This chapter examines the role of gender training in the context of gender mainstreaming in Vietnam to illuminate how gender shapes and is shaped through development practice. Through thick description of a week-long gender training designed to mainstream gender into a rural development project, the author examines the role gender and development practitioners play as teacher–trainers in moving gender-mainstreaming policies beyond national development planning and rhetoric to affect local and cultural change. As they teach their students how to “think gender” they transform abstract gender equality policy commitments to fit the needs of different local constituents, who are themselves embedded in a complexity of gender, class, ethnic, age, and urban–rural power relations. In the process, training becomes a key political space, place and process where development subjects are produced, and gender expertise is negotiated. It is where teacher–trainers and their students actively negotiate the meaning of gender, equality, and development. It is a place where power and knowledge are constructed (and contested), and where trainers and trainees make visible their own political commitments and intentions as “insiders” and “outsiders” to the development process. As a result, training serves as an important site of engagement and contestation over the cultural and political meaning of gender mainstreaming, gender equality, and development in Vietnam, and as such has become an important space for feminist activism.
Kelly, K. (2019), "“Don’t Do Your Gender on Me!” Gender Mainstreaming and the Politics of Training in Vietnam", Demos, V., Segal, M. and Kelly, K. (Ed.) Gender and Practice: Insights from the Field (Advances in Gender Research, Vol. 27), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 71-87. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1529-212620190000027005Download as .RIS
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Gender mainstreaming is the key strategy among the international development community and women’s movements for addressing both social justice and economic growth. Rather than conceptualizing women as a separate category needing special attention or special programs, the aim of gender mainstreaming is to integrate women and gender into overall development planning, implementation, and evaluation. One of the key strategies for transferring feminist knowledge to those charged with implementing gender-mainstreaming policies and programs is through “gender training.” While there is no agreed upon definition of gender training, in its simplest form it is “a facilitated process of developing awareness and capacity on gender issues, to bring about personal or organizational change for gender equality” (Reeves & Baden 2000, p. 2). The idea behind gender training is that it helps participants develop thought and action in a transformational manner, enabling participants to explore daily issues, understand the dynamics of their societies, and apply the concept of gender analysis to their work. Gender training, different from other forms of training, is often imagined as a two-way process where trainers and trainees share knowledge and learn together in ways that challenge participants’ beliefs and encourage them to examine their relationships with others and how this impacts development (Batliwala, 2008).
Despite gender training’s transformative potential, there is a growing body of research suggesting that while helpful in promoting awareness of gender as an issue, it rarely has the trickle-down (or up) effect that development practitioners intend (Bustelo, Ferguson, & Forest, 2016; Mukhopadhyay & Wong, 2007; Tiessen, 2007). This is partly because education and training models popularly used by development organizations rarely consider the political and cultural subtexts that inform trainer–trainee experiences. Today, there is growing concern among feminist activists that gender training actually promotes the idea of gender mainstreaming as a foreign or “Western” import, as a failed development strategy, and/or as another donor-led fad inappropriate to local needs and development processes. Still, education and training continue to be cited in development manuals, national mainstreaming strategies, and as essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
So, what is it that training, and specifically gender training, is supposed to achieve? How did it lose its transformative potential and what can be done to recover it? This chapter uses the case of a week-long training in rural Vietnam to consider the role gender and development practitioners play as teacher–trainers, and the strategies they use to navigate the complexity of gender, class, ethnic, age, and urban–rural power relations that shape their work. As they negotiate with local government leaders, their students, and each other, they make visible their own political commitments and intentions as “insiders” and “outsiders” to the development process. Crisscrossing the worlds of theory and practice, their work reveals the transformational potential as not in the content of gender training, but in the pedagogy of feminist development practice.
Training as a Political and (Sometimes) Feminist Process
Gender training as practiced today has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s women’s consciousness raising work designed to transform gender relations at the personal, organizational, and/or societal level. Early trainers were influenced by critical and feminist pedagogies emerging from newly formed women’s studies programs at North American and European universities. Importantly, they were also inspired by the writings of Paulo Freire (1993) from his work on anti-oppressive education in Latin America. Early consciousness-raising programs were most often promoted by women’s civil society organizations and included development workers learning alongside community members. Consciousness-raising work was effective in giving women a space to share their experiences, to recognize they were not alone, and to develop collective action for social change. Before intersectionality was a term, women’s consciousness raising work revealed how race-ethnicity, caste and class, physical abilities, sexuality, age, and global location shaped gender inequality. This knowledge motivated many women to participate in a variety of social change projects beyond gender equality, including environmental, peace, and anti-racism movements.
