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|Ethnic minority women in Vietnam can profit tremendously from empowerment measures that improve their livelihoods|
The stilt house of Vang A Binh and Lam Thi Hiem is located at a stream far from the dirt road to their village in Ban Lien commune, and a 30-minute walk through the rice fields. Unlike many Tay families living in the village, this place has become a favourite destination for a number of tourist groups for nearly a year.
According to Binh, a 26-year-old Tay, his family was one of the first households in Ban Lien to develop a homestay model.
In the past, the main source of income came from growing rice, cultivating the fields, and picking tea leaves.
Binh said that Ban Lien’s people are just learning how to offer tourism services, so they are not so well-known. However, developing a new livelihood has helped many households like his to repair their homes and improve facilities.
According to Binh, his wife, who is two years older than him, is very shy. Like many other women in Ban Lien, Hiem often hides in the kitchen or tries to avoid arriving visitors. She rarely dares to express her opinion about family affairs and often follows instructions from her husband, as the decision-maker in the family has always been the man.
Therefore, when Binh talked about their house becoming a homestay, not only his parents but also Hiem showed hesitation. But these doubts eventually vanished because after nearly a year, Hiem seems to have become a different person.
“She no longer tries to avoid strangers, but actively joins me to welcome guests. She smiles more, talks more, and can also serve guests attentively even when I’m not at home. I feel that my wife has become more confident and flexible since we started a homestay,” said Binh.
Hiem now actively participates in training classes and exchange activities with the women’s society in the commune. “Just last month, she said that she wanted to play football with the neighbouring women’s association. I immediately supported the idea and volunteered to do the housework for her for a few days so that she can focus on playing with the association,” Binh explained.
Lucky in getting a husband who loves and respects her, Vang Thi Chu, a 31-year-old woman in Ban Pho commune, has become one of the shining examples for H’mong women in her village.
She graduated from the National Institute of Education Management in Hanoi, but did not pursue this path and instead turned to the Hong Mi wine-making profession.
According to Chu, Hong Mi is an ancient enamel of the H’mong people in Bac Ha. The story of Hong Mi fermentation and the origin of the traditional drink associated with the H’mong culture in Bac Ha is one that fills Chu with special pride every time she has the opportunity to talk about it to visitors.
“Compared to many other H’mong people, we had the opportunity to receive a full education and understand the value of Hong Mi alcohol, which is why I want to restore this profession,” said Chu.
In 2015, encouraged by her husband, a H’mong Youth Union official, Chu started to make wine and learn how to advertise and make labels on Hong Mi wine bottles produced by her family instead of retailing in the traditional way.
Chu said that the hardship and difficulties in the early stages had made her want to give up many times, especially after hearing criticism from neighbours.
However, with her husband’s encouragement and companionship, she dismissed her intention to give up, and dedicated herself to making wine and welcoming more domestic and foreign tourists to visit and experience their products.
After five years, the Hong Mi Ban Pho wine brand has become more popular, and many people in the region also come to learn and join the Hong Mi wine-making cooperative in Ban Pho.
“Around 90 per cent of people in Ban Pho are now involved in wine-making, in which women are the majority. I stay at home, and earn about VND50 million ($2174) per year from this business. It is stable and much better compared to the livelihoods of most people here,” said Chu.
Chu and Hiem are both examples for the changing image of modern ethnic minority women in Bac Ha. With the guidance and advice of domestic and international organisations as well as the enthusiastic support from their spouses, they dare to do, change, and establish a more liberal life with more physical comfort.
However, according to the statistics of the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs, only 17 per cent of ethnic minority women have similar jobs as these two examples.
Many reasons hinder the emancipation of ethnic minority women, such as Vietnamese language skills and the ability to use or own transport, which means that these women are often burdened with the traditional division of labour in their families.
Therefore, creating jobs and empowering the women through economic development is a direction that many projects nowadays focus on.
Thai Huyen Nga, project officer at the Centre for Rural Economy Development (CRED) said that the most successful thing for developers like her is to see the established connection between ethnic minority communities, such as the H’mong and Tay communities, with the Kinh community and others, especially between women.
The CRED is implementing programmes to support these women by working in community tourism and agriculture in Bac Ha, under the sponsorship of the Gender Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism (GREAT) project. “Women who came from agriculture and switched to tourism shared that they learn from each other and support each other in doing business and developing,” Nga said.
Le Giang Nhung, deputy director of Bac Ha Tea Co., Ltd., one of the local enterprises receiving support from the CRED and GREAT, said it has nine female employees, with eight of them coming from ethnic minorities.
“Before these women had their jobs, they had to harvest rice and maize and mostly had to give their husbands all the money earned. If they wanted to buy anything, they had to ask their husband. But since working here, they are paid regularly every month, and everyone is happy,” Nhung said, adding that “to have a good income, a stable job, and enable them to raise a voice in the family enables these women to be equal and lives the life they want.”