The status of women in Cambodia and Vietnam anth. 329
Southeast Asia is a region that has faced great
turmoil over the last few centuries. The
countries were subjugated under the colonial rule of the French and the Dutch.
They have faced wars and conflicts on nearly every level, with the
European powers, with neighboring governments and even civil conflict.
In the last few decades the nations of southeast Asia have faced
unprecedented economic growth, though most recently the ‘Asian miracle’
economy has collapsed, leaving rising unemployment and lack of monetary
resources. All of these events
greatly affect the local populations, though women are particularly hard hit by
these issues. As it had been said,
the measure of a nation’s development can be found in the status of its women. The well being of women is intricately linked
to the well being of their nation, and
when a nation suffers a political, economic, or military setback, so to does the
status of its
As the countries of Southeast Asia have faced conflicts and turmoil so
have the many women who live there.
One measure of women’s status is their role in the economy and
politics. Women’s ability to
participate in the local political and economic system can contribute to their
well being in other areas as well. When
a nation’s women have political empowerment they are able to participate in
the system and contribute to policies that can improve their situation.
A woman with a steady and reasonable income is better able to provide for
the health and education of herself and her family.
Particularly in the case of Southeast Asia, women who have knowledge of
laws and who are able to participate in the government to their benefit, as well
as being able to find reasonable employment, are less likely to be victimized by
the growing sex trade of the region. The
sex trade of Southeast Asia has had a major presence ever since the Vietnam war
and contributing factors can be traced even further back.
With the rise of capitalism and globalism in the region the industry has
only grown. Women may be coerced,
tricked or forcibly sold into prostitution, but
they may also enter willingly on the belief they will be making good money.
The women are often poor, uneducated, and primarily rural, and perhaps
most importantly they are either unemployed or underemployed and selling
themselves seems to be their only viable option.
Cambodia and Vietnam are two prime examples to study the economic and
political status of women. The
women of both nations have traditionally enjoyed a higher status relative to
other nations of the region, but this status is at a pivotal point in these
nations’ developments. The
political and economic status of the women in Cambodia and Vietnam has been
greatly affected by the political turmoil of the last few decades as well as the
seemingly positive shifts to more market oriented economies and more
democratically elected governments. Vietnam
has seen a rise in the segregation of labor, with women taking up lower paying,
lower status positions. Cambodia
was already in a similar situation, although the women of both countries are
increasingly having to support their families by themselves, since they
significantly outnumber the men in their nation.
Although the sex trade has been firmly entrenched in South Vietnam since
the Vietnam war, it has most recently experienced growth in North Vietnam and
growth is being accompanied by a rise in the exploitation and trafficking in
women and girls and a stagnation or drop in the political and economic status of
In the past traditional societies of Cambodia and Vietnam the women
controlled trade. Early European
traders would enter into mutually beneficial relationships with local women, the
men gaining connections to trade further inland and the women gaining access to
goods brought in. Both countries
had a division of labor among gender lines.
The women were in charge of market trading and household finances, men
being involved in other areas such as politics or agriculture, although both
genders may have participated in farming. The
bilinear kinship system of Cambodia offered the women equal property and
inheritance rights, as well as protection from any abusive relationship.
Women in Cambodia today still have a large measure of these property
rights although the government’s laws are hard to enforce.
Cambodian women also have equal rights in bringing divorce suits to court
although some may be limited by certain economic and social conditions.
Women in Vietnam also enjoyed a similar role in trade, although the
Confucian ideals of that society served to limit many of their rights.
Confucianism is based on five basic relationships, one of which is the
subordination of the wife to husband. The
subordination of women was regarded as integral to the natural order of the
universe. By the nineteenth century
the limited foreign and domestic trade of Vietnam was controlled by the Chinese,
so even local women had little to no participation in the market beyond that
which was extremely localized.
There are many recent historical events which have contributed to the
current situation of women Vietnam and Cambodia.