By the mid-1980s, development institutions adopted Gender and Development (GAD) frameworks to guide their work and began institutionalizing gender training into their regular programing for women. Because GAD frameworks viewed women’s lower-status position in society as a result of structural barriers, gender training became an important tool for promoting women’s capacity building. Often framed as empowerment, it was assumed that training would help women learn to recognize and discuss feelings and conditions of oppression, and then advocate for social change (Stromquist, 2002). Gender training in this regard quickly became an instrument of governance mobilized to activate otherwise invisible and un-mobilized women (at least from donor perspectives) for development goals. Gender training associated with capacity-building and empowerment became most visible in the lead up to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Donors put enormous resources into training women in preparation for participation in Beijing where gender mainstreaming was adopted as part of the Beijing Platform for Action (United Nations, 1997). Upon return home, they received additional support in advocating their governments to adopt gender mainstreaming into national development plans.
It should be no surprise then that gender mainstreaming has become the key strategy for achieving gender equality during economic growth, and gender training a key strategy for achieving its goals. With it has come a plethora of gender equality tools and social change strategies that need to be taught to development practitioners. These tools were modeled on those used to address other cross-sectoral issues such as HIV/AIDS, poverty alleviation, and climate change. They tend to privilege top-down technocratic forms of implementation, including hiring expert consultants, developing standard needs assessment and reporting forms, and conducting short-term intensive training for relevant staff and project partners. What tends to get reinforced in such trainings is positivist technical knowledge that emphasizes definitions and replication, decouples theory from practice, restricts training formats and timeframes, and commodifies training by making it mandatory or by offering monetary incentives to participants who attend. The result is a training experience that rarely offers consciousness-raising or empowerment, let alone opportunities for developing new knowledge or a new politics of knowledge about gender, equality, or development. Nevertheless, despite the clear shift toward more technical, instrumental approaches to training, to many feminist activists, gender training remains arguably the only opportunity to persuade those in attendance that gender matters.
Part of the challenge gender trainers face is reconciling feminist theories and epistemologies with development practices. The remainder of this chapter describes a week-long gender training designed to mainstream gender into a rural development project in Vietnam. Through thick description, this case illuminates the transformative potential of gender training as a feminist project. Focusing on the ways one gender trainer and her staff negotiate with village leaders, community members and each other, this chapter makes visible the ways gender mainstreaming and development practice are gendered, but always shifting, negotiated, relational, contested, and in flux. This leaves open the opportunity for gender practitioners as teacher–trainers to reclaim gender training as a feminist project.
Methods and Methodology
The data collected for this chapter is part of a longitudinal ethnographic study of gender mainstreaming in practice in Vietnam initiated in 2006 and ongoing. In this chapter, I present the experiences of one Vietnamese NGO which I will call Agricultural Development International (ADI), 1 as the staff conducted a three-day gender training in a rice-farming community in northwest Vietnam. The key aim of the gender training was to raise awareness among villagers of how gender and other inequalities shape community life, and structure their access to and control over development aid. Following the three-day workshop, the ADI staff remained in the village for another five days to provide funding and technical assistance to the community for re-building an ancient viaduct system used to transport water from a nearby mountain stream to their rice fields. Awareness of how gender inequality shaped the management of the irrigation system was considered a key component to supporting sustainable development. This was especially true as men tended to hold village leadership positions and seemed eager to attend and participate in meetings associated with the project, while women actually labored to maintain the viaduct system and irrigate the fields.
