Picture this: a pale, blonde, blue-eyed woman surrounded by seven tanned Vietnamese fishermen who are shouting, laughing and drinking rice wine out of plastic bags. The determined blonde struggles with her chopsticks and works up the courage to eat an ink-covered cuttlefish. As the black liquid drips down her chin, she turns to the only person who can speak English, and says, “Am I doing OK?”
That blonde anomaly is me – a researcher studying small-scale fisheries in Southern Vietnam. Despite what you might think, research is not always about collecting data; a huge part of it is establishing relationships with communities in order to gain their trust and acceptance. Nothing could have prepared me for the crazy situations I ended up in while I attempted to document the nature of these Vietnamese fisheries; I experienced everything from waking up in a bed filled with ants to being offered sea turtle soup.
But what unsettled me more than the short-term discomforts of coastal life in Vietnam was learning about the role of women in Vietnamese society. In light of Emma Watson’s recent speech at the UN and the launch of the He for She campaign, I’ve been brooding more on what I experienced in Vietnam. It was unbelievably frustrating to learn how women are treated in this developing country.
I worked with several different institutions where very few women were employed, and none held directing positions. Male researchers I worked with admitted they would never hire female students because they assumed they would not work hard enough – they were surprised by my dedication to my research. “Most people think Vietnamese women should find a suitable husband and that’s it,” my assistant told me. Based on what I saw, most women are living that stereotype.
Women in the fishing villages would rarely leave the house, and certainly not travel 30 minutes to a main town – I’d bring them gifts from “afar” and they would be thrilled because they’d never go buy sunscreen forthemselves. I met many young girls that were pulled out of school at age eight or younger. In the more remote areas of Vietnam, ethnic tribes still carry out marriage by abduction. It’s not much more advanced in major cities – if a woman wants a divorce, she is denied rights and is shunned by the community.
Personally, I was asked daily whether I was married or had a boyfriend – when I revealed I did not, it was hard for women to understand why. I was also jarred when families offered me their children for adoption … but it was always young girls, never boys.
I am constantly inspired by the incredible women working in conservation, and am lucky enough to work in a lab that studies women’s roles in resource use. Many other women are not so lucky, and I can only hope that my time working in Vietnam inspired young women to push themselves to be more than their society expects of them.
- Goodkind, Daniel. “Rising gender inequality in Vietnam since reunification.”Pacific Affairs (1995): 342-359.
- Hang, Truong Thi Thuy. “Women’s leadership in Vietnam: Opportunities and challenges.” Signs 34.1 (2008): 16-21.
- Werner, Jayne. Gender, household and state in post-revolutionary Vietnam. Routledge, 2009.