When we talk about economic inequality, let's talk about women

By Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur   January 21, 2019 | 11:10 am GMT+7

If all the unpaid care work done by women across the globe was carried out by a single company, it would have an annual turnover of $10 trillion – 43 times that of Apple.

Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur, country director of Oxfam Vietnam

Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur, country director of Oxfam Vietnam

Vietnam is committed to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 10 for an inclusive society. What does this goal mean for poor women?

As part of Oxfam’s research on the social impacts of inequality, we met Ms. Nang, 47, who lives in Chi Lang district, Lang Son Province. After her husband died in 2010, Nang found herself in debt and without resources. She has no land, weak health and a low level of education, and has to move back and forth between her husband’s village and her own home village. 

Nang does seasonal work ploughing and hoeing for better-off families, earning VND150 000 ($6.45) per day, just enough to cover daily expenses. Although she is categorized as a poor head of household, she does not dare to borrow money for raising livestock because she’s afraid of not being able to pay back the loan. She has to cover all expenses for her health care and her daughter’s lower secondary education. Nang said, "my dream is to have enough money for my daughter to continue learning, but it seems impossible."

Nang is one of the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. The majority of the world’s poor is women. Economically unequal countries are countries where women and men are more unequal too. In societies where the gap between rich and poor is lower, women are treated more as equals. Gender inequality is neither an accident nor something new. The rules of the global economy rules have been written by rich and powerful men in their own interests. The neo-liberal economic model of today has made this worse – cuts to public services, cuts to taxes for the richest individuals and corporations, and a race to the bottom on wages have all hurt women more than men.

At the Vietnam Economic Forum (VEF 2019) that took place on January 17, Vietnam’s top leaders affirmed a vision of people-centered approach to growth for an inclusive society. But how can this vision be realized in the context of reducing the gap between urban and rural areas? Between rich and poor? Between men and women?

Oxfam’s 2018 Commitment to Reducing Inequality index found that Vietnam ranks 99th out of 157 countries globally and 13th out of 23 countries in East Asia and the Pacific. This is a moderate ranking considering Vietnamese history since its economic reform Doi Moi in 1986. However, policy choices made today will determine whether Vietnam develops in a more equal or less equal direction in the future.

Vietnamese female workers of Tan Tao Industrial Park in Ho Chi Minh City on their way back home after work. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Vietnamese female workers of Tan Tao Industrial Park in Ho Chi Minh City drive home after work. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

The current state of affairs indicates that Vietnam may fail to achieve the first target of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10, which is to sustain income growth of the poorest 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average by 2030. The Vietnam Household Living Standards Survey shows that during the 2004-2014 period, annual income growth per capita in Vietnam was 16.67 percent, while the rate for the poorest 40 percent  was 16.25 percent.

In addition, the ratio of per capita income of the majority groups Kinh and Hoa to that of other ethnic groups increased by 10 percent during 2004-14. Several ethnic groups like the H'Mong, Gia Rai, and Xo Dang had much slower poverty reduction rates than the national average. Meanwhile, small-scale farmers and poor youth face difficulties in livelihood transformation and income generation. Many migrants move from formal sectors to informal ones.

While Vietnamese women’s labor force participation of over 73 percent is one of the highest in the region, they are mostly found in unskilled and untrained labor-intensive sectors. They earn 33 percent less on average than their male counterparts in all fields, with the biggest difference of 43 percent found in agriculture and foreign companies. Nang, the agricultural worker in Lang Son, is just one of many faces of women’s inequality in Vietnam.

Vietnam can be a leading country in Asia in reducing inequality through advancing gender equality as the landmark of the country’s vision of growth, integrating the voice of disadvantaged groups such as ethnic minorities, small scale farmers, informal workers and poor youth into policy making processes. Achieving Vietnam’s commitment to the SDGs requires enhancing the space for civil society to be part of building a progressive modern state that promotes the needs of its citizens.

Concrete actions with timebound targets to reduce inequalities, and monitoring of SDG 10 will be vital for Vietnam to continue to show positive results. Vietnam’s plans should include actions in the following three areas:

-Deliver universal free health care, education and other public services that also work for women and girls, through using resources from a fair taxation to spend on quality public services for all

- Free up women's time by easing the millions of unpaid hours they spend every day caring for their families and homes. Let those who do this essential work have a say in budget decisions and make freeing up women’s time a key objective of government spending. Invest in public services including water, electricity and childcare that reduce the time needed to do this unpaid work. Design all public services in a way that works for those with little time to spare.

- Build a progressive tax system by increasing the CIT rate; formulating a reasonable property tax policy; ending tax incentives, tax avoidance and evasion of multinational corporations; and reducing indirect taxes on consumer goods.

A breakthrough could be a radical change of mindset in the way Vietnam shapes a human economy that leaves no one behind.

*Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur is country director of Oxfam in Vietnam. The views expressed here are Oxfam Vietnam's.

 
 
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