Negotiating Experts and Expertise
I woke up at 5 a.m. after a restless sleep in the muggy summer Hanoi heat. After pulling my dry clothes off the rooftop clothesline, I packed my bags, slurped down a bowl of noodle soup, and went out to the street to wait for the gender team from ADI, the Vietnamese NGO I would shadow for the week. When their van arrived, the back row of seats were already filled with luggage, boxes of markers, rolled up butcher paper and tape, and what I could only guess were materials needed for the irrigation development project that was the real purpose of the trip. In the front seat sat Xuan, the lead gender trainer whom I had already met. Minh was driving. He was 42, with two small boys at home. I had met him several times before and he always struck me as a happy guy, easy to express himself, and full of funny stories about his sons’ latest exploits. I climbed in the first row of seats behind Minh where another young man and woman were already wedged in between suitcases. They introduced themselves and Quy and Van Anh. Both were new to the organization, so were attending the training as observers and learners. We picked up another young man on the outskirts of the city, Manh who was in his late 20s, married, with a newborn at home. He and his wife had just built their first house, about 45 minutes outside the city because that was where property was cheapest. His mother-in-law moved in with him to help his wife with the baby. Manh was responsible for all administrative matters at the organization, and for permits to conduct projects in the rural areas. He would serve as the official organizational “go-between” with local officials for the week.
It is important to introduce the people in this case by gender, age, marital status, whether they have children or not, and their position within the organization. In Vietnam, and in Vietnamese, gender and age dictate hierarchies of relationships in terms of how people address and relate to each other. People who are older in age get a higher honorific in their title. In this way, I address Xuan as “Chị” (elder sister) and Minh the driver as “Anh” (elder brother), as both are older than me. However, Quy and Van Anh, who are considerably younger, address us all as “Bác” (elder aunt/uncle, which interestingly has no gender). Status, and expertise, in this sense is not earned but embedded in the language of how colleagues, friends, and strangers address each other. Such familial terms are useful in understanding social status, but they can also be mobilized in ways to grant higher or lower status as relationships evolve. When a woman marries a younger man, for example, it is customary for her to give him the higher honorific (his “elder brother” to her “little sister”). In this way, gender, age, and social location can be understood as both fixed and negotiated, but always relational.
It was a long drive – about eight hours on bumpy, rural roads so we had plenty of time to discuss and debate the best bargains, the intricacies of Vietnamese recipes and childcare techniques. I was struck by how comfortable the men were discussing expertise usually seen as women’s knowledge, but perhaps this was because they perceived me to have even less expertise in these matters by the fact of my curly blond hair and foreigner status. The experienced fathers in our group shared plenty of tips for Van Anh who was expecting her first child. Again, I commented in my notes about how unusual it was to hear men giving advice to women about child-raising. I wondered how much their comfort level stemmed from being older than Van Anh, more experienced parents, or by being involved in gender mainstreaming. Clearly in this car, there was a great deal of comfort among the men in “crossing borders,” and claiming a space for themselves as experts in traditionally Vietnamese feminine domains.
Not long before we were due to arrive at our hotel, Manh received a call on his cell phone. It was from a Party leader at the district office letting us know that they had not gotten the proper permissions for me, as an outsider, to observe the training or visit the project site. Manh was clearly flustered, although he kept his voice calm and steady as he replied that he had already met with the various leaders in charge and they had all promised there would be no problem. Manh talked on the phone for some time as we all held our breath in the car. We knew the consequences of not getting the right paperwork in Vietnam – without the right stamps and signatures, nothing could move forward. More time was usually spent on greasing the wheels of local bureaucracies to make sure that consensus was reached before anyone agreed to move forward with new development projects. When Manh finally got off the phone, Xuan let loose.
“How could you not have gotten the signatures,” she demanded. “You should know better,” she said, “I told you so.” Nothing is sure when it is only verbal agreements. She reminded us in the car that everyone should know better from years of working with local administrators that they will always “trốn,” or try to “escape and hide” from their responsibilities. We need all the right stamps and signatures to hold everyone accountable when they get too scared to do something new and unfamiliar.
As Xuan berated Manh, I thought back to my own years of administering development projects in Vietnam in the early 1990s. The rules were new, working with international NGOs was new, we were all new. No one seemed to know what to expect, but most people expected the worst from everyone. There was little trust and little accountability. Vietnamese NGOs, which did not exist at the time were operating in the same unfamiliar territory today that INGOs waded through a decade prior, and probably still. But Manh was young, he lacked the experience that Xuan had. She knew there were ways to get around certain restrictions, and other things that no amount of maneuvering could manage. Having a foreigner visit a local project was very sensitive, especially in an area of the country generally cut off from tourism and international development. Manh would have a great deal of work to do smoothing things over and completing the piles of new paperwork that would now follow, along with some hefty fees. However, Xuan was sure that in the end, he would succeed in getting the permissions needed and all would be fine with the project. It was a “learning experience,” Xuan reminded him, trying to calm his nerves.
