• Wednesday, November 25, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    VIETNAM: Ethnic Minorities More Gender Divided


    Raising awareness: A scene from a play on domestic violence Credit:Matthew Bennett/IPS

    By Helen Clark

    CAO BANG, Vietnam, Oct 2 (IPS) – A drunk man slaps his wife, she hits the ground and the audience of mainly women laughs. At a question and answer session that follows in Tay, one of the many ethnic minority languages, women stand up to talk at length about why husbands shouldn’t hit their wives and why, as women, they deserve equal respect.

    The open-air show at a weekly market in northern Cao Bang province is Vietnam government- and NGO-sponsored propaganda for minorities like the Tay. It has been created with the aim of informing far-flung communities of the country’s law against domestic violence and to help improve gender relations here.

    Plays with a message are rare in this communist country. Usually commune-level officials read out government directives, in Vietnamese, to bored audiences. Many ethnic groups such as the H’Mong and Dao, especially the women, are not fluent in Vietnamese.

    In 2006, an Italian non-governmental organisation (NGO) Gruppo de Volontariato Civile used theatre as a means of communication for the first time in Vietnam. The concept has been repackaged as a ‘gender caravan’ now by Swiss NGO Helvetas in partnership with the Women’s Union (WU), a government women’s organisation with branches in every province in the country.

    The caravan aims to get people to talk about subjects that are considered taboo. The plays are also performed in H’Mong and Dao languages. The name ‘caravan’ goes back to a time when travelling theatre troupes would tour the Vietnamese countryside.

    In 1982, Vietnam ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is better known as CEDAW. There are laws against domestic violence (July 2008) and for gender equality (November 2006). Both laws have come into effect this year.

    A nationwide survey by the government last year reported 20 percent of households suffer from domestic violence – a figure that April Pham, a gender specialist with the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), told IPS in March was “underreported”.

    In Vietnam, 80 percent of working-age women participate in the workforce and there is little lag in literacy rates between the sexes. However, much of this only holds true for the Kinh majority. They make up over 80 percent of Vietnam’s 86 million people.

    In inaccessible rural areas, home to some of Vietnam’s poorest ethnic groups, things are different. Vietnam has 54 government-designated ethnic groups. Groups such as the Tay number one million people (the most populous group after the Kinh) and have living standards similar to the Kinh. Nong Duc Manh, the general secretary of the Communist Party, is ethnic Tay.

    Cao Bang, which borders China – Ho Chi Minh first re-entered Vietnam here after 31 years away – has an ethnic minority population of 98 percent. Most are Tay or Nung. Both groups live in the towns or more densely populated lowland areas. Other minorities, such as the Dao and H’Mong, both of whom migrated from China between two and three centuries ago, are substantially poorer, living high in the hills in remote areas. Gender relations are skewed against women and girls.

    A 2008 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report on maternal health among H’Mong women in Ha Giang province, which is adjacent to Cao Bang, states “from the moment she is born a girl assumes an inferior position that remains with her until the day she dies.”

    The same UNFPA reported that many H’Mong women do not wish to use contraception as they fear they will be scolded or beaten by their husbands, who often have the final say about their reproductive rights.

    The women also have little say in the running of the household or farm.

    A Helvetas report this year, which outlines the caravan’s aims, observes that ethnic minority women are overburdened. “Their workload is so heavy, and their domestic duties so many, that they hardly have any spare time”.

    Also, “women are perceived to be inferior to men and not able to make decisions on their own. When it comes to attending meetings or training, men just leave the women behind.”

    Hoang Thi Lu, 27, a H’Mong farmer, who lives about two hours by bus from the market where the caravan was held, chats over a few glasses of corn wine. “In H’Mong culture,” he says, “the man is head of the house. The women only do the small work, such as taking care of the children, or cooking, or farming. The most important work is to build a house. But you only do that once in a lifetime.” His wife sits in a corner of their plank board house, silent.

    Meanwhile, the audience has drifted back to the market stalls after the playwright and cast were presented flowers – a sign of appreciation.

    Playwright Le Thi Minh Thu, 40, an ethnic Kinh, is from neighbouring Lang Son province. A member of the Women’s Union she has been involved in the performing arts for a long time.

    These plays with a social message are “very new”, she tells IPS. “It’s a very good influence. Even my husband saw this and he stopped bullying me. They (men) think it’s just natural to hit and insult women.”

    Why are men portrayed as bullying drunks and irremediably arrogant? She answers: “All the men in this play are drunk because all the men in this province are drunk. They’re not very intelligent in their decisions. It’s a serious problem.”

    Nong Mac Thanh, 40, a Tay man who plays the bullying husband, insists he’s not at all like that. “They (men) should help their families more – be more thoughtful.”

    All very well, but where were the Tay men during the play? Getting drunk at the concession stands in the market. “They don’t care about gender at all,” says one Helvetas worker who did not want to be identified. (END/2009)

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