Deep inside the Vietnam Women’s Museum in the heart of Hanoi, down a dimly lit corridor, a spotlight illuminates a few scraggly strands of human hair encased in glass.
They’re long, dark and about 30 years old. But they’re strong.
They came from Con Dao, an island prison off the southern tip of Vietnam, where women were confined to “tiger cages” during the US war there. Guards paced above them, treading upon the criss-crossed bars of their ceilings. Once a month, the incarcerated were granted a bath and water to wash their clothes. They plucked their own hair, cultivated strength in numbers and wove clotheslines for their laundry.
The women taught each other academics, using charcoal stubs and paper scraps seven times before retiring them. They did it in secret, behind their guardians’ backs. If a guard discovered their makeshift schools, punishment always followed: a few lashings for language classes, perhaps solitary confinement for math and science.
But the women persisted, nonetheless, and celebrated one another’s graduations after each equivalent year of study. It’s a system that worked only in concert.
It’s a system that has long propelled Vietnamese women through life, hand in hand; a system that aptly symbolizes tomorrow’s holiday, International Women’s Day.
And it’s one that could teach Cambodia a few things.
Strength in Numbers
For 67 years, the women of Vietnam have joined forces through a union, which today numbers 11 million (roughly equal to the population of Cambodia) and represents each of the country’s more than 50 provinces where, like in Cambodia, nearly 80 percent of the population lives in the countryside.
With headquarters in Hanoi, the Vietnam Women’s Union keeps a watchdog’s eye on the capital’s enclaves of governmental power. But the union has branches in every province, district and village. It extends a straight and clear line between the intangible talk of policies in Hanoi and the widow who has no pigs and her son who has no schoolbooks in Tien Duc village, about 40 km from the capital.
In the widow’s case, the union’s I Love You loan program came to the rescue. Women borrow $50 each to raise chickens or pigs. The union has organized about 30 such programs nationwide, reportedly garnering a 100 percent repayment rate.
Even the village men, once leery that such programs might threaten their manhood, embrace the results. A community leader in Tien Duc once explained that women work in groups. “The five group members are like the five fingers of one hand,” he said. “When they are alone, they are like one finger, and maybe it’s very difficult to do anything. But now they are five, and they are much stronger.”
Just as a few fragile human hairs that, when braided together, generate strength enough to hold the weight of wet laundry.
The Vietnam Women’s Union showers the lives of women and children with respect and attention. From literacy campaigns to immunization programs to job-training sites, the Union inevitably enriches the lives of 75 million people. Posters throughout the countryside warn of AIDS and how you get it. A happy-faced condom prances across billboards along major thoroughfares. And women attest to the union’s mighty domestic violence program: a visit from a high-ranking union member is enough to persuade a man to stop beating his wife. That’s how strong the union is in Vietnamese society, people there say.
And what a shame, I say, that neighboring countries don’t share their strengths.
Cambodia Could Benefit
This week, Im Run, the undersecretary of state for women’s affairs in Cambodia and also the highest-ranking woman in the ministry, told The Cambodia Daily about the indignities that Cambodian women suffer—many which Vietnamese women say they suffer as well: Overwork. Underpay. Abuse. Neglect. Low self-esteem. A society that doesn’t value women, and relegates them to the home rather than the workforce. Cambodian women also, given the nature of the country’s recent history, face a few obstacles the Vietnamese haven’t had to hurdle—such as a literacy rate that hovers around 25 percent. (Vietnam’s is about 94 percent.)
Im Run acknowledges the many NGOs in Cambodia with their hands in every bit of life that needs improving. Land Rovers roam the streets here sporting the decals of foreigners doing decent deeds for locals. A brilliant pink-and-green Oxfam banner crosses Suramarit Boulevard. It demands an end to the exploitation of women. Other signs like it festoon the city with messages about AIDS and family values.
Indeed, the aid organizations are doing their jobs here, and that’s commendable. But still, the bottom line remains: most NGOs descend upon Cambodia from elsewhere. No matter the time, the money, the energy, the results—it’s still a matter of foreigners doing Cambodia some good.
Right Next Door
Meanwhile, the most powerful NGO in the country right next door is a national union comprising 11 million people—all women. And all native-born.
Who better than the locals knows what locals need? Who better than local women know what local women need? And who better than a union of local women can get things done?
What a shame, I say again, that the women of two countries, who lament many of the same life tragedies, have not put aside their own fractious histories to unite in similar cause.
What a shame that Cambodian women have not asked Vietnamese women for a little help in starting their own union, and advice on how to succeed.
What a shame that on this International Women’s Day, neighbors still have not acted like good neighbors.
The writer spent four months in 1996 working with the Vietnam Women’s Union.