Doing Gender to Get the Work Done
That evening, at a small rice shop we found ourselves to be the only customers. As we waited for food to be cooked, Xuan and her team gave me more background information about the training and their training philosophy.
The participants in the program included 30 people, equally divided between men and women, including local leaders, farmers (equal numbers of men and women), and other community members with a vested interest in the project. The training had three distinct goals: (1) to provide gender equality knowledge to project participants; (2) to provide opportunities to identify and develop strategies for dealing with local gender equality issues in relation to project implementation; and (3) to provide a train-the-trainer opportunity to ADI staff.
Each of the NGO’s staff members were expected to learn and practice the organizations’ gender equality goals, but also to learn how to lead gender equality workshops since these were the mainstay of all programing. It was also considered a key strategy for mainstreaming gender into the life of the organization. As Xuan explained to me:
Most of the staff when they come to us have never heard of gender unless it is about the Women’s Union and then they think it is just women’s issues. How can we expect our own staff to really understand gender if they haven’t been required to teach it? It is in the teaching and training that we really come face-to-face with our own assumptions about gender and have to articulate them. Hopefully, we challenge ourselves in the process. Learning to “think gender” is a life-long process, and we want to give our staff, and ourselves, as many opportunities to grow as we can.
Xuan was born during the revolution that won Vietnam its independence from France, and grew up during the American war. She worked for years as part of the state apparatus that supported the Vietnam Women’s Union’s goals and programs for women’s independence. She was one of the 134 members of the delegation of Vietnamese women who were active in Beijing and brought the ideas of gender mainstreaming back to Vietnam. When she retired from the Women’s Union at 55, she went to work for a Canadian NGO, attended several regional gender equality workshops and became active in promoting democratic decision-making among Vietnam’s rural poor. Her statement reflects her understanding that gender is not something that one just “gets” or that one can see easily. It is something that is “done,” “embodied,” and “naturalized” in the West and Zimmerman (1987) sense. Like riding a bicycle, it becomes so much a part of how we learn to present ourselves and read the world that we no longer question its logic. In this way, it also makes sense to Xuan – that by teaching, one is capable of un-doing some of these naturalized assumptions. But it is not an easy task. To her, mainstreaming gender is something that must be accomplished both inside and outside the organization, and it is a long-term process. She rejects the kinds of instrumental approaches that accompany train-the-trainer workshops that treat students like empty vessels that can be filled with a core set of gender skills and applied without theory.
To Xuan and her staff, gender knowledge must be home-grown. It emerges from one’s own experiences and by confronting one’s own assumptions, or by being confronted with them. As a result of this teaching philosophy, she works with her staff to help them develop their own materials, and in the process, a community of practice model has emerged in which gender practitioners learn to critically reflect from their own and others’ experiences to constantly improve.
As we talked, two men rode up on their motorbikes and came into the restaurant. They sat down at a table behind us, and my hosts fell silent around the table. They each turned to nod at the men, and Manh leaned over to whisper something to Xuan. She nodded her head and he got up to join the two men. I watched out of the corner of my eye, sensing that my presence was not necessarily appropriate. Manh ordered beers for the men and more food. He lit a cigarette and offered one to each of the men. He became quite chummy with them, slapping their backs, talking more loudly than I was familiar with him doing, laughing, and offering up toasts. As we sat eating our food in near silence, we strained to hear what they were saying. I soon gathered it had something to do with me and the permissions Xuan and her team would need for me to accompany them the next day. After a few minutes, Manh indicated to Minh, our driver, to join them. As the senior man in our group, he seemed relieved to join the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking group. He quickly relaxed into their camaraderie and after another 30–40 minutes, Manh paid for their dinner, and the group all piled into our car and drove off. They returned an hour later, the two men joining our table this time. Minh ordered tea and we all sucked on little toothpicks as the now red-faced-from-beer-drinking men talked loudly about how “this” was all a misunderstanding, but the group should know better than to invite me, a foreigner, whom they would be responsible for protecting while I was there, without the proper permissions. Yes, yes, Xuan said, she would do better to instruct her staff next time, and she thanked the two men for their “sympathy” and “understanding.” After the men left, Manh pulled from his shirt the signed and stamped permission letters allowing the training to start the next day and for me to accompany them.
