Vietnamese demonstrators share meal

(WOMENSENEWS)–Vietnam, which joined the World Trade Organization in January and boasts a booming economy, could do a better job protecting women’s rights, a U.N. committee concluded last week.

The findings echo reports by a few human rights organizations, which say strong economic gains are not fueling democratic reforms in the country–ruled by the Communist Party since 1975–and have even created new abuses, including violations of women’s rights.

After meeting with Vietnamese officials and human rights activists at U.N. headquarters in New York, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women–or CEDAW–on Feb. 9 voiced concerns over trafficking in women and girls, as well as an increase in HIV-AIDS infections among women.

The committee also expressed concern about the concentration of women in the informal economy, an issue rights activists have flagged as well.

Women account for 80 percent of the work force in the textile and garment industry, which has become one of Vietnam’s primary export areas, said Penelope Faulkner, vice president of Action for Democracy in Vietnam, a human rights group based in Paris. However, the pressure to keep prices low and stay competitive in the global market has suppressed wages and created unsafe working conditions, according to Faulkner.

In a January report to the CEDAW committee, Action for Democracy argues that many of the problems mentioned by the U.N.’s CEDAW committee are closely tied to the country’s efforts to accelerate economic growth.

In the mid-1980s, Vietnam instituted a number of economic reforms that loosened state control over the economy and opened the country up to foreign investments and private enterprise.

Success on the Surface

On the surface, these policies look successful. Poverty levels in Vietnam have dropped from around 70 percent of the population to less than 20 percent in the past 15 years, according to the World Bank. The country’s economy grew by 8 percent in 2006, and average per capita income has increased to $723 in 2006 from $485 in 2003.

But a government survey found that the wealthiest individuals earned 12.5 times more than the poorest, who mostly live in rural, remote areas and depend on agricultural production. A disproportionate number of the poor also belong to ethnic minorities.

Vietnam introduced fees for both health care and education in the late 1980s, said Faulkner, adding that these policies have particularly penalized women in rural areas.

“Families that don’t have the money to pay for school fees and supplies are more likely to take girls out of school than boys,” she said.

Health care costs have rocketed beyond the reach of most poor families and women tend to sacrifice their own health needs to allow their children and husbands to receive services, she added.

Vietnam’s government remains intolerant of criticism, Human Rights Watch’s 2007 World Report finds. In the past year it has persecuted dissidents, restricted public gatherings, controlled access to the Internet and prohibited all free press and independent labor unions.

“Vietnam wants to open up economically, but the ruling Communist Party also wants to keep political control,” said Faulkner.

Funds to Relieve Female Poverty

In meeting with the U.N. committee, Vietnamese officials said that $2.6 million has been allocated to establish a fund to reduce female poverty and vocational training centers had been set up to help farmers develop skills for industrial and manufacturing jobs.

But in its recommendations, the U.N. committee called attention to women working in export processing zones and asked the Vietnamese government to ensure all labor codes were enforced.

The report by Faulkner’s group estimates that tens of thousands of women and girls have been trafficked for sexual exploitation to neighboring countries, as well as from rural areas to urban centers within Vietnam. Often these women, lacking education and employment opportunities, are tricked by the promise of jobs or a better life.

There is evidence that some government officials are either directly or indirectly involved with the sex trade. In 2001, the ministry of social affairs announced that 70 percent of the men caught with prostitutes were Communist Party members.

“A woman who is a victim of some sort of abuse, who can she complain to when there is corruption at every level?” asked Faulkner. “If there are no independent structures, no rule of law, no independent judiciary, then there can be no guarantee of women’s rights.”

The story of Nguyen Thi Gam, a retired 65-year-old woman from the Quang Ninh province in northeast Vietnam, is highlighted in Action for Democracy’s report to the U.N.

Thi Gam has spent the past six years living, sleeping and protesting in a park opposite the government complaints office in Hanoi, the country’s capital. She was left homeless and destitute after her ex-husband struck a deal with corrupt local officials to get compensation for her land, which was being reclaimed by the government for a new highway project.

Women Protest Daily

After local authorities offered no help, Gam joined the hundreds of other women who have been denied their rights to land and who gather daily in Mai Xuan Thuong Park to protest the abuses. But the women can expect little from Hanoi, which in 2005 passed a law banning demonstrations in front of government buildings. They have been beaten by police, arrested and detained in rehabilitation centers the government set up for prostitutes, street children and other “bad social elements.”

In 2003, the government passed legislation imposing fines on civil servants and members of the police and military who were found to be using their authority to “protect prostitution.”

But these efforts will be inadequate as long as Vietnam continues to be an authoritarian state, argues Vo Van Ai, president of Action for Democracy in Vietnam.

“It is impossible to change the situation of women in Vietnam without political reform,” he said.

His group plans to translate and distribute the U.N.’s conclusions in Vietnam through its underground magazine and weekly radio show. Ai has been in exile since 1964, but the organization relies on a network of contacts within Vietnam, including human rights activists and Buddhist dissidents, to provide first-hand information via e-mails, mobile phones and smuggled mail.

As a member of the World Trade Organization, Vietnam will have increased access to Western markets for its exports. Action for Democracy plans to lobby some of those trading partners, including the European Union and the United States, to pressure the country on its human rights record.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

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For more information:

Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam:

Rural Poverty in Vietnam:

ActionAid: Human Trafficking in Vietnam:

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