Vietnamese female politicians’ battle to the top: what makes it extra hard?

By Lam Le, Ha Phuong   April 5, 2016 | 08:10 pm PT
Vietnamese female politicians’ battle to the top: what makes it extra hard?
“Congratulations sister! You’re our hope and pride!” read Nguyen Thi Tu’s comment on Facebook addressed to the first woman elected to chair the National Assembly (NA), Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. 

Tu, director general of the Ethnic Minorities Department, couldn’t hide her joy as she was scrolling down her phone screen filled with messages from fellow female politicians.

Ngan may have made history but the last two NA terms have seen a gradual fall in the number of female deputies. Despite significant increase in female participation in the 1990s, age old stereotypes and discriminatory regulations make it extra hard for women to reach to the top.

The outlook for the 2016-2020 term doesn’t present a much brighter picture with the share of female candidates falling to 36.65 percent. Meanwhile, the National Strategy on Gender Equality targets women to make up 35 percent of deputies for the upcoming term, but without specifying clear lines of accountability.

Source: National Assembly

Contrary to popular belief, there is a huge pool of talented and highly resourceful women in Vietnamese politics, according to Jean Munro, UNDP Senior Technical Advisor.

But they usually have to try much harder than men to reach the same position in the government due to deeply rooted prejudice.

Age old prejudgment

Only 50 percent of young people believe women should aim to become high ranking government officials, economists or entrepreneurs.

A 2009 study by IOS and EOWP found that female party secretaries, chairs and vice chairs of People’s Committees at commune level had better levels of education than their male colleagues.

“When I chair a meeting, I need to be much more careful than my male counterparts because people think women talk too much and not to the point,” said Tu.

“It’s even harder for ethnic minority women who lack experience and soft skills to begin with.”

Yet, one would struggle to spot any sign of weakness in this radiant and confident woman, who is of the Muong ethnic group. She told her story with ease and charisma while people kept coming in and out of her office with queries.


Nguyen Thi Tu multi-tasking during the interview with VnExpress. Photo: LL

Tu wasn’t always like this. The once ordinary government officer, who left her desk at 5pm everyday to return to her family, never considered trying for senior positions until she attended UNDP’s capacity building workshop for women.

“I realized that women make up half of the population, so there should be more female leaders in the government.”

“Biological differences make women have differing views [on certain social issues] than men,” she added. A 2014 UNDP report confirms this, showing that female NA deputies are significantly more likely to raise women’s issues than their male counterparts.

"Guilty" about "abandoning" family

Female role models like Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan have helped Tu overcome the insecurities she once had. "The most important factor is family support,” said Tu, whose husband leads a state-owned company and son is doing a masters abroad.

Tu thinks that with the right approach, women can have it all: “It’s not about sacrifice, but time management.”

On a typical evening, Tu’s family sit down together to watch the news, discuss politics and gender issues. Step by step, she turned the two men in her family into gender equality champions.

“Whoever comes home first will make dinner. Whenever I’m going away on a business trip, my husband and son prepare food for me,” Tu said with pride.

A little girl suddenly run into the room as if she was at home.

“She’s the daughter of one of our staff. Not everyone tolerates that in government offices though,” said Tu.

Many female politicians struggle to balance their work and family commitments. According to Munro, women often feel guilty about “abandoning” their children to attend month-long political conventions.

“They fear their sons will succumb to social evils when they’re away,” said Munro.

However, she doubts childcare facilities are the solution. Instead, “men should take a bigger role in caring for children.”

Tu’s family moved to Hanoi so she could pursue her political career. The decision wasn’t easy. Her son was just starting school and they were settled with stable jobs after six years in Hoa Binh, a mountainous province north of Hanoi. But Tu strongly believed and convinced her husband that the move was beneficial to all, especially their son due to the better quality of education in the capital. Today, they’re glad they made the move.

“It all needs to start from within the family,” said Tu, proudly looking at the awards her young department has earned in the last two years.

But Tu’s case is more of an exception than the rule.

Regulation bias 

Vietnam ranked 83rd out of 145 countries in the world in the Gender Gap Index 2015 compiled by the World Economic Forum. When it comes to women in the NA, it jumps to 58th, but the country is among the worst in terms of women in ministerial positions, ranked 119, with only nine percent of female ministers.

A closer look at women representation in the 12th and 13th terms of NA reveals that a staggering 82 percent are only part-time deputies, who hold less power.

“The women that make it to leadership positions usually have some kind of backing,” said Munro.

Even someone with family support like Tu couldn’t run for the upcoming NA elections because government officials have to be centrally nominated. Tu’s ministry had only one slot and that went to the minister.

The UNDP report says being centrally nominated is the most important factor predicting who will hold an upper leadership position in the NA. It increases chances of selection to deputy chairs or higher by 48 percent. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of all centrally nominated candidates are women.

To achieve greater equality, "the Communist Party needs to recognize that women have the capacity to be political leaders," said Ngo Thi Thu Ha, Vice Director of Center for Education Promotion and Empowerment of Women (CEPEW).

Despite a National Strategy on Gender Equality and Vietnam’s international commitment to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Vietnam’s legislation and state propaganda still make it harder for women to advance in their political careers.

Men are more likely to be promoted than women because they retire at the age of 60, five years later than women. Furthermore, 59 percent of female civil servants have never attended a training course, a requirement for career advancement. That’s because trainees are required to have three to five years of work experience and be on average 26-28 years old, while women in their late 20s are much more likely to be occupied with raising children.

Propaganda and gender stereotypes

“State-funded propaganda and campaigns targeting women for decades continue to reinforce gender stereotypes,” says a joint report by Vietnamese NGOs. The most widely known is perhaps the campaign that encourages women to compete for the title “excellent in public, responsible at home” launched by Vietnam's General Confederation of Labor. Others include a Women’s Union initiative approved by the Prime Minister that calls women to have “Four virtues: Self-confidence – Self-respect – Kindness and Diligence” or a movement on “Families with 5-no and 3-clean”.


The poster to celebrate International Women's day and the anniversary of the Trung Sisters' uprising reads: Ho Chi Minh City women actively study, work, create and build a happy family.

“The problem with this propaganda is that it upholds the age old tradition that housework and caring for children is only a woman's job and it hinders women's participation in politics," said Ha. 

Nevertheless, Ngan’s appointment is seen by many as the beginning of a new chapter, under which not only women but also other vulnerable groups will be inspired to break free.

 “Women leaders are also considered more progressive than men in modern civil rights such as same-sex marriage, transgender rights, prostitution, etc. As leader of National Assembly, I hope and believe that Ngan can contribute to the rights of vulnerable groups and create a new image for the highest organ of state power,” said Luong The Huy, LGBT rights officer at iSEE.

 “It’s a very arduous path for female political leaders,” said Tu. But then she lightened up at the thought of her upcoming gender equality project. Tu doesn’t have much time to sit and complain.

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