This year marks twenty years since the Vietnamese Women’s Museum opened its doors to the public and it stands as a testament to the gains made by the Women’s Union and continues their ongoing fight for gender equality.
Located in Hanoi’s old quarter, the museum is surrounded by French-style buildings and foreign embassies. However, the history and culture it displays is uniquely Vietnamese and as colourful as the bright windows covering its façade.
Since extensive renovations in 2010, the museum now receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and has been consistently praised by world tourist website TripAdvisor.
It was named in the top 25 most interesting museums in Asia in 2013 and more recently as the recipient of the Traveller’s Choice Award in 2014.
The most popular section of the museum, especially for foreigners, focuses on the sacrifices women have made for national independence.
For over a thousand years, Vietnamese women have fought alongside the men for independence from the Chinese, the French and the Americans and their allies, undoubtedly having a significant impact on gender relations.
Vu Thi Tuong Vi, a Senior Lieutenant Colonel in the Vietnam People’s Navy, believes military service provides women with an opportunity to prove themselves.
“The role of women in the military has a large effect on gender equality. If a woman has a high ranking in the military, everybody has to respect her… society has to respect her. When I come home my neighbours really respect me because of my high ranking.”
The Vietnamese have a history of strong female figures in the military; two of their most celebrated leaders are the Trung sisters who successfully rebelled against the Chinese from 40-43AD. There is a famous Vietnamese saying dating back to this period, “When war comes, even women have to fight.”
Tran Thi Lieu is an 85 year old women who served in medicine manufacturing for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. She believes that military service provides a level playing field for the genders, revealing the bravery and strength of Vietnamese women.
“There was no disrespect towards women as they could be assigned to very important roles during the war… If the country had needed me, I was willing to go to the frontier to fight the Americans.”
The museum not only functions as a site of historical preservation, but also provides a commentary on female culture, dealing with the social issues women face in contemporary life.
As the museum’s website states, “It is also a centre for cultural exchange between Vietnamese and international women for the goal of equality, development and peace.”
The success of the Women’s Museum is representative of remarkable advancements made in Vietnam for women’s rights over the last decade.
Since 2007 the Vietnamese government have had a legislative programme aimed at promoting gender equality and preventing domestic violence.
This month, the Vietnamese Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Pham Thi Hai Chuyen, highlighted their achievements in gender equality at the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
She stated that Vietnam was ranked third in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and 47th out of 187 countries in terms of gender equality enforcement.
Likewise, Vietnam’s massive economic transformation over the last quarter of a century, from one of the poorest nations in the world to a lower-middle income country, has helped facilitate gender equality within the workforce.
Women make up 48.5 percent of Vietnam’s workforce, more than 20 percent of business management staff and in political participation two women were elected to the highest leadership body, the Politburo, as Vice Chairwomen of the National Assembly and Vice State President.
The Women’s Union that established the Women’s Museum has also played an important role in these developments. Senior Lieutenant Colonel Vu Thi Thuong Vi explains,
“In every company and organisation and agency they have the Women’s Union…. So that the union can support and protect the rights of women in the workforce,”
Moreover, just as the museum illustrates the importance of culture, family and tradition, the union tackles similar social issues – visiting women when they are sick or pregnant, providing interest free loans for those in poor conditions, battling human trafficking, providing support for those in rural communities and encouraging women in education.
Most impressively, Minister Pham Thi Hai Chuyen boasts that there is almost no gender gap in education at all levels in Vietnam.
Ngugen Thi Thu has been a professor at the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City for thirty years and agrees that for the most part both genders can receive high quality education in Vietnam.
Although, she believes that inequality still exists due to women’s demanding role in the family.
“Women have a lot of responsibilities in the family, they have to take care of the children and do all of the housework… I can get really angry about my role because I have no one to help me.”
Professor Ngugen Thi Thu feels her work has suffered because of her family responsibilities.
“When I was doing my PHD I could not stay in Vietnam because here I have to care for my family too much, whereas when I studied abroad it was easier. For men it is much easier to take on high responsibility work because their role in the family is not as important or demanding.”
Senior Lieutenant Colonel Vu Thi Thuong Vi shares this experience.
“Women have to study more to educate and train themselves to catch up with men, because men have more free time to learn… we have to take care of the family… it is very hard for us to balance between family and work… it is really hard for me.”
Ngugen Pham My Dugen, a 19 year old music student, shows signs of progress and hope within the next generation.
“I think Vietnamese society is changing, our old society respected men and disrespected women, but now it is a matter of individual families and people. In some cases… the women can do whatever the men can do and also the men can do things considered womanly like housework. If this can be achieved within families, then women will no longer have to suffer inequality.”
Professor Ngugen Thi Thu believes this will be most challenging in the rural areas of Vietnam where there is a stark and traditional separation of the genders.
“They live separately… for example, when they eat… the good food and the noble place is always for the men and the women are given the leftovers and must eat on the ground or in the kitchen.”
The United Nations have launched their international movement HeForShe in Vietnam this month, following their 2013 report which found that 58 percent of women in Vietnam experience some type of emotional, physical or sexual domestic violence during their lifetime.
It appears institutionally Vietnam is well on its way toward achieving gender equality through the efforts of the Women’s Union and government and now it becomes a social struggle, working to change long held customs and beliefs.