When did you come to Vietnam? How easy or difficult has it been to settle into life here?
I moved to Hanoi in May 2013. It hasn’t been too difficult [to settle in] because you have almost everything available here. We made mistakes like keeping our windows open for air instead of using the air-conditioning and ended up fighting mould all over our furniture and clothes the year we arrived. We don’t do that any more.
What do you like about living in Hanoi?
The energy and tenacity of the people is amazing. Everyone is competitive and trying to get ahead — like in the traffic. It can be exhausting, but also makes you feel alive. Then you step into the back streets of Tay Ho and it’s so quiet. I love this contrast.
In terms of the UN, what are your specific goals with regards to Vietnam?
My goal is to reveal the different realities of women compared to men in Vietnam in terms of their social and economic status and life opportunities, and support better policies that will help women and girls enjoy their full potential. Many people say that men and women are given equal opportunities, but the reality is there are a number of barriers for women to participating in the economy, in family and in community life on equal terms with men.
How easy or difficult is it to achieve these goals?
It is not easy. There is no country in the world where working for gender equality is easy as it challenges power relations and social norms based on different genders, and those that hold the power are men.
Compared to other countries in the region, how advanced is Vietnam in terms of gender equality?
Vietnam is advanced when you look at indicators such as gender parity in primary education or the reduction in maternal deaths and women’s participation in work. Vietnam also tops the region in terms of the number of laws, policies and programmes that have been created for gender equality. However, whether these laws and policies are working for women is another matter. For example, of all the women engaged in work only 25 percent of them are in formal employment that afford them any form of worker protection and entitlements.
There are many things to celebrate about women in this country. If there was one thing you could choose above all others, what would it be?
Women’s leadership in the political sphere is growing very slowly, yet the growth of women leaders in the business world is extraordinary. Vietnam’s women entrepreneurs now form about a quarter of all entrepreneurs and a 2013 study suggested 30 percent of board of director roles in Vietnam were held by women, higher than the global average of 19 percent.
How different is the lot of a Vietnamese woman in the countryside compared to the big city? What are the key issues?
I have visited a few ethnic minority communities and have met women in extremely poor households. The women I met in Binh Thuan had no cash income and showed me the leaves they pick to boil and eat with rice because the farm land their family was allotted is too far into the mountain to get to. It was the resourcefulness of women that was keeping the families together.
Many regard Vietnamese women as being ‘tough’. Do you agree or disagree with this?
In a sense I do. They are resilient, perhaps because of the history of the country, or perhaps because out of necessity to get things done.
In what areas do you feel women need more representation in Vietnam?
I would like to see more women making it big in fields that are male dominated like engineering, science and technology. There is a growing number of young women entrepreneurs leading technology start-ups. They symbolize a new generation of women leaders that could change the social perception of women. I also dislike hearing comments that because women are physically weak they cannot do certain strenuous jobs.
If there was one thing you could change in Vietnam, what would it be and why?
In Vietnam there are 38 jobs that women are banned from and 39 jobs that women who are pregnant or have children under the age of one cannot engage in by law because these are too strenuous, dangerous and “affect women’s reproduction and child raising duties”. This approach reinforces the idea that women are weak and in need of protection.