Woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

08:00 | 30/12/2019
Despite the much harsher living conditions compared to urban areas, women in ethnic minority communities are overcoming gender inequality on a daily basis to contribute towards hunger eradication and poverty reduction, as well as to the local socio-economic development. Hoang Phuong Nga reports.
woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities
Women are still expected to take up traditional roles in more rural areas, but those with ideas and confidence often carve out something more, Photo: Pham Hoang Van
Vietnamese women are creating new values
A trailblazing contribution to equality

Just under half of the 13 million ethnic minority people in Vietnam are female, and although the near-equal rate between men and women suggests balance, these women can be vulnerable subjects.

Data from the 2019 national census of the socio-economic situation of the 53 ethnic groups in Vietnam shows that the vast majority of men still play the role of the family head. Over the years, about 74 per cent of men in ethnic minority households have independently claimed land and credit ownership. After getting married, while women mostly stay at home to perform the functions of mother and wife, males still enjoy the priority of going to school.

Females quitting school, however, often face the risky situation of child marriage. Around 40 of the 53 ethnic minorities in Vietnam have a child marriage rate of 20 per cent or more, while some of those have a rate of up to 60 per cent. Meanwhile, girls under 16 years of age are 3.4 times more likely than boys to be married. Vietnamese law requires men to be at least 20 years old and women to be at least 18 before marrying.

Such early marriage figures mean that women quickly lose many educational opportunities. Early marriage, early childbirth, and poverty create a vicious cycle of that clings to families through generations. As a result, gender disparity in data is required to support policies for girls and ethnic minority women.

“Child marriage has been limiting children’s learning and development opportunities, especially for girls. This is also a profound cause for the decline of the quality of human resources and the sustainable development of ethnic minority areas,” said Nguyen Thi Tu, director of the Department of Ethnic Minorities under the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs.

In addition, violence in such families is common, especially in patriarchal ethnic groups. The analysis showed that 58.6 per cent of ethnic minority women aged between 15 and 49 believe that a husband has the right to beat his wife if she goes out without permission, argues, refuses sex, or cooks inadequate food.

With ethnic women and girls being disadvantaged in their families, communities, and in society in general, they face discrimination and suffer from double inequality in terms of ethnicity and gender due to the conditions, circumstances, and environment.

However, many more women from these minorities overcome the harsh and severe conditions to set up their own lives and bring success to help other girls and women in their communities. The positive results come from various studies and pieces of research from NGOs and state projects working for gender equality in the ethnic minorities.

According to Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP resident representative in Vietnam, over the years businesses run by ethnic minority women have been expanding their market reach. “The quality and the added value of their products are increasing, and the income that they earn is helping to combat poverty,” she said.

Wiesen also recommended that the Vietnamese government should focus more on them in their new programmes. “We should focus on integrating e-platforms with private sector businesses and co-operatives with ethnic minority women, so that they can increase their reach, reduce poverty, and ensure that no-one is left behind.”

With this orientation of leaving nobody behind, the Vietnamese government has also implemented many programmes to improve the life of ethnic minority people, and women in particular, including facilitating those wishing to do business, like the cases here.

Vi Thuy Duong - Nung ethnic minority Founder, Huong Ngan Cooperative Bac Kan province

woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

Vi Thuy Duong, founder of Huong Ngan Co-operative in the northern province of Bac Kan, has just completed the province’s science and technology workshop.

“My initiative of instant tea made with tangerine segments has just been approved. I am also supported with a machine system valued at VND300 million ($13,000),” Duong said.

Duong is a 31-year-old Nung ethnic woman, who passed the entrance exams into three universities and has seven years of experience in education. Now, she is famous for her agricultural startup.

In 2017, with the desire to introduce the culture and customs of ethnic minorities in her hometown, as well as to increase their income, Duong decided to quit teaching and establish Bac Kan Youth Co-operative along with her husband and other young people, deploying a model of community tourism.

But just four months later the venture failed. Duong and her husband quarrelled and decided to live separately. At the same time, Duong’s mother kicked her and her two children out of the house because she did not want her to build a startup.

Duong moved her five-year old and two-year-old into a rented house and continued to pursue her dream of starting a business. Without income, Duong struggled with everyday life, doing whatever she could to earn money.

She joined community activities in remote areas where she realised lemongrass, a precious medicinal plant, could become material for her second startup – and so Huong Ngan (mountainous scent) Co-operative was born.

