Gender equality

Give International Women’s Day its true meaning in Viet Nam

By Andrea Prince, Senior Labour Lawyer, International Labour Organization in Viet Nam

Comment | 08 March 2019
If you google International Women’s Day (in Viet Nam), you will surely find, as I did, images of women and flowers, cards and hearts. I was amazed by see how busy Hanoi streets became in the run up to the day, with men flocking to shops to buy gifts and flowers for their beloved women. It seems that the day dedicated to women is all about celebrating their ‘feminine nature” and love. Without a doubt, gifts and flowers are great, but is that really what International Womens Day is meant to be?

In reality, International Women’s day was first celebrated in 1911 as a strategy to promote equal rights. Over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland marched and women demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against employment sex discrimination. Over time, all over the world, International Women’s day also became a day to bring awareness to the achievements of women around the world, as well as a day where all women come together to fight for equality in all fields – but particularly in the workplace.

Viet Nam’s leaders rightly underline the principle of gender equality and as a result, the Labour Code requires women to be treated equally at work. However, like many other countries, Viet Nam has a long way to go to turn these words into equality of treatment, rights and opportunities on the ground.

With a high labour force participation rate compared to the world’s average, female workers in Viet Nam often end up in the informal sector, without proper protection and job security. Among waged workers, women earn 12 per cent less than men. And how often do you see a woman at the Director-level positions out there in the labour market? Not that often I guess as the latest Labour Force Survey indicates only 27 per cent of managers are female. These facts and figures say it all. There are still many barriers for women in gaining access to career development opportunities compared to men.

So instead of giving flowers or celebrating women as passive beauties, International Women’s Day is when attention should be drawn to real efforts to promote gender equality, highlight women leaders and entrepreneurs, encourage debate on equality challenges and, provide space for the voices of women to be heard.

This week, coinciding with the International Women’s Day, I have the opportunity to join two events addressing the need for revising the 2012 Labour Code to make gender equality and non-discrimination become a reality in the workplace. Some of the issues on the reform agenda are the absence of a definition of sexual harassment in the current Code, and the fact that pregnant women and new mothers are currently barred from a long list of jobs. The inequality created by the 5 year gap in retirement ages between women and men is another important issue: as a result of this gap women receive less training and promotions, have lower earnings, and are more likely to have inadequate pensions to live off.

These policies were built upon an assumption that women, as a whole, were weaker and needed protecting. It has always been hard to align this attitude to the realities seen every day in Viet Nam: women doing the toughest jobs – whether rowing groups of tourists in heavy boats around tourist sights, gathering the garbage or mixing concrete and carrying bricks on building sites. Increasingly women are also seen doing tough jobs of a different kind: starting many small businesses and, in growing numbers, running larger enterprises, leading organizations, acting as Government Ministers and becoming leading academic scholars.

The disconnect between the protective approach of the current laws and the proven abilities and ambitions of women becomes starker everyday as the need for change becomes more urgent. Perhaps it is time for Viet Nam to return International Women’s Day back its original meaning. It is a time for women and men to reflect on what policies and laws they believe will enable all workers, but particularly the future generation of women workers, to fulfil their potential, progress further in their jobs, contribute more to the economy and enjoy the equal salaries they should earn for equal labour rather than just smelling the flowers.

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This story was published on Zing.vn on 8 March 2019.

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