Field Notes from Hanoi

The streets of Hanoi have a particular rhythm. Bustling motorbikes, bicycles and cars gracefully navigate traffic while shopkeepers await their next customer. Rows of colorful buildings offer glimpses of French colonial deco-style architecture, leaving the observer to search for patterns among contrasting designs.  

Just twenty years ago, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in world. The Cold War-era conflict left behind damaged infrastructure, millions of disaffected residents and a weakened sense of national identity. Today, Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia and largely hailed a development success. 

Because social and economic development is intrinsically connected to human rights, it makes sense that the country is growing in its concern for women’s rights protections. And that was what brought me into the heart of Hanoi, some 8,000 miles from home, with UN Women and the University of Chicago Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) last March. My goal was to assess the role of constitutional reform in the inclusion and realization of women’s rights language in Vietnam. Two colleagues were dispatched to Morocco and Zimbabwe to examine how constitutional reform impacts women. 

Our research will be part of a forthcoming UN Women report considering over forty countries that have engaged in a constitutional reform or revision process. The primary goal is to assess whether the incorporation of women’s rights language truly translates to meaningful change for women. Our methodology considers not only the change in constitutional language but also the presence and implementation of legislation, judicial precedents and policy. While the global report will encompass twelve areas of women’s rights analysis, the in-country investigations focus on five key priority areas: domestic violence, reproductive health, maternity leave in employment, political representation and property ownership. 

Over the course of numerous stakeholder meetings with government officials, policymakers, academics, and nonprofit actors, our team gained valuable insights on the status of women’s rights in Vietnam. Although the constitution has undergone multiple revisions to incorporate more women’s rights, its impact on women’s rights differs across the key priority areas. In some instances, constitutional language plays a neutral role in the advancement of women’s rights and is largely a symbolic reference point for legislative action. This is the case for reproductive health and maternity leave in employment, where the Communist Party of Vietnam has laid out national strategy goals to aspire towards, in addition to implementing legislation. In other instances, such as political representation and domestic violence (two priority areas of passionate discussion in nearly every stakeholder meeting), the role of the constitution is more complex.

According to the 2010 National Survey on Domestic Violence in Vietnam, one in three women have experienced physical beatings, forcible sexual intercourse or other forms of abuse. No specific constitutional language exists protecting women from domestic violence. In its place is the robust 2007 Law on Domestic Violence, the primary reference point for implementing protections for Vietnamese women. Stakeholders remarked that changing constitutional language was not of utmost concern, and that even the US did not have specific constitutional provisions protecting women from violence. Rather, they highly prioritized the need to challenge deeply embedded cultural and social norms. 

The constitution is not completely benign on the issue, however, as it reinforces social norms that emphasize protecting the family institution. Article 60 within the constitution discusses the importance of preserving a “happy” family and “happy” life. This language is used to support reconciliatory efforts between victims of abuse and their spouses, which often result in women being returned to abusive domestic partnerships in hopes of salvaging the family unit. The textual emphasis on preserving a happy family, paired with the social stigma of family disunity, make it difficult for abused women in Vietnam to receive the high-quality support they need. The lack of external support, such as easily accessible shelters and legal aid, further inhibit women from seeking help. Most stakeholders in Vietnam remarked that while key policy changes were necessary, so was the need for greater awareness and challenging of social norms. This tells us that, even though there is no explicit language regarding domestic violence in the constitution, the text is still key in shaping social norms, as well as motivating procedural and legislative change with respect to women’s rights. 

What is the role of the constitution? And what role do international institutions play in pressuring governments to advance women’s rights? These are questions that my team continues to investigate and seeks to clarify in our upcoming report. Two weeks ago, I presented my initial findings at UN Women headquarters in New York, providing lessons for other countries engaged in a similar reform process. My team also conducted a rigorous quantitative trends analysis on the inclusion of women’s protections in the constitution. 

With its centralized, one-party political structure, Vietnam offered us a unique vantage point for evaluating the development of women’s rights and protections. Going forward, I hope to reconcile Western and Euro-centric paradigms of justice with other frameworks of empowerment that go largely unexplored for fear of unfamiliarity, but have been instrumental to progress at the grassroots level. 

My work with UN Women and the IHRC allowed me to engage with complex human rights issues on a deeper, more substantive level. It also reaffirmed that the nuances of human rights work must be conducted in a sensitive and culturally competent manner that does not deprive others of their agency to decide their own futures. 

— Salwa Shameem, MPP’16