But luck did not yet smile on Duong. Her lack of experience in financial management as well as understanding of machinery and equipment once again pushed her to the brink of bankruptcy. “I felt exhausted and wanted to give up,” Duong said.

However, fate did not close the door completely. She met with sincere investors and scientists, and participated in a national programme called One Community, One Product. This and other elements helped Duong gradually gain success with products such as lemongrass oil, cinnamon oil, and tangerine oil which have been sold in stores at the border gates, and on major e-commerce platforms like Shopee and Lazada.

Finally, Duong is able to smile, both for her successes and for the positive changes in her family situation – her mother now positively supports her by taking care of the children, and has offered her some land to open a workshop, while Duong and her husband have reunited for several months. “I want to expand the area of raw materials in an organic way, create more jobs for women, and help them be economically autonomous,” she said. “I will organise a handicraft knitting class for disabled people. I want to do something to help people live less difficult lives.”

None of those desires is for Duong herself, because she believes that materials are meaningless – the important thing is what value we have created for life. And Duong is happy to live her life in that way.

H’Binh - Ma ethnic minority Dak Nong province

woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

Coming from a rural commune in Gia Nghia district of the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong, H’Binh, a Ma ethnic woman is trying her best to maintain her traditional brocade-weaving handicraft business, which helps contribute to a more desirable life for local women.

H’binh found herself deeply buried in thoughts as she witnessed many women leaving their families, including their parents and their own children, to go to work elsewhere for a living.

She questioned just how to help them remain at home, take care of their parents and children, while still earning money, and decided to try and find a solution.

“I have learnt a lot from many conferences especially held for women. Although I only have a primary school-level education background, I still feel very confident and I am definitely not shy to learn,” H’Binh said.

Such events have shown H’Binh that brocade-weaving handicrafts can be one of the possible answers for her and other women in her village.

In 2018, after a long time re-learning the craft, H’Binh established a co-operative group consisting of eight members.

“At the beginning, the women themselves did not want to carry out this work because as it requires concentration, meticulousness, and a dedicated approach. In addition, their husbands don’t often want them to work in the group,” H’Binh said.

However, step by step, she has persuaded more and more women to join the group, and thus creating more products. “So far there are 13 members, and their income from brocade-weaving is VND4-4.5 million ($175-$200) per month,” she said.

To H’Binh, these figures are not so impressive but they still make her happy, as it means she can at least help the women in her village. “I want to widen out the production to help more of them, but currently we don’t have a stable enough output. We are planning to join e-commerce platforms so that our products can reach further,” H’Binh explained.

It seems that to this Ma woman, wherever belief is, there is also success.

Luong Thi Oanh - Khmer ethnic minority Soc Trang province

woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

Luong Thi Oanh, a Khmer women living at Hoa Tu I commune, of My Xuyen district in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang, explained her situation with sorrow.

“Ethnic minority women have traditionally been put at a disadvantage. My mother is a Khmer; she married a Hoa man and was shunned by her own family. My husband’s family also despises me because I am from another ethnic minority and my father is a patriarchal man who bullied my mother.”

Married in 2010 and without a job, Oanh soon got pregnant, so the financial pressure was put on her husband with their main income coming from selling shrimp. A miserable life followed, with shame at earning no money, making Oanh reticent and resigned.

Oanh took care of the old mother and the children and carried out all the housework in silence. Whenever having something to buy, Oanh would have to ask for money from her husband, who kept the right to decide the family’s expenses.

Things only changed after Oanh joined community meetings and became more informed about gender equality. She rethought her role in the family and wondered why her husband had managed their finances for years but yet they were still poor.

This wonder turned into actions. She first tried to convince her husband to share the administration of expenses. To prove her ability, she saved a portion of her allowance, and eventually the couple could afford a VND45 million motorbike. The family finances became more secure once Oanh took part.

Besides that, she encourages other Khmer women to raise their voice instead of being invisible in the family.

“I feel like living a more meaningful life after helping myself. I also hope to help more ethnic minority women change their mindset to be free of fear and old-fashioned prejudice to have a happier family,” said Oanh.

Lang Thi Hoa - Thai ethnic minority Chairwoman, Diem Bamboo and Rattan village, Nghe An province

woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

As chairwoman of the farmer’s association in Chau Khe – a rural area of the central province of Nghe An – Thai ethic minority Lang Thi Hoa understands the difficulties of her members, particularly females who are single mothers. “For many nights, I couldn’t sleep and could only walk around. My husband would ask the reason why. I realised that I had my husband to share difficulties and happiness with, but single mothers do not. I wondered how they could take care of their children, and how they could ensure their livelihoods,” she said.

