OPINION: Gender discrimination in Vietnam fuels trafficking of women and girls

by Mimi Vu | Raise Partners
Monday, 1 March 2021 10:17 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman sits by the roadside in Vietnam's northern Hoa Binh province, outside Hanoi July 5, 2009. REUTERS/Kham

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Female victims of modern slavery are often trafficked to China for sexual exploitation or forced labor

By Mimi Vu, a partner at Raise Partners and modern slavery expert based in Vietnam.

Five girls, five million Vietnamese dong (VND). That’s about $217, or $44 per girl. That’s how much a human trafficker, a 19-year-old woman barely older than her victims, was making by selling the girls across the border from Vietnam into China. Luckily, Vietnamese border guards caught them being loaded onto a boat by the trafficker. I interviewed them the morning after their rescue, shell-shocked and terrified by their ordeal.

$44. That is the value of a healthy, 16-year-old Vietnamese girl as a product on the market, where she’s passed along until the end buyer in China pays a few thousand dollars for a wife, surrogate, prostitute, and/or slave labor. People are shocked when I give this price tag. Life is priceless, right?

The unfortunate reality is that trafficking of Vietnamese women exists because they are more valuable as commodities than as human beings. Undervaluing women in Vietnamese society begins before birth. According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office, Vietnam has the third highest gender birth imbalance in the world behind China and India, with over 40,000 female fetuses terminated each year due to preference for sons.

Undervaluing females is not unique to Vietnam; it’s practically a universal truth. Vietnam is different, however, because it’s a major source of trafficking victims and foreign brides. Vietnamese women are sold to countries suffering the repercussions of their own shortage of women due to gender bias; the majority of our victims are trafficked to China as brides and prostitutes. In Malaysia, Vietnamese women are one-third of trafficking victims and number one for foreign prostitutes. Vietnam is also the largest supplier of foreign brides for Taiwanese and South Korean men.

Vietnam is losing its women at an alarming rate. It’s projected to have 1.5 million more men than women by 2034 and 2.5 million more men by 2059 based on gender birth imbalance alone. The consequences are dire: Vietnam will become a trafficking destination as a market opens up for the sale of women from neighboring, poorer countries. Victims will try to work in Vietnam’s growing manufacturing sector, lured by traffickers who instead sell them to make up for the lack of supply of women.

History will repeat itself, as we only need to look at the trafficking of Vietnamese women to Malaysia, a regional manufacturing hub that employs thousands of Vietnamese workers. This is Vietnam’s future unless we disrupt the trade by empowering women so that they’re worth more as members of society than as products.

Vietnam is a Confucian country that still values boys over girls. Parents lose their investment in raising a daughter once she gets married and joins her husband’s family, while the son carries on the family line and supports elderly parents. It’s an old way of thinking that doesn’t reflect reality anymore—most Vietnamese women I know are the primary caregivers of both her parents and in-laws—but our value system has not yet caught up.

A 2018 Financial Times survey found that Vietnam has the lowest female-to-male ratio in top management in the top Southeast Asian economies, with one woman to every eight men.

Investing in Women and Vietnam’s Labor Force Surveys found that women earned less than their male colleagues despite having the same or higher education levels and had less opportunities for advancement. Women are also expected to sacrifice their careers and personal welfare for the sake of the family.

As a product, however, women are much more valuable than men. Men are sold for forced labor; women and girls, however, can be trafficked for both sex and labor. Victims are often sold to China as brides, give birth, then sold to another family or factory. The first family that bought her recouped their investment and more by re-selling her and keeping the child. I’ve met too many of these victims, and their trauma is unimaginable and everlasting.

What can be done? The Vietnamese government’s National Strategy on Gender Equality addresses gender birth disparity and inequalities in the workplace. Challenges, however, lie in implementation of policies in the face of reality and tradition.

Government, private sector, civil society, and law enforcement must work together and take real action to advance gender equality in all aspects of life. Some solutions include national campaigns that promote equal value of sons and daughters and encourage open discussion of our traditions and values; stronger policies and laws that protect women and girls from gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and domestic violence; improved working conditions for mothers; and more women in management and executive boards.

Vietnam has so much potential; it was the top performing economy in Asia last year because of its young population and laudable handling of COVID-19. The country can’t succeed, however, if its women are undervalued and blocked from contributing to society and the economy, or sold across the border for less than $50. Urgent change must start now from within our own communities in Vietnam.