The recent political history of Cambodia is closely linked to the
involvement of Vietnam. Until the
1950’s Cambodia served as a quiet colony of France. By the time of the Vietnam war Cambodia had gained
independence and was being ruled by an authoritarian Prince Sihanouk.
The rule of the French and then of Sihanouk allowed for little social
development as far as the status of women was concerned.
The neutral Cambodia had been receiving aid from several countries,
including the U.S., until the encroachment of the Vietnam war.
The North Viet minh and the Viet cong began using Cambodia as a safe
haven and South Vietnam began to send in cross border forays and airstrikes into
Cambodia. Prince Sihanouk soon aligned himself with North Vietnam.
In the 70’s though, Sihanouk was ousted and the new Khmer republic
realigned with South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnam attempted to drive the North Vietnamese out of Cambodia but only managed
to drive the rebel troupes deeper into the country while bringing even more
fighting into Cambodia. The North
Viet Minh soon began to train guerrillas for the Cambodian opposition force
commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. The
Khmer Rouge was installed in 1975. The
party proceeded to overhaul the socio-economic system in Cambodia, resettling
urban populations in rural collectivization camps and eventually massacring
millions from the educated middle classes.
Fighting continued in Cambodia as the government took up arms against
Vietnam, although in 1979 Hanoi invaded and ousted the Khmer rouge, establishing
the one party, pro-Vietnamese government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
The Khmer Rouge continued opposition though and there ensued a decade of
civil war, which inhibited any attempts at development and restructuring.
Vietnam withdrew in 1989 and the new coalition government began the task
of rebuilding Cambodia.[i]
All of this fighting carries severe demographic implications, precluding
any beneficial social developments that may have been needed.
During the periods of civil unrest the governments themselves were too concerned with their own agendas to consider many
issues of social development, particularly the rights of women.
For more than two decades the country was cut off from any foreign aid
while any domestic funds went to the military, depriving education and health
care. Any advances the nation may have made in the areas of education or
sciences, which may have benefited the situation of women, were
eliminated by the Khmer rouge’s genocidal tactics.
Although Vietnam experienced similar turmoil and even more wars, unlike
Cambodia these events seemed to offer some temporary advancement in the status
of women, particularly in North Vietnam. North
Vietnam began fighting colonial powers early in the century in the first and
second Indochina wars, for independence and for the liberation of South Vietnam.
Consequently South Vietnam experienced different events leading to modern
gender issues, although the post-unification implications remain the same.
The presence of socialism in Vietnam tended to contribute to the status
of women, since
policies were instituted to counter balance the traditional values that held
women as inferior. Besides the
first and second Indochina wars Vietnam was also involved in the Vietnam war, or
American war as they refer to it, as well as the previously mentioned conflicts
in Cambodia. In both countries the
conflicts resulted in a mass mobilization of the male work force, to take up
arms for the cause. In Vietnam this
mobilization left a hole that was to be filled by women.
Legislation was passed declaring the equality of women so that they would
have more freedom to fill traditionally male jobs.
The North’s collectivization of labor was part of a greater strategy to
produce a surplus for industrialization, and the near universal conscription of
males made women’s participation crucial.
Women in North Vietnam were portrayed as fresh-faced and patriotic, much
like the American Rosy riveter of world war two.
The government established Vietnam Women’s Union started a campaign
exhorting their constituents to fulfill “three responsibilities”: to take up
the slack in agricultural and industrial production, to assume leadership
positions in both their households and local administrations and to encourage
their male kin to fight for reunification. The government still considered such
efforts insufficient in 1965, and in 1967 the Central Committee of the Communist
Party passed resolution 53, which established formal job quotas; women were to
fill 35% of all jobs, 50-70% in education, medicine and light industry. The
participation of women in political organizations was higher than at any other
point in Vietnam’s history, from 1965 to 1972 the percentage of women on
people’s councils at the provincial, district and commune levels increased an
average of 18.5 percent. Men still
maintained a hold on leadership positions though, and after the war these
figures deteriorated. Women
currently hold 17 percent of the National Assembly, in 1971 this figure peaked
at 32 percent.[ii]
There is little corresponding data on Cambodia for this time.
