnamese women representing the country’s political and cultural values. There are several movements and governmental groups promoting the expected role of women in Vietnam. The intention of these movements is to enhance the role of Vietnamese women in the modern era, aiming to raise awareness, change behaviors of people, communities and society, and highlight women’s role in preserving, promoting and building good ethics of Vietnamese people.
One of these movements is “Giỏi việc nước, Đảm việc nhà” which requires women to fulfill their three-fold responsibilities as worker, housewife and loyal Vietnamese citizen. The conversation highlighted the women’s desires to follow this movement, and be successful in career and excellent in family care. The newest campaign of VWU says that women should not have five things: poverty; violations against the law and social ills; domestic violence; more than two children; malnutrition in children. They should focus on these three things: a clean house, a clean kitchen and a clean environment.
2. Tam’s group highlighted the skills that enable women to be the foundation for preserving and nurturing the Vietnamese family, community, country and culture. Some of these skills are self esteem, self confidence, a concept of “dam dang” which is translated to mean “good arrangement,” and honesty. They also mentioned skills such as making decisions by consensus, asking for help, maintaining optimism, ensuring family happiness, learning well and teaching children well, being of service and project management. They also mentioned several skills related to economic health, such as creating jobs especially in rural areas for middle-aged or ethnic minority women, earning well, vocational training such as cooking and stringing beads and other crafts.
3. Personal skills the women would like to develop further include mentoring, remaining calm in situations, autonomy and self-reliance, selflessness, kindness, love and honesty. They also want to improve in their ability to serve their country as exemplary women, which includes cooking well, taking care of the family, preserving the dignity, status and honor of social ethics, remaining loyal to the country, community and to friendships, and to providing support for the development of other women.
4. Tam’s group sees several opportunities to fulfill these goals, including education, travel, on-the-job training or new jobs, and taking advantage of modeling clubs, community services and social welfare. They also mentioned being mindful of their self esteem, staying in good health, remaining flexible, and learning within family, community relationships and party committees. They also said they could increase their awareness of the law, by saving money and increasing their income, and by using technology, free medicine and medical treatments.
Kitchen Cabinet Letter to Tam:
I enjoyed reading the historical information and conversation summaries you sent us. It’s clear that these women are very involved in the political realm and in many grass root initiatives on behalf of the development of women in their communities. More so than any of the other countries, the women in your country seem to rely on and partner with the government, formal agencies and associations to set and communicate values and direct practices for developing women.
It’s clear to me that women are viewed as an integral part of the whole community and that their leadership and participation contributes greatly to the development of the Vietnamese family, community, culture and country. I was impressed by the enormous responsibility that you and other women hold to preserve and promote the values of the Vietnamese culture. Reading your notes makes me wonder how you and the other women feel about these responsibilities, and I wonder if men have the same or different responsibilities, for preserving the family and country.
Lastly, I realized again how different cultural lenses can create different perceptions. Initially I had a strong reaction to the word “propaganda,” and I was reminded that this word has a very different meaning, and is viewed quite positively in your culture. I’ve been reminded how much our own personal and cultural filters determines how we perceive our roles, values and responsibilities to ourselves and community.