The different pictures of gender equality in Vietnam politics

The Vietnamese government usually boasts about its achievements in pursuing gender equality. Referring to the ratio of women representatives in the Vietnam National Assembly, which stands at 27 percent, the government insists on its myth of the progressive development of Vietnamese politics and sometimes even its superiority over other countries in this area. However, such an assertion is deceptive and dangerous, as shown by evidence from the actual power distribution of the state and examples of how the regime treats single mother activists and independent women’s associations. 

It is true that the number of Vietnamese women in the National Assembly is impressive. Considering that the US political body only boasts a 23 percent participation of women in both of their chambers, followed by the Republic of Korea with 19 percent, and Japan with just 10 percent, one might argue that the Vietnamese government is doing wonders in the department of improving and promoting women’s voices in politics. 

However, such a depiction is misleading. As pointed out by Luat Khoa, the true power picture of Vietnam does not start with the National Assembly. The body is just a “rubber stamp” for the Communist Party to try to legitimize its top-down decisions via a pseudo organ of popular sovereignty. The right places to analyze the power structure of Vietnamese politics are the Central Committee and the Politburo, and of course, the regime’s “troika” – Party’s general secretary, State President, and Prime minister. None of them shows that Vietnam has evolved in gender equality. 

The record of women delegates in the Central Committee is just 9.5 percent, just one-third of the National Assembly (equivalent to 19 out of 200). Women only have one seat in the Politburo (out of 18 seats), and none of them is able to find a place in the troika power of the Communist Party. If we look at these ‘real’ numbers, the actual development of gender equality in Vietnam is quite stagnated. 

Yet this is just one layer of the story. 

Exploring The 88 Project’s database, nine out of 26 activists arrested in 2020 were female. That is a surprising 1:2.8 ratio against the male counterpart. Even in 2018, the most serious year of state persecution against human rights defenders in recent years, women activists still accounted for 20 percent of all the arrests. The 88 Project has also documented a record number of female activists who faced administrative fines and other forms of harassment. From former political prisoners to the wives of jailed activists to ordinary citizens, many women have been subjected to mistreatment and harassment one way or another. According to our research, 22 percent of at-risk activists in Vietnam are women. 

Besides their enthusiastic participation in grassroots activism, Vietnamese women have the highest share of labor-force participation rates (i.e., the proportion of women who are in paid work or looking for it) in the world. Some 79 percent of women aged 15 to 64 are in the labor force, compared to 86 of men. That figure is higher than in all the members of the OECD except Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland, and 10 percentage points above China, Vietnam’s northern neighbor.

These facts do not add up with the role of women in Vietnamese politics. And despite all the sugar-coating provisions in many legislations concerning women rights, the fact remains that the system is inherently misogynistic. 

Mistreatment of activists who have children, especially single mothers 

Doan Thi Hong

Aside from the raw numbers, The 88 Project has also collected extensive evidence showing the unfair, unlawful, and inhumane treatment of the authorities against female  activists. 

Consider the case of  Doan Thi Hong. Hong is a single mom based in Binh Thuan Province. She was said to have participated in the national demonstrations against the bills on Special Economic Zones and Cybersecurity on June 10, 2018. Besides this, she was reportedly also a member of the Hien Phap (Constitution) group, which aims  to promote people’s understanding of their human rights in the 2013 Constitution.

The 2015 Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code of Vietnam specifically assert that  pre-trial detention will not be applied to women who have children under 36 months old at the time of their arrest. Concerning national security crimes, unless there are clear and convincing indications that without pre-trial detention such a person would severely affect public order and national security, a mother cannot be subject to this detention mechanism and does not have to begin serving her sentence until her child reaches the appropriate age. 

In the case of Hong, although she, along with members of Hien Phap group, only called for a peaceful demonstration, yet they were treated as if they planned to violently overthrow the regime. Hong was denied her legal rights, separated from her toddler, and possibly subjected to threats or subjected to intimidation to force her to comply. 

In our interview with her sister, Doan Kim Khanh, she said that while she was outside taking care of the toddler and advocating for Hong’s release, she was contacted by Hong from the prison and was able to meet with her there.  Hong reportedly specifically asked Khanh not to fight for her rights. 

Khanh recalls: “Hong contended that my actions outside will only worsen her condition. The officers warned her that a crime against national security is very serious, that she should think about the future of her daughter.”

With no counsel from lawyers, and barred from contacting the outside world, Hong’s reaction and concern for her daughter are understandable. She was later sentenced to two and a half years in prison with two years of probation; Hong was released from prison just this March. 

The examples of mistreatment continue with Tran Thi Nga’s case. Once a prominent activist in Vietnam, she was one of the founders of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights. To punish her for her outspoken activism, the authorities sentenced her to more than nine years in prison back in 2018. Nga was deprived of seeing her sons for over 15 months, half of her time in prison, and was also repeatedly physically attacked and given death threats by cellmates from August-October 2018. Such constant infliction of physical and psychological pain, as well as a desire to protect the well-being of her family, is the reason why Nga had to choose to go into exile from the country where she lives in exchange for early release from prison. 

Cao Vinh Thinh

Recently, Green Trees environmental activist Cao Vinh Thinh accused the government of pressuring her landlords to evict her from her rented house and business location. As a single mom, accompanying Thinh was her 7 year-old daughter, who had to go through all the eviction and residential harassment. We note that Thinh has not participated in any political activities recently. The action of the local authorities seems to try to force her into a corner until she cannot sustain her livelihood. 

The arrest and the treatment of local authorities against activist Dinh Thi Thu Thuy is also worrisome. For just criticizing several policies of the Vietnamese government during the ‘national war’ against Covid-19, Thuy was treated as a dangerous criminal. Her pre-trial detention lasted over eight months, and she was held incommunicado while her 10 year-old son had to live with his grandmother. For mere online commentaries, Thuy was arbitrarily sentenced to seven years in prison. It means that her son will go through his primary, secondary, and high school education without his mother. 

With these repeated and intentional practices, the Vietnamese government has violated its commitment “to refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation,” as it agreed to in its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 

The invisibility of the Vietnam Women’s Union and other alternative associations

In Vietnam, the formation of an association must strictly follow the rules set down by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). A new association cannot compete in the same sphere of influence as established associations. Therefore, since there is already a Vietnamese Women’s Union, no other women’s association can register. The requirement effectively creates a monopoly even in social welfare and activism. In reality, however, the Vietnam Women’s Union is essentially subordinate to the Party rather than an association working for the rights and benefits of women. 

This is why the independent group Vietnamese Women for Human Rights (VWHR) was quickly denounced as a “reactionary force” and deemed an unlawful association by the Indoctrination Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam on state-run channel National Defense Television on July 4, 2020, with no legal explanation. It also explains why the country’s only women’s association has played no role in stopping the arbitrary arrests of female activists, the strategy of using their children as bargaining chips to obtain confessions, or in supporting distressed women activists.

The reality above is a result of decades of systematic suppression against dissidents and independent political activities in Vietnam. Thus, we do not expect that any gender-particular or separate effort can effectively improve the conditions. Women’s rights alone cannot be advanced if the overall democratization process is stalled and the human rights movement faces constant crackdowns. However, the Vietnamese government should first honor its commitment to Article 7 of CEDAW, ensuring that all Vietnamese women enjoy the right to participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country. Independent gender-specific initiatives and women-led organizations are the key to a radical and successful reformation of both public and state prejudices against the role of women in political and civic life. 

© 2021 The 88 Project