Though during the ‘60’s and 70’s there were several factions vying
for power in Cambodia, and the government would not have had the same
infrastructure as Vietnam to support such campaigns that were aimed at changing
social norms. The only regime that
made an attempt at socialism, the theories of which tend to promote gender
equality, was the Khmer Rouge, whose horrifying tactics
prevented any benefit to the nation or its people. Vietnam established the Vietnam Women’s Union to carry out
the programs promoting the equality of women, while no such agency existed in
Cambodia. North Vietnam’s secure
government was able to establish social policies to aid the war effort while
during these conflicts the Cambodian nation was simply thrown into turmoil.
Up until the reunification South Vietnam may have experienced a different
history, experiencing less of a mobilization of male labor and also less efforts
to promote the equality of women, but after reunification the socialist regime
carried the policies of the North over to the South, and many men were taken and
placed in reeducation camps. With
the presence of troops in South Vietnam the women there faced a more unique
problem. An industry grew up around
the military bases to provide the foreign soldiers with ‘rest and relaxation
girls’, better known as prostitutes. Nearly
200,000 girls and women were employed as R & R girls, and the industry
continued to find demand even after the Americans withdrew and the bases closed
down. The demand was picked up by
the tourist industry. Tourism was
heavily encouraged by foreign powers, such as America and the World Bank, as a
way for Vietnam to earn the revenue to pay off their foreign aid loans.
The government of Vietnam implicitly promoted sex tourism to bring in
money. This tourism continued to
foster the sex industry, promoting its growth, so it has now become a major
issue not only in southern Vietnam but in northern Vietnam and Cambodia as well.
A similar situation can be seen in Thailand and the Philippines where
there were also many foreign military bases.
By the 1990’s both countries had begun the process of restructuring.
Cambodia had finally secured a coalition government, and Vietnam had
begun the process of shifting to a market economy with its policy of Doi Moi in
the mid 80’s. Both events had an
effect on women’s status, in Cambodia the door had been opened to women to
become involved in politics and to work toward improving their status.
Vietnam, though, began to see an increase in the labor segregation and
seemed to be going downhill. One
possible reason for this decline of women’s status after the war is a return
to normalcy. Large numbers of men
returned from fighting to take over their previous positions in politics and
industry, pushing women back into the home.
It is also very likely that women’s status began to decrease after the
war due to the shift to a market economy. Some
of the government’s focus that was previously given to promoting equal gender
rights was now redirected toward developing the economy. This allowed for some return of the pre-socialist Confucian
ideals which hold to the inferiority of women, again limiting their economic and
political options. So although
Vietnamese women experienced an upturn during the war, while the status of their
Cambodian contemporaries suffered, they are now both at a similar level, facing
the same kinds of problems as a result of the prolonged conflicts.
Although the mobilization of male labor has ended with the fighting, a
shortage of the male population is still a lingering effect of the wars.
Large numbers of men in their prime were killed in the fighting and
consequently today the females of these nations greatly outnumber the men.
In Cambodia women comprise almost 60% of the total population, 60% of
adults over 35 and 54% of adults over 18 years old.
Over 70% of workers in agriculture, factories and small businesses, those
jobs which form the local base of the national economy, are women.
However, only 10% of those women in factory jobs hold skilled positions,
and women are still a minority in the government sector, only 35% of civil
servants are women. In the 120
member national congress of Cambodia there are only 5 women, none of whom head
any of the 18 bureaus. The figures
are worst for those women over 30, who lived through the most of the conflicts.
For these women literacy is estimated at only 50% and this figure drops
to about 20%
in rural areas.[iii]
The lack of resources over the last few decades has decimated the health
and education systems in Cambodia. The
World Health Organization is currently working with the government to improve
the health situation, but there is no evidence to indicate that the government
is putting as much effort into the education system.
