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From the 1st to the 6th centuries, the south of what is now Vietnam was part of the Indianized kingdom of Funan. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and had spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century. The Chinese conquered the Red River Delta in the 2nd century and their 1,000-year rule, marked by tenacious Vietnamese resistance and repeated rebellions, ended in 938 AD when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the Bach Dang River.

During the next few centuries, Vietnam repulsed repeated invasions by China, and expanded its borders southwards from the Red River Delta, populating much of the Mekong Delta. In 1858, French and Spanish-led forces stormed Danang after several missionaries had been killed. A year later, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) was seized. By 1867, France had conquered all of southern Vietnam, which became the French colony of Cochin-China. Communist guerillas under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh resisted French domination. Ho Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnamese independence after World War II sparked violent confrontations with the French, culminating in the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Geneva Accords of 1954 temporarily divided Vietnam into two zones (the Communist north and the anti-Communist, US-supported south). Political and ideological opposition quickly turned to armed struggle, prompting the USA and other countries to commit combat troops in 1965. The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in 1973, provided an immediate cease-fire and signaled the withdrawal of US troops. Saigon eventually capitulated to the Communist forces on 30 April 1975.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused Vietnam and Western nations to seek rapprochement. In July 1995, even intransigent America re-established diplomatic relations with Hanoi.

Vietnam is a very poor country of 79 million persons undergoing transition from a centrally planned to a market-oriented economy. Estimated annual gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $375, continuing an improving trend through the 1990's. While the Asian financial crisis caused a significant slowdown, with trade and foreign investment declining markedly, economic growth officially was estimated at 6.7 percent in 2000. Agriculture, primarily wet rice cultivation, employs 70 percent of the labor force, and accounts for 24 percent of total output. 

Almost 50.9% of its population is below the poverty line (World Bank figures). Given its agricultural characteristics, more than half (the government estimates peg it at 90%) of those below the poverty line live in the rural areas. These rural households predominantly belong to ethnic minority groups. In a recent report (August 2000) prepared by its Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA), it was stated that the gap between the rich and poor increases daily. The difference in income between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% increased from 7.3 times in 1996 to 11.23 times in 1999.

Meanwhile, civil society in Vietnam is slowly making its presence felt both at the capital (Hanoi) and the key major cities (i.e. Ho Chi Minh). Made up of both international resource agencies (a.k.a. donor organizations) and local/indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and mass organizations (i.e. Vietnam Farmers’ Union, Vietnam Women’s Union), civil society in Vietnam is involved in a wide range of community development efforts either in conjunction with government or independent of it. For instance, local NGOs and mass organizations are recognized and accepted as making positive contributions to the task of poverty alleviation. With the government’s goals of hunger eradication and poverty reduction, there exists an open attitude to various contributions (whether in terms of material resources or capacity development) from non-government development players. This is partly also due to the recognition that government cannot do everything and that other development players have a significant role in the process of poverty alleviation.  

Government belligerence towards NGOs is notably absent. In some instances, government institutions support the work of NGOs through the mobilization and tapping of its own personnel and material resources (i.e. equipment) for community development initiatives. Such existence of a "favorable" development environment is oftentimes the envy of those in other developing countries.

There is a lot of work to be done in Vietnam especially in the context of its continuing poverty aggravated by escalating health issues such as HIV/AIDS and social concerns such as illiteracy. Given the seemingly friendly atmosphere and environment being enjoyed by most members of the civil society, the country is indeed ripe for creative development initiatives that will strike at the heart of poverty.

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Women in politics, governance and decision-making
The good news is the constitutional and legal framework for gender equality has existed in Vietnam since 1945. The law provides the opportunity for equal participation in politics by women. However, in practice they are underrepresented. Most of the top leaders are men. There is only one woman in the Politburo. Fortunately, women are better represented in the National Assembly, where more than one-fourth of the 450 members are women. Other Vietnamese women hold some important positions in the government. For instance, the Vice President is a woman as are several ministers and vice ministers. More recently however, limited resources combined with economic reforms emphasizing economic growth and infrastructure, have had detrimental effects on social programs, including gender equity.  

Meanwhile, there is growing awareness in Vietnam that neglect of women's role in the economy will place constraints on economic success. In response the government upgraded the National Committee for the Advancement of Women and is now chaired by a Vice-Minister, with participants from key central ministries. Vietnam's Plan of Action following the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing recognizes a continuing need for policies and programs that will maintain and increase women's role in economic and social development. As a result of these actions and the renovation process that is transforming Vietnam's economy from central planning to market principles, women have strong representation in the economy. They are significant contributors - making up 65% of the agricultural, 43% of the industrial and 70% of the informal labor force. In urban areas many women have shown great entrepreneurship and become the main income earners for their families, running thousands of home-based businesses generated by the market.

The status and position of women in Vietnam have undergone significant improvements in the last fifty years. Social indicators show a high degree of literacy (84% for women and 93% for men in 1992) and life expectancy (67.5 for females and 63 for men). But fundamental and widespread economic and social changes occurring since 1986 are presenting critical choices and challenges for Vietnamese men and women alike. There have been opportunities for women to add to the gains they have made in the last five decades, but on the other hand, there is a danger that they may be marginalized and even lose ground on their past achievements.

While there is no legal discrimination, women face deeply ingrained societal discrimination.  Despite extensive provisions in the Constitution, in legislation, and in regulations that mandate equal treatment, and although some women occupy high government posts, few women compete effectively for higher status positions.  The Government has ratified ILO conventions on Equal Remuneration and Discrimination in Employment.  The Constitution provides that women and men must receive equal pay for equal work; however, the Government does not enforce this provision.  Very poor women, especially in rural areas but also in cities, perform menial work in construction, waste removal, and other jobs for extremely low wages.  Despite the large body of legislation and regulations devoted to the protection of women's rights in marriage as well as in the workplace, and Labor Law provisions that call for preferential treatment of women, women do not always receive equal treatment. 

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Important political facts
Government type: communist state
 
Head of state: President, elected by the National Assembly from among its members for a five-year term. In the September 1997 elections, Tran Duc Luong was voted into the presidency.
 
Legislature: Unicameral national assembly called Quoc-Hoi. It has 498 seats and its members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The present President is Nguyen Van An.
 
Executive: The head of the government is the Prime Minister, who is responsible to the National Assoembly. The Cabinet is appointed by the Prime Minister.
 

Most recent elections

Presidential: Sept. 25, 1997
National Assembly: May 19, 2002
Political parties

Only the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, a front of the communist Dang Cong San Viêt Nam (Communist Party of Vietnam), mass organizations and its affiliates, and some non-partisans were allowed to participate during elections. There are no other political parties and pressure groups.

Communist Party of Vietnam
Number of seats in the National Assembly: 444
General Secretary: Nong Soc Manh
Email cpv@hn.vnn.vn


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