While on the surface, this exchange could certainly be understood as merely a misunderstanding, or ineptitude on either the part of the NGO staff or the local bureaucrats, but the effect was an erasure of power for Xuan as the woman leader on the project. Despite her seniority as head of the team, and as oldest in the group, the men resolved the “misunderstanding” by drawing on discourses and practices associated with hegemonic masculinities. They established control and contact through the least senior man in the group, who by his junior position could demonstrate deference to the older men by buying them beer and offering cigarettes and communicating in the language of hierarchical masculinity (“uncle” to “nephew” and “elder brother” to “younger”). When the proper respect and face-saving gestures were recognized, the men granted the permissions they would probably give anyway, but without requiring the extra paperwork. Xuan had little choice in how to manage the situation due to her position in the gender-age power hierarchy. If she had not allowed Manh to draw on patriarchal practices, their project, the funding, and their team might have had to return to Hanoi. Clearly, Manh and Minh were able to mobilize patriarchal gender relations to get the work done, which served the short-term goal, but also risked undermining the long-term goal of gender equality.
Learning to “Think Gender”
The next day was the first day of training. We drove to the village and were met by Mr Viet, the Communist Party leader for the village. He presented a few opening remarks to start the training, expressing his gratitude to the ADI team for their work helping to modernize and democratize the village. 2 Then he excused himself for the rest of the training as he was tied up in other work. I could see from the faces of Xuan and her team, that this was a disappointment. They had hoped his presence would motivate the participants, and most likely change his own patriarchal practices as community leader. But they quickly regained composure and got to work (Fig. 1).
The first morning of training, Xuan introduced the class to their first lesson: the importance of distinguishing between “sex” and “gender.” She started by dividing the class into groups of four or five and handed out large sheets of paper and markers. She asked each group to draw what they understood a man to be, and what they understood constituted a woman. After much laughing and joking, the groups emerged with very similar drawings of men with male genitalia, facial hair, bulging muscles, short hair, cigarettes, a glass of alcohol, and one picture had a few girls in the background. The women were usually drawn with female genitalia, including breasts, long hair, curvy hips, and legs, and sometimes a baby or cooking pot in her hand (Fig. 2).
During the discussion over which of the elements in their drawing constituted gender versus sex, there came a heated discussion over women’s biological versus social ability to produce children. As one older man who was called Uncle Sang, dressed in army fatigues, Ho Chi Minh sandals, a cigarette dangling from his finger-tips, pointed out:
I have been around longer than anyone here and let me just remind us that no matter what, the differences are still there – women have a “heavenly mandate” that men do not have – they can give birth to babies. We [the men] are the “pillars of the house” – men must be strong, protect women, and take care of “big matters.” The state has a responsibility to protect women’s right to be mothers … if we are to include women in all these meetings and trainings, how are they going to do their job well at home? Who will take care of the children? They are the future of Vietnam.
Most arguments in Vietnam about equality between men and women are framed in terms of women’s “heavenly mandate” as this man articulated. In all of the gender trainings I observed with ADI and other organizations, there were plenty of reminders about women’s “heavenly mandate” as either an impediment to women’s ability to compete and participate on the same par with men or as a right to be protected. Motherhood discourses, then are important in this set of local contexts for understanding women’s obligations as members of families and as citizens – it is something to be prioritized, not a choice (and not something that men are equally obliged to do). It is based on an assumption of difference – that women (and not men) are obliged to be mothers and this role is both biological (in terms of physically producing children) and cultural (in terms of raising and teaching children). Women’s cultural reproductive role, of course, is seen as a natural extension of their biological reproductive role. However, turning their backs on their biological right and duty is not an option for “good” Vietnamese women because turning their backs on their children is seen as turning their backs on “the future of Vietnam,” as this man so clearly explained to us. It should be noted here that by claiming age as standpoint from which he spoke as an expert, he defined Xuan, her staff, me as an outsider (and visibly foreign observer), and the rest of the class as the learners. The student was speaking from an older man’s perspective, and as a member of the state (via his military fatigues) and so had an obligation to protect women. Women as wives and mothers then become the objects of state-legitimated control.