The recent UN Human Development report indicated that women in Cambodia
are likely to receive only 1.7 years of education.
Only about 19% of upper high school students are female.
There seem to be no programs aimed directly at increasing the enrollment
of girls in school. Older
women were hampered in their education due to the direct presence of the war,
but current figures indicate that there may be little improvement over the next
generation. This lack of education
is a major factor that hampers the upward mobility of women in the work force,
so although Cambodian women comprise about 65-70% of the work force, they are
over represented in low paying, unsecured jobs.
In Vietnam women make up about 51.5% of the total population, and 52.8%
of those 20 to 39. Over the course
of the 80’s the educational outlook for Vietnamese women was far better than
that in Cambodia, for that decade females composed 48 percent of primary, 47
percent of secondary and 41 percent of tertiary students.
The implementation of Doi Moi in 1986 however instituted a school fee,
where previously the government provided free schooling and encouraged the
education of girls. This new school
fee may possibly cause a drop in the education of girls as parents are
increasingly unable to provide for the education of all their children. This,
coupled with a rise in female headed households and poor single mothers who
themselves have limited job opportunities does not bode well for the economic
future of the next generation of girls. If
the education level of women in Vietnam drops they will find it harder to find
jobs and their involvement in politics may continue to drop.
During the 80’s Vietnam sent many of its resources, including men, to
the occupation of Cambodia. Consequently,
those women aged 20 to 39 would have at that time been ready to but unable to
marry. They now comprise a large
portion of the population that are single, unmarrieable females in a country
where marriage is expected and valued and children are needed to take care of
them in old age and carry on the family name.
There has most recently been a rise in children born out of wedlock to
single mothers, and
women feel they need to have a son they often have two or more children.
While 10 years ago these women would have been shunned, the government
has become increasingly more tolerant. In
Vietnam’s forestry service, more than two thirds of the 52,000 workers are
female and 28 percent of them are single, the forestry service now provides
equal benefits and maternity leave for single mothers.
women must still work harder and longer hours to support a family on their own.
Both nations are experiencing a phenomenon known as a ‘marriage
squeeze’. This occurs when the
gender of any population greatly outnumbers the other, and results in a drop in
status of that gender which exists in ‘surplus’.
In the case of Vietnam and Cambodia it is the status of women that is
hurt. This situation is especially
hard when it occurs in such cultures that value marriage at a young age.
As a result of the ‘marriage squeeze’ women are more likely to enter
into and stay in an undesirable or abusive marriage.
There is essentially no chance of remarriage should a marriage be
disrupted. As was mentioned above there is an increase in the number of
children born out of wedlock. The
last two factors combine to greatly increase the number of female headed
households. In Vietnam there are
twice as many women aged 35-44 as men, and there are five times as many widows
as widowers. In Cambodia the
portion of households headed by females is around 35 percent. With a fertility rate of 4.5 births per women, Cambodian
mothers must work extremely long and hard hours that are detrimental to their
health simply to provide the necessities for their families. Women in Vietnam are in the same predicament, it is hard
enough to provide adequate nutrition and shelter for their children without
considering their education. When
education is available it may often be feasible for one child, which will most
often be the boy child, the one responsible for carrying on the family name and
the one who will better be able to provide for his parent or parents in their
The economic status of women in Vietnam has been affected by the
nation’s shift to a market economy, by being pushed into low level, low
paying, non-managerial positions, and the women of Cambodia are facing similar
issues as their nation joins the global economy.
As is typical of any developing economy, programs tend to be aimed at
developing those areas of the economy that are dominated by men, such as public
service. The women in Cambodia
dominate in those areas of the economy that receive the least benefit from
globalization and large foreign investing.
Women dominate in the informal economic sector, in small trade, and small
to medium sized businesses. The
women in both Vietnam and Cambodia make up the majority of those in factories,
working as cheap wage and sub-contract labor.
