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Vietnamese Women’s Participation
 in the Community and Society


Quynh-Tram Trinh
7 February, 1997
 

The author is a member of the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Welfare Association and the Victoria’s Women Council.  She currently works as a Research Manager for the Melbourne Convention and Marketing Bureau, a destination marketing agency that promotes Melbourne.

‘The First Generation Looks Ahead’

 

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1.  Introduction - Women’s movement

 Women’s liberation movement has taken place over the last 100 years in Australia.  Each generation has marked an achievement on its own.  The women’s movement has affected thoughts and actions of people and changed men’s and women’s roles through decades.  Though there are still areas for further improvement, in my observation, Australian women can be proud of their achievements so far. 

Quite different from the women’s progress in Australia however, Vietnamese women’s movement has taken place since the year fourty-three after Christ, which was nearly 2,000 years ago.  It was two Vietnamese women who led the glorious victory of the Vietnamese people over the then, Chinese enemies. 

Almost all Vietnamese women dare I say, would know of this story as well as many others, of heroines such as that of the two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi.  In fact, all Vietnamese children have been taught of these stories and learnt them by heart in their primary school.  Thus, through our family and school systems, the status of women in Vietnam, has long been well regarded by both males and females in the society and family.

 2.  The Changing Role of Vietnamese Women in the last century 

The role of Vietnamese women however, has changed significantly as history goes on, in particular during this century.  The war brought many women forward in certain areas as well as significantly inhibited their potential achievements in many others.

 Before I touch on the impact of the war it would be an oversight however, if the influence of the Chinese culture on the role of women in Vietnam is not mentioned.  It has been confirmed by research that in our ancient history, the Vietnamese society was of a matriarchal nature.  However, over 1,000 years of Chinese domination, women’s role was reversed.  We learnt about Confucius values which basically tells us that the role of women is at home and it is their fathers, husbands, sons that have power over their identity and well-being.

 Now turning to recent history.  During our war-torn years, many Vietnamese women were known for their ability to manage households, raise the children, take care of their extended family while their husbands were away on the battlefields.  Thus, the status of the Vietnamese women whilst well regarded, their importance was mainly recognised in the domestic area.  The majority of women either by force or choice, seem in general to conform to and fulfill this role very successfully.  This conformity seems to have set a pattern for their daughters, grand-daughters and nieces as the turbulent years extended. 

The role of women as decision-makers or part of the decision-making body in economic and social spheres seem to have been forgotten by both women and men during these years.  As a result, there were very few cases recorded in our contemporary history that would highlight women’s achievements in areas other than the domestic sphere as mentioned earlier.

 Since the diaspora of the Vietnamese people in the last 21 years, migrant Vietnamese women in general have fought hard to establish their credibility in new fields working in the community and society, whilst upholding their strength and established tradition as a “managing director” of the domestic household.

 3. The adaptation, survival and achievements of Vietnamese Migrant Women

 Given the same level of awareness and education between a man and a woman, the woman in general, seem to be able to adapt more quickly to the new environment.  She would be able to pick the new language up more quickly and speak more fluently. 

 In a society such as that in Australia, where Equal Opportunities are promoted and made into law, a woman could achieve as much as she sets out to.

 Stories to tell...

1. Middle-aged lawyer; retrained in Australia to become a social worker

2. Young social worker; grow up in Australia 

4.  Barriers to Achievements

 After 21 years of establishment however, there is still significant progress to be made for the women in the Vietnamese community, based on my experience working in Victoria.  There is still a lack of collective decision making in the leadership of the community, balancing and utilising the skills and talents of both women and men.  By collective decision making, I mean the decisions would reflect the economic, political, social and emotional needs of society and families. 

In Victoria, there are countless number of associations and clubs where the majority of members are men, or to be more precise, mostly middle-aged men who had a both a “glorious and sad” past associated with the Vietnam war.  On the other hand, there has only been one women’s association in the past 14 years.  Recently, there has been another Vietnamese women’s group established.  Of the 21 years of establishment, for the most part, the majority of the community’s activities, thus has been majoring around the men’s activities.  Women have played again, the domestic chief role on these occasions. 

In addition to their role as domestic chiefs, Vietnamese women were taught to assume the full responsibilities of taking care of their families, including caring for their elder parents who live with the family. 

For younger women who were brought up and go to school in Australia they would have grown out of these roles.  For most of these younger Vietnamese-Australian women, they have an active life.  There are quite a few however, find it encouraging to participate in working in the community.  For those who already work in the community, fewer would find it encouraging to remain working, in the medium to long term.  There are a number of reasons that contribute to this, such as lack of support network, lack of role models and suitable mentors.

 For younger women who have come to Australia at an older age, such as in their late teens or early twenties, the majority would presume their domestic roles as a major part of their daily identity. 

 As a result, after 21 years of establishment in a new country with plenty of opportunities for women, women who come from Vietnam still lag behind in their participation in the community and society.  The major reason would be because of their cultural upbringing and heritage.

 I’d also like to add that an important dimension of this cultural heritage is the notion of power and women.  The majority of Vietnamese men and women who work in the community seem not to have been brought up and lived with this notion.  Power, mostly being illustrated through the press is associated with men.  Power is being illustrated in most of our contemporary history as being manipulative, and therefore project a very negative image of people who have power.  Most women are brought up in the family and society to regard themselves as beautiful creatures.  For most women, the picture of themselves having power and authority would seem to be too “disgusting” compared to the image that they were brought up with.  As a result, it has been extremely difficult for women themselves, to become involved in the community decision-making process.

 5. The way ahead

 Opportunities come through education and communication.  In a fast growing information society such as that of Australia, the way ahead for women is through study, training, retraining and intermingling.

 A number of middle-aged women who have come to Australia with some sort of qualifications tend not to use these and get them qualified.  The majority of women seem to be more concerned about getting their husbands’ qualification recognised and devote their new life taking care of the family.  A few women are equally concerned about getting their husbands’ qualification recognised and devote the first couple of years of their new life taking care of the family.  After that, they go back to school and get their qualifications recognised.  There have been many success stories associated with the latter strategy.  These few women have successfully combined and upheld their traditional role as well as recognising the need to establish their own identity.

 For women who have come to Australia with little skills, the disadvantage that they suffer is through lack of information.  It is then the role of community organisations and networks and government to help these migrant women to recognise their rights and responsibilities. 

Women with limited skills can only find work in labour and manual jobs.  However, even manual work such as that in the textile and clothing industry has become increasingly difficult to find.  Many parts of Australia’s light manufacturing sector have been contracting for the last decade due to increased global competition.  Many countries to Australia’s north have larger economies both in terms of production and distribution.  They have assisted in shrinking our local production levels by exporting cheaper goods to Australia.

 The way ahead for women is therefore to acquire information and knowledge to position themselves in jobs in areas that are growing.  This process requires time, persistence to pursue end goals, discipline and a positive attitude to pass through the tough time.  I’m positive that there would be little difficulty for Vietnamese women to achieve these outcomes, as they, for thousands of years have been heralded with these characteristics.  What Vietnamese women need however other than their own effort, is the support from their own peers, which I believe has grown greater through the years as we’ve learned from hard lessons.  Equally important if not more so, to achieve, Vietnamese women also need the tremendous support and understanding from their close ones such as their parents, partners and children.

 Through the maturity of the Vietnamese community itself and the evolution of the multicultural society in Australia, I am optimistic that Vietnamese women among migrant women in Australia will fair better each day.  I have confidence that more women will become involved in the decision making process and men will find collective decisions would truly produce better outcomes for the community.

 

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Update: 01-12-2002


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