In honour of women’s history month, we will explore the national and local histories of the communities we work with. To effectively promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, we must understand the unique history of these countries to know how to tackle specific structural inequalities. Every community’s history is radically different, so initiatives aimed at empowering women must be tailored to local contexts and nuances.
A History of Women’s Rights in Vietnam
The persistence of patriarchal norms today can be traced back to Vietnam’s tradition of Confucianism, adopted back in 111 BC. Confucianism’s emphasis on female obedience and the nuclear family unit has led to vicious contemporary criticism of women’s rights organizations in Vietnam. Despite formal equality granted in the Constitution of 1946, women are still primarily regarded as mothers and wives, duty-bound to their children and husbands.
During the Vietnam War (1955-73), the socialist government of North Vietnam aimed to extend more rights and opportunities to women, in line with their egalitarian ideology and the necessity to employ more women while men were fighting in the war. However, during the post-reunification era, women’s rights were largely abandoned due to the implementation of free-market reforms in a nondemocratic political context, which did not establish adequate safety nets for women. Coupled with resource constraints and the charged political atmosphere of the war, the Vietnamese government no longer saw women’s rights as a fundamental social and political issue that needed to be addressed.
The legacy of war and the continuation of Confucian traditions have meant that women in Vietnam are primarily seen as domestic actors, their role confined to the domestic sphere. This patriarchal sentiment is reflected in the job sector, with women in less employment than men, receiving lower compensation and job stability, and having to take on two jobs to make ends meet, with 86% of female workers working two jobs. A study by the International Finance Corporation found that social and traditional expectations can create biases against women who own businesses, perceiving them to be less business savvy, and require more support.
These gender barriers for women are compounded by other challenges for ethnic minorities, such as the Hmong people in Vietnam, and Artistri Sud programs are designed to address these multifaceted challenges. The Hmong have had a distinct experience, marginalized and neglected on various levels in Vietnamese society. The minority are dispersed throughout southern
China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, and have never truly had a “homeland”. The Hmong worked with American forces during the Vietnam war, and subsequently when Laos fell to the North Vietnamese after American troop withdrawal, 1000,000 Hmong perished and an equal number fled across the Mekong River to other parts of SouthEast Asia.
This context of war, flight, and contact with Western culture led to contemporary representations of Hmong women based on traditional notions of female subservience and domesticity. Further, as the Hmong population at large lives in remote areas, and under conditions of undernutrition and no access to medical care, the government’s efforts in advancing gender equality have not been extended to Hmong women. As many Hmong women do not speak Lao, the official language of the country, the Hmong often do not have access to education or healthcare. Essentially, Hmong women are both restricted by cultural factors and from government failure to provide Hmong people with support, and Artistri Sud wants to combat this exclusion.
Artistri Sud’s Work in Vietnam
Artistri Sud works in Vietnam because although formal equality has been granted under Vietnam’s laws and constitution, talented businesswomen are often denied their rights in practice. Further, we want to support overlooked minorities such as the Hmong. Throughout 2019 and 2020, Artistri Sud has been delivering Leadership, Entrepreneurship (ASSET), and Train-The-Trainer (TTT) programs in Hanoi, Vietnam. Here, we taught participants skills
regarding colour theory, marketing, customer searching skills, and time management. Along with teaching participants entrepreneurship skills, we also chose to focus on women’s rights, speaking about the gender gap in both decision-making and salaries. This sparked discussion and got women to share personal experiences with sexism.
Many felt success with Artistri Sud’s program, as 77.8% of the interviewed participants can apply knowledge from the training. Participant Chao Mui Siet said “During the training, I learned how to combine different colours and I think I have made more beautiful products. With that knowledge, I designed a new wallet and a pillow. I sold the wallet after three months.” Further, 85.9% of the ASSET participants shared knowledge from the training and supported the other people in the community. We’re incredibly grateful that we got the chance to successfully empower women in Vietnam, and work to close the economic gender gap that persists despite political, official equality.
A History of Women’s Rights in Ecuador
Ecuador, like many countries, has had a long tradition of patriarchal norms and customs since the establishment of the Catholic Church under Spanish colonization in 1531. According to historian Hannah Poor, the Church confined women to the domestic sphere, symbolized by their idealization of the Virgin Mary — the image of a woman as a “pure” wife and mother. We can see societal pressure for female domesticity even today in the job sector, with women restricted to education, communications, and public service-related jobs while men enjoy employment options with higher salaries.
Patriarchy was reinforced in the post-independence era as the new Ecuadorian government legally excluded female participation from the public sphere. Property and literacy requirements ensured that only elite white males — 3% of the population in 1830– were eligible to vote. In the 1929 constitution, literate women were granted the right to vote, however, this was simply to check radical groups such as the Communist party and feminist organizations. Although another constitution in 1979 forbade racial and gender discrimination, this did not translate to greater social and economic gender equality. Women’s salaries are between 13-36% lower than their male peers, and in 2019, the unemployment rate for women in Ecuador was 5% while male unemployment was 3.3%.
Concerningly, patriarchal norms have caused widespread domestic violence in Ecuador. In a 2008 survey, a shocking 32.4% of the women interviewed between 15-49 said they had suffered physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner. Further, a study in 2010 found that violence increased when the abuser was the main source of family income. Empowerment is not only necessary for female economic power but crucial even for safety and personal empowerment; having the control and freedom to leave situations of domestic abuse.
Artistri Sud’s Work in Ecuador
With our intention to help close the gender gap in Ecuador, we launched our first ASSET program in Santo Domingo in 2019. All 47 women who participated completed the entire program and graduated. We taught our participants how to recognize the competitive advantage of their product and business, to define their target markets, to identify elements of their products that can be adapted for product innovation, and more. Jennifer Lonergan, our founder, after returning from
Ecuador was impressed, commenting “There is a real feeling of sisterhood among these women, a commitment to supporting each other.”
These women also learned how to view themselves as confident and autonomous outside their social roles. At the beginning of each training program, participants do an exercise in which they are asked how they would best identify themselves. Usually, the responses on Day 1 are ‘mothers,’ ‘wives,’ or ‘artisans.’ On Day 5, the activity is repeated. This year, as usual, there is a shift in responses to ‘businesswomen,’ ‘entrepreneurs,’ and ‘leaders.’ This shows that these women learned the confidence needed for self-empowerment.
International Women’s Rights
We’ve seen how gender inequality manifests in different ways across the world. Now it’s time to remember that all women have experienced gender-based discrimination in one way or another. The discrimination experience varies, and the need for action is more urgent in some places, but women’s rights are a global issue that impacts all of us. We need to come together to fight for women’s rights regardless of where we’re from.
Globally, girls are still more likely than boys to be left out of school (particularly at the secondary level.). However, education is essential: girls with education have more opportunities to earn an income and participate in the political process. Further, the economic gender gap is still prevalent on an international level. Though women comprise around 50% of the world’s population, women hold on 32% of the world’s wealth.
It’s essential to stand up for women’s rights as women’s rights are human rights: until women enjoy the same rights as men, inequality is important to all of us regardless of our gender. Further, society improves for us all when women’s rights are upheld. Women who earn income invest in the health, nutrition, and education of their children, which in turn results in a reduction in infant mortality, maternal transmission of STDS, an increase of per capita GDP, among other positive impacts.