In the event of an economic crisis such as one that just hit Southeast
Asia, it is the exploited factory workers that are considered most expendable,
and are the first to lose their jobs. The
small and medium sized businesses are also some of the hardest hit. Many
thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have experienced sudden
bankruptcies due to high interest rates, currency devaluation and credit
squeeze. Women in Cambodia are
hampered from entering higher status jobs, or from increasing their income from
personal enterprises by lack of education and illiteracy, lack of vocational
training and lack of capital. There
have been many large independent credit organizations popping up recently. Many of these organizations, particularly in Vietnam, often
have and urban bias as well as a preference for large and well-secured loans to
the disadvantage of small savers and borrowers.
This also includes a bias for male-headed households, which may have
higher and more secure incomes. This has, in turn, led to the emergence of a
large and dynamic informal credit market charging higher interest rates to those
charged by official institutions.[iv]
There have been several agencies established to provide capital to poor
women, but they still lack adequate access to capital.
For rural women the situation is even worse, with the decollectivization
of labor the only option for women is increasingly to marry and take care of the
home and family. With the low rates
of marrieable men women must often migrate to more urban areas to find jobs.
Women in Cambodia and Vietnam are facing a poor job market, where any
wage labor work they may find is extremely low level and insecure.
They lack any adequate training, education or capital that may allow for
successful personal enterprise. Young
girls may be seen as a burden on their family and may feel obligated help their
family financially. All of these
factors combine to make women extremely vulnerable to exploitation by brothels
and traffickers in women. Women in
rural areas are often approached by recruiters for the sex industry, they are
either convinced there is a legit job waiting for them in the city, or even
another country, or, given their lack of other options, they willingly go with
the recruiter to work in a brothel. The
parents of young girls are often approached by recruiters, and many sell their
daughters to them, it being perceived as the only way the daughter may fulfill
her obligation to the family, or because there are simply not the resources to
keep supporting her. Daughters are
also often sold to the brothels directly. Many
women opt to enter into prostitution, as they believe they will earn more than
at any other occupation. There are
also many young girls who are forcibly taken from their families and sold into
debt bondage to brothels. Cambodian
and Vietnamese women are prime targets for exploitation due to their lack of
education and other viable job options. They
are often lured by deceptive job offers, or phony group travel deals.
Many women believe working as a prostitute will increase their income.
In actuality prostitutes are taken advantage of by pimps and brothel
owners so that they never see most of their income.
Many women sold to brothels must work off their debt to the owners, but the exorbitant amounts claimed by the
brothel take years to eliminate. Often
one brothel will sell a girl to another brothel just before her debt is paid off
so that she has to start from zero again. Should
a girl manage to pay it off, she is often so entrenched in the industry that she
has no other option but to stay. Increasingly, in the years it takes a woman to work out of
debt bondage, she has already contracted HIV, whereupon she is usually sent home
to die. Many women are taken across
borders, many Vietnamese women are trafficked into Cambodia, where they are
further limited by their inability to speak the language or to find recompense
in the local law. With the rise in
prevalence of STD’s there is an increase in demand for younger girls, who are
believed to be healthier. To supply
these young girls traffickers are increasing the use of deceptive methods to
recruit girls. The current average
age of prostitutes in Vietnam and Cambodia is
about 14 years.
Prostitution has had a long history in the Southeast Asian region. The development of prostitution can be traced to pre-colonial
times when there was an influx of European and Chinese traders into the region.
Early on, European traders would enter into the respected arrangement of
a temporary marriage,
but the position
of a temporary wife became increasingly less high status.
Chinese traders opted for the more convenient option of buying a slave or
concubine, Europeans soon followed suit. The
demand for these women increased and the region became known to westerners as a
place where women were immoral and sex could easily be bought.
