CHO DON. She laughs a lot. But there is no joy in the eyes of twenty-one-year-old Hoang Thi Hue. It’s four degrees outside. And only a few degrees warmer in the house. Some thin strips of bamboo cannot keep the cold out. She answers the questions briefly, warming her hands by the fire.
– Well, there is no significant difference. Me and my husband share the work and the income.
When a woman here says that, there is reason to suspect the opposite.
She married her husband two years ago. Vietnamese tradition dictated that Hue leave her family and become a member of her husband’s family. In practice, it’s her parents-in-law and husband who decide what she gets to do with her life. And she does what women are expected to do. Take care of children. Clean. Cook. Boil rice wine. Listen.
This has not always been the case. Among Vietnamese minority groups in the highlands, women historically led the family and were responsible for making important decisions.
According to folklore, Vietnam was created by two gods, one woman and one man. They had one hundred children who went on to populate the whole country. The woman, Au Co, went up into the mountains with her children – paving the way for women’s strong position in this region.
Among some minority groups in Vietnam, women still take centre stage. But here, among the Tay people in Cho Don, things have changed.
– It’s a lot of work to take care of our child. As a woman, I also need to help when something happens in the village, whether it’s a funeral or someone getting married, says Hue.
Her daughter is sitting in her lap, eating a watery rice soup. Trieu Yen Nhi turns two next month and weighs eight kilos. She cannot walk yet. She is suffering from malnutrition. Like 60 percent of children in the district, she is stunted, not growing as she should.
The family cultivates rice, but can only enough for their own needs. Vegetables, fruits, proteins, vitamins, fat and anything else that makes a child grow, are scarce. Above the fireplace hangs a squirrel that Hue’s husband caught earlier today. It will be an important addition to the family’s diet this freezing January day.
Her husband is the family’s main provider. Here, many hours from the nearest city and high up in the mountains on the Chinese border, jobs are hard to come by. The income from driving a motorcycle taxi and helping out occasionally on building sites is not enough. The family has only one earning member and that directly impacts the family’s food rations. And it affects the family’s prospects.
Hue speaks hesitantly, under the watchful eyes of her mother-in-law.
– We cannot afford more children. But I wish we could have a boy. Now we have a daughter and I wonder how her life will be. I would like her to become a doctor, she says, giving us a small glimpse into her fears and her hopes.
Down in the valley, Ha Thi Lieu is sitting behind a large desk. As president of the Bac Can Women’s Union, she represents 150,000 women in the province.
– I have been working for women’s rights for 21 years. I am committed because when I was growing up, I saw women who did not leave their homes, were not allowed to meet other women, or have their own activities.
Her task is tough. Many villages are located high in the mountains, isolated from the outside world. Few get the opportunity to get a proper education, especially the village’s daughters.
– Often, it’s only the son who gets to go to school. There is abelief that women cannot be leaders or work, she says, and continues.
– The law says that women can inherit land, but many still believe that when the woman gets married she no longer has that right.
Ha Thi Lieu believes that the solution to these problems is creating income opportunities for women.
– When women get their own incomes, they do not have to rely on their men. Then they dare to raise their voices. The risk of domestic violence also decreases. Most family quarrels are about money.
Hanoi based NGO, Chiase, is We Effect’s local partner. They will implement a new programme to empower women in the province of Bac Kan. They will do it in close collaboration Bac Can Women’s Union. This project aims to support 2 500 poor ethnic minority women and 1 500 children under five years.
One part of the project is supporting a group of women to form a tea cooperative in Cho Don.
– There are very few opportunities for women like us here. I hope this tea cooperative will give us a chance to change our lives to the better. Now we have something to hope for, says tea farmer Hoang Thi Vach.
Text and photo: Marcus Lundstedt