This was an important teachable moment of the sort that Xuan looks for in her work. While her response sounded conversational, I knew that she had given the matter a great deal of thought and had rehearsed her response. She needed just the exact tone for the context to have the right effect. She explained that having the ability to produce children – the ability to get pregnant, give birth and nurse (the “sex” side of gender), did not mean that women also had to do all the cooking, cleaning, and housework. The class seemed satisfied and did not push the point further, but during the next break, I asked Xuan about the exchange:
“Do you often hear the ‘heavenly mandate’ argument for why gender nequality is acceptable?” I asked.
Oh, that is not uncommon at all. This is a very important point to get across and if after one week of training, this is all they walk away with, I will feel satisfied. I have to be very careful not to talk like the UN and other foreigners and talk about having children as a “choice,” though. We have very strong cultural assumptions about how women will be unhappy forever if they don’t have kids …. I have to be careful not to turn them off to me personally or else they won’t listen to me as the expert.
“What do you mean, ‘turn them off to you personally’?” I asked digging a bit deeper.
Well, if I appear to not fit the appropriate mold for what Vietnamese women are supposed to be – like I don’t dress right, or I sound too foreign, Western or feminist, they will think I am coming to change things. Of course, I am trying to change things, but culture is always changing.
Xuan’s point is that how she presents herself and how she teaches is always about doing gender and simultaneously about deconstructing it. What she wears, how she presents herself, whether she makes the fact that she is married with children visible (as normative notions of femininity in Vietnam dictate) all depends on the context in which she is working. Sometimes it goes terribly wrong, but Xuan reminds me that expertise is constructed in contexts. How she responds to the “heavenly mandate” logic depends on whether the person she is in interaction with is male or female, older or younger, a state bureaucrat, or rural laborer. It is in the interactions that our expertise becomes real, she tells her team and me that night over dinner. There is no set response because a good gender practitioner needs to start with where the other person is coming from. We need to meet half-way – that is the only way to establish expertise – if they are not allowed to be open to us, to see that we are learners as they are, and that they bring some level of expertise to the training, how does learning happen, and how does change occur?
While there is a growing literature on gender training method as practice, there has been little critical analysis of the thinking behind gender trainings and how trainers and trainees interact with culture and language apart from recognizing the need to adapt content to local reality. However, teachers and students bring with them to the classroom certain values and beliefs about the world and about each other. These are of course challenged and resisted as part of the process of feminist knowledge transfer. Through this process, however, trainers and trainees develop a set of shared dispositions that then inform what and how they engage in classroom activities. In Vietnam, understandings of the nation and appropriate Vietnamese womanhood provide an important lens through which shared dispositions are created, and therefore inform the varying attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that trainers and trainees bring to the classroom, and which are then discursively and materially articulated and negotiated.
How Does Your Government Govern You?
On the last day of training, Mr Viet, the head of the commune, was waiting for me. He asked Xuan if it would be okay for me to “visit” a bit while the rest of the team ran the workshop that day.
Mr Viet led me next door to his office – a long room with tiled floors, white-washed walls, a large desk in the back and two long wooden couches with vinyl cushions in front. He invited me to have a seat on one of the couches and he sat opposite. As he went through the ritual of preparing green tea on the glass table that separated us, he asked how old I was, how long I had lived in Vietnam, if I was married, had children, and what I thought of his commune.
After establishing that I was significantly younger, married but divorced, with two children, so still fitting into some “appropriate womanhood mold,” I told him my views of the village. “Oh, it’s lovely,” I told him. I hadn’t had much of a chance to look around, I told him because as a foreigner I was not permitted to wander around the village without an escort, but I could tell from the drive in that it was well cared for. It reminded me of my own rural upbringing where the land was green, and the air was so fresh compared to Hanoi. Mr Viet told me no one had ever visited his commune from so far away, certainly not from America, and certainly no one who spoke Vietnamese. He asked if I could explain some things about my country to him. “I would try,” I answered.
How does your government govern you?
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand.”
How does your government govern you? In Vietnam, it is the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens and make sure they aren’t harmed or do harm.