The current magnitude of the sex industry can be mostly attributed to the
war era. As was mentioned earlier, the industry grew up around foreign
military bases. The countries came
to rely on the revenue earned from foreign soldiers and after the war encouraged
tourism to fill the gap left by withdrawing troops. Tourism in the region
continued to grow, along with it the sex trade. Cambodia more recently
experienced the same phenomenon with the presence of the UN transitional
authority on Cambodia. With the presence of UNTAC and its accompanying troops,
the number of prostitutes in Phnom Penh jumped to over 20,000. Although this number was cut in half when UNTAC left in
‘93, the average age of the prostitutes also dropped, so the majority left
were under 18.
There was also a rise in abduction or deception for sale to brothels.
An estimated 68 percent were sold to brothels.
The industry is only fueled by the rise in capitalist and consumerist
ideals in Cambodia and Vietnam and the accompanying tendency to commodify
everything, especially sex. Today
these countries often claim that it is foreign demand that supports
prostitution, but there is an increasing demand among local men as well.
By one account, more than half the men in southern Vietnam buy the
services of a prostitute at least
once a day.
Both Vietnam and Cambodia have laws making prostitution illegal, as well
as laws specifically to protect minors, but both nations lack the resources to
enforce these laws. Often local law
enforcement is corrupt, providing protection for brothels.
There is also a passive and implicit support of the governments for the
industry due to the revenues it draws in. Recently
the governments have become more active in addressing the issue, but this is
less out of a concern for women’s welfare than out of a concern for the rise
in AIDS and other diseases. Both nations are party to the Convention to End All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The
Convention calls for the decriminalization of the prostitute, and the
consideration of sexual slavery and trafficking as a human rights issue. There
is a big gap between the words on paper and actual practice.
Both countries lack the proper resources or motivation to enforce
There have been many conventions and declarations addressing the issue of
the exploitation of women. Besides
CEDAW, there is the ‘Beijing Declaration and Platform for action’, which
calls for a promotion of the status of women internationally. The declaration contains many of the same points as CEDAW,
calling for a consideration of the issue as a human rights problem, stressing
that exploited and trafficked women need more protection by the law, the
decriminalization of the prostitute and harsher penalties for those who traffick
or use the services of a prostitute. The
primary responsibility for implementing the declaration though, rests with the
governments, so there has been extremely little implementation in Vietnam or
There is also the Coalition to end Trafficking in Women (CATW).
CATW- Asia/pacific is an “international network of feminist groups and
agencies that aims to better coordinate information and responses to trafficking
of Asian women, and to address the issues with a stronger and united voice.
CATW has worked in conjunction with UNESCO to develop the Proposed Draft
Convention Against Sexual Exploitation that has been presented to the United
CATW also works to educate through various media,
including the internet, on the issue of trafficked and exploited women.
Much like the Beijing Platform though, there is nothing in place to
ensure cooperation of or implementation by the governments.
These declarations have however, been successful in establishing
guidelines by which laws may be made, and some pressure has been exerted on
these countries to improve the laws. With
the lack of resources and the corruption at local levels though, even the good
intentions of the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments may not translate into
There are some local NGO’s working toward the improved status of women
in these nations. These agencies
appear to be fairly successful in their goals, particularly those involving
micro-credit schemes. These are
mostly grass-roots agencies, many are run by or established by local women
themselves. They tend to be fairly
small in scale, having been only recently established.
Khemara was the first local NGO established in Cambodia, in the early
1990’s for the advancement of women. Khemara
is a grass roots organization founded and run by women. Khemara’s executive director is Ms. Sochua Mu Leiper,
special advisor in women’s affairs to the prime minister. The programs focus primarily on skills and leadership
development. Khemara is currently
running several projects. One such
project is Women in Business. This
project selects women in the villages surrounding Phnom Penh to attend skills
development training. After a training which takes from 3 to 9 months, the women
obtain credit to found a business. Training and technical support to the women
continue throughout. The types of
training the women receive includes: weaving, crafts, retail business training,
restaurant business, food processing, printing, computer training and office
management. The program involves over 300 women.
