I have recently spent four days in a town called Sa Pa, which is poised on the Hoang Lien Son Mountains of Northwestern Vietnam. To reach it you ascend a narrow, windy mountain pass with an incredible view of rice paddies, which have been carved out of the landscape to form pyramid like tiers. Sa Pa is not only famous for its vast, breathtaking views and trekking trails, but for the eight traditional tribes which still live in the valleys and mountains surrounding it. Whilst we were there we did a two-day trek with a beautiful guide called Little Chi who is from a tribe called the Black Hmong. Chi’s knowledge of the land that she traverses every day, as well as the insight she gave us into the day to day lives and struggles of the people there, was (both) rich and eye-opening. For me, it also highlighted the inequalities women in her tribe face and spoke to the bigger question of how cultural norms of sexism and inequality are overcome.
Before we had booked our trek, I was given a recommendation for a company called Sapa Sisters. It is the only female-founded and run trekking organisation in Sapa, which employs English speaking guides from two of the tribes; Black Hmong and Red Dzao. Reading the information provided on the website we learned how important providing a fair and above average income was for these women to help them escape domestic violence, save for their children’s expensive university education, and be less vulnerable to human trafficking across the Chinese border. Through Sapa Sisters, employees can also get access to interest free micro loans- helping them improve the livability of their houses amongst other things. These reasons underpinned our choice of Sapa Sisters over other companies and were reaffirmed upon hearing Chi’s story.
Let me introduce Little Chi, as per her name suggests she is a 4.5 foot, bubbly and youthful looking woman, who is also a mum to a two-year-old boy. Her smiley demeanor matches her bright pink and green bandana and velvety black pants indigenous to her tribe. Chi is 25 years old and married to a man from her tribe of her own choosing, a recent luxury. She has been trekking with Sapa Sisters for four years, having learned English from following other tourists and guides. Whereas a lot of guides carry their babies on their backs, Chi tells us that her little boy is with her mother in law, as he is most days and nights while she treks with customers. When her clients settle in for the night at home stays, she will often try and visit her son to feed him milk, but this is not all always possible and she knows he wont sleep well. Matter of factly, she tells us that her husband doesn’t look after their boy, and that men in her tribe spend most of their time drinking, smoking marijuana and gambling with their friends. It’s a cultural thing that women are expected to do all the work, whilst the elder women who can no longer work look after the children.This inequality is also perpetuated by women who have suffered from it, exemplified by Chi’s mother in law chastising her for telling her husband to be less lazy. It is an accepted belief here that men need more free time than women, and whilst she has no resentment in her voice, she agrees it isn’t fair. Men also inherit all the land and valuable possessions from their parents, making it harder for women to act independently.
When I asked Chi if she see things getting better for women in her tribe, she had hope. Her steady employment and income gives her more respect and independence as a woman, and she aims to teach her son that women and men are equal. Education which acts as a vehicle for gender equality, is also free and of much better quality now than when she went to school, with teachers who are able to read and write. In spite of this, young girls are still being discouraged to attending school in order to help with family farming.
Chi’s story and the information provided by Sapa Sisters draws parallels with the struggles women in other poor and rural parts of the developing world face. The solutions are also similar; education and empowerment of women. A 2014 study by the World Bank Group found that girls with little or no education are far more likely to marry before the age of 18, suffer from domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending and their own health care than better-educated peers *. This, in turn, affects the health and well-being of their children, as uneducated mothers have less power to act in their children’s benefit. Education provides hope and opportunities for women to earn income, with one extra year of primary school boosting a girl’s future wage by 10 to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school increasing her earning potential by 15 to 25 percent **. Alternative ways to empower women include social businesses such as Sapa Sisters, as well as certain aid programs. I am particularly interested in cash transfer programs, which have been trialed and implemented with success globally. The simple idea behind this type of aid is to put choice directly in the hands of the poor through cash handouts. In addition to reducing child mortality rates, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and truancy, research has shown it to improve school performance, economic growth, and gender equality. In a case of Malawi, school attendance amongst women and girls surged 40% regardless of whether the cash came with or without conditions ***. These findings demonstrate how powerful the link between women’s education and empowerment is from both directions, and ultimately, how important these two factors are in overcoming the devastating issues associated with cultural inequality and sexism.
More broadly, these links between education and empowerment exist in all cultures and countries, including our own. Feathersome aims to be part of this solution in Australia, and it is with great excitement that I invite you to help us with one of our upcoming initiatives Feathersome Journal. We are in the last week of our crowdfunding campaign for the journal, which resources women with other women’s authentic stories and information so that they too can recognise and build their leadership capacity – be it in their family, their community, or in their workplace. Check it out, thank you.
*(World Bank Group, 2014)
**( Koppell, 2013)
***(Just Give Money to The Poor, 2010)