A woman selling food on Nguyen Du Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Hong Ky
Although widely revered as homemakers and caregivers, women still face many barriers that prevent them from realizing their potential as equal partners in both private and public life.
The perceived lower value of women and girls is demonstrated in the imbalance of sex ratio at birth. Due to prenatal selection, 112 boys are now born for every 100 girls.
If this trend continues, by 2035 there will be 10 percent more men than women, increasing the risk of sex trafficking and gender-based violence.
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Although women's participation rates in the labor force are amongst the highest in the region, too many still struggle in low paying, vulnerable jobs.
Many lack formal contracts or access to labor protection. In 2010, nearly 70 percent were vulnerably employed compared to just over half of all men. In recent years the gender pay gap has widened.
Women also face high rates of violence. According to the 2010 National Study on Domestic Violence, nearly six out of
ten ever-married women experienced at least one form of domestic violence at some point in their life. More than a third experienced physical or sexual violence.
But the situation is changing. Last year Vietnam came 48th out of 186 countries in terms of gender equality. Over the past two decades, women have made major gains in educational enrollment. The gender gap in primary schooling has been eliminated, and women have caught up, and even surpassed men in terms of attaining college degrees.
It is also increasingly recognized that women possess particular skills and experiences that make them invaluable in building a better society. It is often women who take over the running of homes and businesses in times of difficulty. Women are able to work together and communicate across barriers and divides.
We must fully unlock this potential. We must bring more women to the negotiating table and into decision-making positions.
In 1997, Vietnam was ranked in the top ten countries in the world on the number of women elected to the national parliament. But by 2013, Vietnam has fallen to 49th place globally.
While there are strong laws and strategies in place for women's representation, Vietnam is failing to meet its own targets. A target of 35 percent representation of women has been set for the 2016 election. However, there is a still a large gap between the target and the current representation rate of 24 percent.
It's not too late to act. In the upcoming election it will be important to ensure that at least 50 percent of the candidates at every level are highly qualified women. According to the Women's Union, in the last election, women candidates only made up to 34 percent.
We must actively recruit, invest and promote skilled women to ensure that more are able to reach senior positions in government.
Policymakers should also consider revising retirement age legislation. With many women due to retire at an age when they have just reached a position of seniority, the current differential retirement age limits women's equal right to work, to promotion and job security. It also contravenes the standards of equality set out in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Most of all, men and boys have a vital role to play. Real men do not violate, abuse or oppress women. They fully respect women in all aspects of their lives. They also understand that a woman's place is not just in the home, field or market, but also in boardrooms, public administration, the justice system, and the National Assembly.
As husbands, fathers, brothers and sons willingly share in the household workload and childcare today, I hope that from this day forward it will not be a "˜one off' gesture. If the domestic workload is shared more equally on a daily basis, then women will be able to participate fully in building a better, more just and equal society.
Let us stand up for women's fundamental rights. Only by fulfilling the potential of both women and men will it be possible to bring about meaningful and lasting change for Vietnam.
By Pratibha Mehta *
*The writer is the UN Resident Coordinator in Vietnam. The opinions expressed are her own.