This project also includes Khemara House, a retail outlet where staff are
trained in running a retail outlet and are prepared for setting up and running
their own small scale business in Phnom Penh. Khemara staff train the women and
are in turn trained by outside consultants. The goal of Women in Business is to ensure the economic and social empowerment of women.[vi]
This project seems to be successful in helping the women involved in the
program, although the project is still fairly new and localized around the Phnom
Penh area. Khemara also runs a
literacy project in which village volunteers are trained in literacy and
numeracy. These volunteers in turn
teach village women basic literacy skills.
Teenagers and high school graduates are trained to manage mobile
libraries. The project reports to
have reached about two hundred women in the last two years.
One of the major successes of Khemara occurred early on with the first
national elections. Khemara worked to implement the plan of UNIFEM, with support
from UNTAC and UNDP to raise awareness of women’s issues among other NGO’s
and the government. The project
also worked to increase the involvement of women in the political process.
Khemara ran a series of discussions and open dialogues culminating in a 3
day national summit to establish what issues where important to women.
Women were trained to be able to propose suggestions to the government. During the election voter turnout was at about 90 percent and
at one polling station, the percentage of women was at 60.
After the election information gained from dialogue with local women was
compiled into a proposal for the government.
Consequently the new constitution included four clauses providing for the
equal rights of women, including equal pay for equal work.
This short term program was successful in its immediate goals, though
work must remain constant to maintain women’s involvement in politics.
This project also incited the development of other small feminist
organizations for which data is not available.
While Khemara works for women in Cambodia, the primary organization in
Vietnam is the Vietnam Women’s Union. The
VWU was established by the socialist government as loyal opposition.
VWU has worked for the equal rights of women and is the primary voice of
women in Vietnam, with about 11,000 members.
Because VWU has ties to the government it must still support the
government even if it appears that certain policies are not beneficial to women.
This position does however give the VWU an easier position to work from
in dealing with the national assembly. Privatization
and liberalization in Vietnam has reduced state control in various socioeconomic
sectors. This threatens to weaken the role of the Vietnam Women’s Union, and
thus also weaken the voice of Vietnam’s women. UNIFEM, with UNDP Hanoi, is
working with the members of the Union to strengthen its capacity to identify and
address emerging women's issues and gender concerns. There has been some past
criticism of the Union, claims that it served to remove women from mainstream
politics, but the VWU has long been the primary or only political voice of women
in Vietnam. The VWU has five main
programs to increase the status of women, through education in matters of health
and family planning, as well as education on production and business
development. Over 920,000 Union
staff have been trained and retrained to build a stronger union at the
grassroots and to mobilize women for successful implementation of the Union’s
tasks. The Union also promotes the
research and mobilization of women to participate in drafting new laws and
policies. The WU also participates
in drafting new laws relating to women. No
information was found on whether the VWU continually evaluates the success of
its programs, although the Union does support continued research into women’s
issues. The VWU has also prompted
the establishment of other unions in various work sectors.
The VWU has worked in conjunction with CIDSE, a group of 13 Catholic
development organizations, on a credit scheme for poor women. CIDSE has established 8 guidelines including a clear
appropriately small loans and low interest rates, continued technical support
and a built in savings component to mobilize local capital.
The scheme has been modeled on the successful Grameen Bank program.
CIDSE has also established guidelines for evaluating the success of the
program. Results are measured in
terms of direct benefits for the individuals involved as well as indirect
benefits involving the health, nutritional and educational status of the
individual and their family members. The
program is still fairly recent, results of any evaluation are not yet available,
but some of the direct results include an access to income generating activities
which have not only helped job creation but stabilized or expanded income
earning opportunities among the poor. So
far the programme has assisted over 6,700 participants in 32 areas; has loaned
2,534 million VD (USD 253,400) and, most importantly of all, has achieved a
repayment rate of 95%. Although
CIDSE is primarily run by outsiders, it works in conjunction with local
women’s unions. It also works to
promote solidarity among unions, their members and their families.
