UN Women in Vietnam: Safe and Friendly Cities for all
UN Women’s Safe and Friendly City and Public Spaces Programme is helping Ho Chi Minh City to move towards a city free from sexual harassment with safe mobility for women and girls, setting an excellent precedent for the rest of the country to follow.
Transportation equals mobility equals opportunity. It sounds like a simple equation, but for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s biggest metropolis with a population of around 8.6 million, confidence in mass transit is an especially crucial link in the chain of urban functionality. UN Women’s involvement in public awareness programmes aimed at increasing that confidence, particularly among girls and women, has been welcomed by both the city government and transit authorities.
Sexual harassment in public places, including on public transport, is not exclusive to Vietnam, but as in many traditionally patriarchal societies, it needs to be combatted. While this is one of the focus areas of UN Women’s efforts, it is part of the organisation’s broader work to promote gender equality, nationally and across borders, in order to achieve a “Planet 50-50 by 2030” which is one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.
“People witness harassment, but they don’t always take it seriously or know how to deal with it.”
“In Vietnam, sexual harassment is considered to be an administrative offence rather than a criminal offence,” explains Elisa Fernandez, head of Office for UN Women in Vietnam, adding that the law on gender equality in Vietnam has only been in force for a decade. A sample of the challenge was revealed in the Safe Cities programme’s baseline survey reporting that 41 per cent of women and 39 per cent of men interviewed had witnessed sexual harassment, confirming that the practise is viewed as part of everyday behaviour. Parks, small alleys and streets, bus stops, bars and restaurants, and public restrooms are places where harassment is most common. “People witness harassment, but they don’t always take it seriously or know how to deal with it,” says Fernandez.
The organisation’s strategy, she says, is to influence policy at different levels and in the various sectors of government, including budgetary decision-making, and to support the elevation of gender equality work from community to city and to national level. The local authorities have already acknowledged the importance of a budget that addresses prevailing gender gaps.
Safer mass transport
City transport is one of the most conspicuous areas in which the city and UN Women’s efforts have borne tangible fruit, in the form of public phone helplines for harassment victims, information campaigns on buses, at schools, in community and via social media. For example, orange colour-coded buses and bus stops (orange being used internationally as the symbol for ending violence against women and girls) have been fitted with cameras, and 6,000 bus drivers have been trained on how to respond to cases of sexual harassment.
“By receiving support from UN Women we got to know more about matters of sexual harassment in bus systems and public places,” says Tran Ngoc An, vice director of the Centre for Public Transport management in Ho Chi Minh City, which is setting an example that UN Women hopes other Vietnamese communities will follow. “By placing three cameras on each bus, we can help to make sure that police are informed of what happens on buses and we can check the specific bus as soon as there is a report of harassment.”
Changing behaviours and attitudes towards women entail engaging men in the discussion.
Efforts to empower women in the community are being complemented with those to do the same in the workplace and the marketplace. By encouraging companies to ascribe to seven guiding principles encompassed under the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), UN Women is supporting companies to create working environments that are free from sexual harassment and promote equal opportunity as well as women’s leadership in decision-making and managerial roles as enablers of innovation and successful business practices.
Changing behaviours and attitudes towards women and the acceptability of sexual harassment and violence in the public space and at home entail engaging men in the discussion. This includes working at the community level through male clubs, where local men gather monthly to question, through lively games and discussions, traditional gender roles and harmful behaviours that undermine women and limit both sexes. These sessions have helped men to understand and appreciate women’s roles that previously they might have taken for granted, in a society where women’s labour force participation has been among the highest in the world.
UN Women have also recruited celebrities as Champions to support and increase public awareness of gender equality issues and capture the attention of younger generations. One of these is nationally known pop composer and singer Hoang Bach, who penned a special song and who has participated in over 20 UN Women events over a four-year tenure as Champion.
“I was invited by UN Women as a ‘HeForShe’ Champion in Vietnam,” he says. “UN Women planned most of the activities, but I had my own ideas, such as a mixed-gender football match involving other celebrities and politicians. I would like to have done more because I know that issues of violence towards women and girls and sexual harassment are important challenges in Vietnam.”
Real change starts at the simplest level – in the home.
Celebrities play an important role in raising awareness, but real change starts at the simplest level – in the home. “It was revealing for me to hear a man in one of the male clubs say that his participation helped him to appreciate the work that his wife did in the home,” says Elisa Fernandez. “It wasn’t just about violence or harassment; it was about the value of the day-to-day work that women do. If we spread this realization across the whole country, we would be addressing one of the root causes of gender inequality in Vietnam, and around the world. No matter how professional or demanding their work is, an expectation remains for women to take care of the housework, the children and family, and the ill. We need men to get more involved in these roles. These traditional norms need to change.”
Text Tim Bird
Photo Tim Bird, UN Women/Hoang Van Nam and iStock