HANOI — Michaela Walsh, a founder and the first president and chief executive of Women’s World Banking, and Lilia Clemente, the founder of Clemente Capital, an early investor in developing nations, went to Vietnam in early June to meet women and observe how they fared with their street carts, market stalls and shops under more than two decades of national economic reforms. The host of Walsh and Clemente was Phan Thanh Hao, a writer, translator and pioneer in the Vietnamese nonprofit world as leader of IOGT-VN, an international social movement founded in Syracuse, N.Y., now based in Sweden. Here are impressions gathered by Walsh and Clemente. — BARBARA CROSSETTE
We met Le Thi May, a successful 29-year-old merchant and her 5-year-old son in the famous flower market in Hanoi. She told us that her cash requirement to maintain her stall and buy the flowers from growers that she sells can be as high as the equivalent of $1,000 a day. Instead of borrowing cash when she needs it, she turns to her extended family system to help her with her financial needs. The family shares the expenses and costs and in return gets a share of profits she makes in sales.
The strong family system, similar to that in other Asian cities, is a pillar of Vietnamese society.
Women in Vietnam account for 52 percent of its 98 million population. Yet a new report released in Hanoi warns of the possibility of a rise in women’s inequality in Vietnam. After a year’s study and analysis, the report — “Towards Gender Equality in Vietnam: Making Inclusive Growth Work for Women” — notes that unless the country improves opportunities for women to get decent work and takes steps to change the situation of unpaid care and domestic work, gender inequality will increase.
From agriculture to education, women and men engage differently across many sectors of the economy and may have different levels of access to resources and services. The report was prepared by UN Women and the Institute for Family and Gender Studies, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, with support from the European Union and Australia.
As the first comprehensive study looking at the Vietnamese economy through a gender lens, the report found that despite women contributing in large ways to economic development, achieving an inclusive growth model remains a challenge. The report notes that while numerous job opportunities have opened up to female workers in export-oriented manufacturing sectors, women are less likely than men to receive training and to be promoted.
The gender earnings gap has widened. Agriculture is still the main source of livelihood for a big portion of the population, particularly for women in the north and central highlands region, but a large percentage of women work without pay on their family farms. This leaves them with limited chances for secure incomes. Many are dependent on the daily help and support of their families.
Nguyen Thi My, who is 39, is a cook in a roadside market, where she prepares typical Vietnamese meals of noodles and fried tofu for workers in her neighborhood. She travels by motor scooter about 15 miles each way from her village to the market and back home at the end of her workday. We spoke with her and watched as she cooked a meal that she sold for about a dollar. Like other women we met, she relies on her family, which collectively supports her with the cash she needs, so she does not borrow money from other sources. Her sister, Nguyen Thi Sau, 36, helps her with her work.
We met two domestic workers who have improved the lives of their families. Tran Thi Dung, 62, works as a paid housekeeper in a caring Vietnamese household. She contributes to her own family with her earnings, since banking with a Vietnamese financial institution is rare. Only 10 percent of Vietnamese use banking services, and the country needs huge education and training projects to reach the masses.
Dung taps into the informal “investment” vehicles known and available to them. She shared with us her access to a “gold fund” from which she secures cash when she needs funds, such as her son’s wedding. After securing the money that she needs from the fund, she pays it back when she has the cash. Her employer’s family says it wants to take care of her “until whenever God calls her.”
Do Thi Khuy, 55, works as a domestic in the Youth Methodology Training Center, founded by Phan Thanh Hao of the nonprofit group IOGT-VN, who uses United States Marine Corps leadership challenge courses in her work with young people. Hao’s own brutal struggle for survival through some of the most turbulent years in modern Vietnamese history gave her a deep understanding of deprivation, and she admires Khuy’s resilience.
Khuy supplements her own income by growing vegetables and raising chickens in the grounds of the training center, where she also lives. This woman has been widowed twice but has supported and educated four children: three sons and a daughter. Two of her children, a son and the daughter, are planning to become a priest and a nun, respectively. The eldest son owns an agricultural equipment repair shop and the other son is a taxi driver.
Our six-day visit in Hanoi merely opened the windows to us on how Vietnam has transformed and rejuvenated the country from decades of war and economic collapse. A reformation in the last two decades of the harsh economic policy that was imposed after the Communist Party consolidation of the country has achieved the second-best growth rate in the region, after China. The major factor is the country’s human-resource capital and demographic dividend, with 47 percent of the people under 25 years old and a 90 percent literacy rate.
The Vietnamese think that the best is yet to come for their country and its people as it embarks on its sustainable development goals.
Michaela Walsh is an activist, scholar, mentor, educator and writer. She was a pioneer woman manager with Merrill Lynch in Beirut in the 1960s, the first woman partner of Boettcher in the 1970s, and in 1980, she was the founding president of Women’s World Banking. She can be reached at http://michaelawalsh.com