A similar credit scheme can be found in Cambodia, with ACLEDA
(association of Cambodian local economic development agencies)
ACLEDA was formed under an action by the UNDP. ACLEDA provides micro loans and small business loans.
Since its establishment in 1993 it has provided nearly 4 million USD in
loans. Over 90 percent of their
clients are women. The recovery rate on loans is 98 percent for micro loans and
96 percent for small business loans. There
was no information on whether technical support or training is provided.
ACLEDA is run by a series of committees on several levels.
Loans are approved at the branch level by a local credit committee, so
those people who would be receiving loans are not likely to be involved in
developing policy. Unlike CIDSE,
which provided for improving social status by accompanying policies to increase
solidarity, ACLEDA appears to be primarily economic based.
The figures are however still very promising. Impact studies show that every small business loan of $500
creates a job and micro business loans tend to increase daily profits an average
of 60 percent.
A smaller credit scheme is being run in Cambodia by the Cambodian
Women’s association in conjunction with UNICEF.
The founding of the Cambodian Women’s Association was fueled by Khemara.
Another offshoot of CWA is the Cambodian women’s crisis center, which
provides shelter to battered women and works for their empowerment through
education, as well as providing legal services.
The CWA provides education for women through the distribution of booklets
to rural villages. The CWA worked
with women who were provided loans from UNICEF to help identify suitable
projects, do surveys and prepare proposals.
About 10,000 women so far have received loans averaging US$50.
Over half of the loans are for agricultural activities.
There are no programs or organizations in Cambodia which specifically
address the issue
or exploitation of women. Many of
the current programs indirectly address this issue by working toward the
empowerment and improved economic status of women, which in turn decreases their
vulnerability to exploitation. Those
active programs which work directly with the women, providing technical training
and capital are the most successful in their immediate goals.
Figures from local credit schemes are also promising.
While these agencies work to increase the political involvement of women,
those laws that are passed for the benefit of women tend to be hollow victories,
since the government is often unable to put such laws into practice. One of the primary hindrances in the advancement of the
women’s cause in Vietnam and Cambodia is the limitations of the government.
The nations are attempting to rebuild both politically and economically
and women’s issues will often take a backseat to improving the economy.
Declarations and conventions exhorting the governments to change often do
little good in the face of lack of funds and local corruption.
International aid packages carrying with them structural adjustment
programs will likely only prove injurious to the status of women, as these
programs often tend to bypass women working in the informal economy and drain
funds from already precarious health care and education.
The women in these nations seem enthusiastic about becoming involved and
improving their situation, in the future the current programs which are working
on very small scales may be able to make a dent in the situation.
Those women who are being exploited though, are still cut off from the
process. They are not in a position
to receive help from these programs that
primarily target more rural populations. Local
law corruption also prevents their aid. Hopefully
a continued addressal of the issue will eventually bring about change, but
currently the process is working much slower than the health problems like HIV
Many of the organizations in these nations are young, with the exception
of the VWU. Every year the current
organizations spawn the growth of other NGO’s which will hopefully only
increase in size. With the
inability of the governments to enforce their policies of equality, it is up to
NGO’s to promote the status of women. They
must work at the grass roots level to educate and provide training for women to
increase their job options. One of
the major problems contributing to the low status of women, the shortage of men,
will eventually work itself out. Work
must continue to improve the figures for girls' education, which will in turn
benefit other problem areas such as fertility, vulnerability and economic
Divisions of Cambodia, Russell R. Ross,
Andrea Matles Savada
(a href="/frd/cs/cambodia/kh_appnb.html">Appendix B<),
[ii] Rising gender inequality in Vietnam since reunification, Daniel Goodkind Pacific Affairs v68 p344
[iii] Figures for Cambodia from Reconstructing the fabric of women’s lives by Sochua Mu Leiper, Connexions
summer 1994 n46 p29 and WIN News summer 1994 v20 n3 p 61