However, where there is a will, there’s a way. Looking for a supporting method, Hoa recognised a large available area of bamboo and rattan in her hometown which has been used to create many beautiful handmade products. In 2015, at the age of 54, she decided to establish a co-operative to produce bamboo baskets and trays decorated with Thai brocade.

“In the beginning, we had seven members. Products were made and piled up because consumption in the locality was low. I travelled from north to south to look for buyers. Whenever I went to weddings or crowded events, I took our products to give to people as presents and to introduce the products,” Hoa told VIR.

Steadily, she received regular orders from customers across the whole country. In 2017, Hoa met and successfully connected with a trader and in the same year, the first batch of products was exported to Germany. “I was so happy and surprised. It was out of our expectations, and the price was also much higher than in the domestic market. This is a good opportunity for us, and soon after we began to receive orders from the Japanese market,” Hoa happily shared with VIR.

So far, along with regular orders from the two markets, Hoa has also connected with hotels and community tourism areas to sell the products to tourists.

The development of technology and the outburst of social networks and messenging platforms like Facebook, Zalo, and Viber has also supported Hoa to promote products to a larger number of consumers.

“So far we have created an average income of about VND4.5 million ($200) per month for 20 members. We have also trained over 40 more workers. We hope to attract young people to get involved in the co-operative so that they can use their creativity and knowledge of technologies to design models and promote their products,” Hoa said.

Hang Thi Xa - H’Mong ethnic minority Lao Cai province

woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

Hang Thi Xa was born and raised in a poor H’Mong village at Ta Phin commune in Sapa, but never had she thought in her life that she would have chance to bring her culture to thousands of visitors as well as creating jobs for dozens of local H’Mong women.

At first, Xa was a simple H’Mong woman who carried out cultivation all year round. After she joined the Tien Phong group, a unit of representatives of ethnic minorities, she began to crave for preserving and promoting her people’s beautiful tradition to wider groups.

After a long period of self-study and discovery under the support of the Tien Phong group, Xa was determined to build an ecological tourist area right in Ta Phin in order to attract visitors to relax and experience the H’Mong culture.

Not being able to afford trips to Son La province to learn more, she instead visited nearby villages such as Ta Van, Topas, and Cach Cach to do the research. She was sad to find out that products sold in these places were said to be of H’Mong origin yet were actually fakes imported from China.

“H’Mong cultural attractions are aimed to save its featured characters so it is a privilege to make a more accurate and detailed plan,” said Xa.

With no more waiting, she immediately started building a H’Mong cultural ecological tourist attraction. There is a performing troupe wearing H’Mong clothes, playing pan-pipe and singing H’Mong songs. Tourists can take part in rice grinding, corn husking, or linen weaving with locals. She overcame the prejudice of H’Mong men and doubts from surrounding women, by working on her desires and completing her ideas.

Thanks to her husband’s enthusiastic support, Xa has also organised brocade-weaving groups for women in her neighbourhood. In the future, her ecological tourist attraction could create jobs for around 30 people from other local areas. “Now, I want to preserve our culture and make our community better and more developed,” shared Xa, demonstrating her pride of being a H’Mong.

Luong Thi Pom - Thai ethnic minority Yen Bai province

woman power riding high in ethnic minority communities

Luong Thi Pom, who lives a Thai village in Mu Cang Chai town, Mu Cang Chai district of the northern mountainous province of Yen Bai, is considered a role model for other Thai people. She has two grown-up daughters with stable jobs while her family was previously poor with their key income coming from solely agriculture.

The family revamped their stilt house to turn it into a homestay for tourists. Pom shared that this result is her family’s effort and courage to overcome prejudice.

Pom said, “I cried a lot because neighbours would chide me for not having a son. Although the mindset has improved, Thai families in the village still have a lot of children in order to have a boy to inherit. Therefore, they became more and more miserable.”

Her opinion is that everyone is equal, no matter the gender, the ethnicity or religion – she convinced her husband to not have a third child so they could put their efforts into raising their two girls well.

She also joined the local women’s union to learn about the homestay model and apply at home. After six years, her family is no longer in poverty and has become one of the most stable-economy households in the village.

In the upcoming year, she and her husband plan to build an even bigger stilt house to serve more tourists. “If we had not been decisive at that time, we would still have been in poverty,” stated Pom with pride.

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