He looked down at the notebook on my lap where I had been taking notes and indicated he would like to see it. I offered it to him, and he searched for a blank page. He drew a series of circles from the top to the bottom – six in all – and labeled them “nation, province, district, commune, village, household,” then drew a downward arrow connecting each circle to the one below it, and a final arrow connecting the last circle at the bottom household level to the top nation level. Parallel to this series of circles, he drew another circle and labeled it “USA.” He drew two circles under that and indicated they were “State A” and “State B.” Mr Viet then drew another line down from States A and B but had nothing to connect it to.
I don’t understand what comes below the state level. In Vietnam the cadre at the central level make sure the province level is doing their job, and the province people watch the district and so on down the line. What happens in America? Who is next in line after the states? Who governs you at the very local level?
I was quite surprised by his question and was not at all sure how to answer. I had spent years trying to figure out the intricacies of Vietnamese bureaucracy, and then learn to navigate and negotiate it, but I had never really thought about how others might be trying to figure out why I so often clashed with their modes of operation. Here was Mr Viet asking how the US organizes its citizens, assuming difference, but not placing a value on one system as better or worse. I thought about how we are socialized from very young in the United States, just as children are in Vietnam, through families, schools, neighborhoods, community centers, through religious communities, and jobs. We learn the implicit and explicit expectations our societies have for us and we also learn how far we can push the boundaries. It was a complex process of learning and negotiating that I was not sure I had the words to communicate even though I had a sense that Mr Viet would understand. Instead, I answered simply:
There doesn’t seem to me to be a direct line of authority responsible for each citizen as in Vietnam. Each person is considered equal to the next, even if in daily life we don’t really treat each other that way. By law, we are. It is not the government’s responsibility to make sure that people don’t do harm, but when they do, the government steps in with police, courts, or other authorities to make sure perpetrators are punished and victims receive justice. If there is a gap in the law that made it possible to cause harm, then the laws are fixed. But on a day-to-day basis, I would say that citizens are left alone to do the right thing and follow the law.
Mr Viet seemed satisfied with the answer but didn’t have more time to talk. He thanked me and I returned to the workshop. It was nearly lunchtime and the team and the participants looked sleepy. Groups were presenting their findings from an exercise designed to show how much time men and women spent on housework, productive labor, and how much they controlled their decision-making power at home and in society. Uncle Sang was presenting:
Part of the reason men make so many decisions is because women say things like, “You decide, I only use the stuff, but you decide.” If we really want to resolve gender equality issues in the home, we have to address the unequal pressure that men feel in having to decide everything. It is a great responsibility and needs to be shared for the pressure of being the “pillar of the family” to be released. Maybe through this process, too, women can gain a better understanding of the relationship between family and society and will feel more comfortable in leadership positions outside the home.
Xuan laughed joyfully and said, “See, you have learned something today!” Uncle Sang seemed pleased, too. He had struggled, resisted even, the first day’s lessons about the relationship between “sex” and “gender” and power relations at home. But he had returned for days 2 and 3, bringing his wife and adult daughter to join the workshop. I thought about my conversation with Mr Viet and the connection between how much pressure public servants feel to safeguard citizens, such as the bureaucrats who eventually had to take responsibility for my safety as a foreigner and the safety of their citizens, and the familial pressures and responsibility that Uncle Sang felt as the head of the household. There seemed to be a clear link between the patriarchy of the state and the patriarchy at home, but Uncle Sang demonstrated that new ways of thinking could permeate the boundaries if the gatekeepers remained open to change. When I asked Xuan and the rest of the ADI team about this later, they reiterated that the training was just a jumping off point. Once the language and trust had been established, and everyone understood they were working toward the same goals, bridges could be built.
After lunch, Mr Viet was again waiting for me, but this time he had one of the local Women’s Union leaders with him, a woman I recognized from the training. He invited us to take the afternoon off and explore the commune, see the irrigation project (Fig. 3) and take a swim at a private swimming hole at the base of a waterfall near the edge of the closest village. I thought about Xuan and the bridges that I was being invited by Mr Viet to help build as he invited me to explore his village.
Don’t Do Your Gender on Me
At the end of a week filled with training, meals and visits with participants in their homes, meetings with the irrigation team, site visits to the fields, etc., we were all exhausted. We slumped into the car weary and dusty, all anxious to get back to our comfortable Hanoi homes, our families, hot showers, and meals we could cook for ourselves. As gender practitioners all report, it is exhausting “being on” as teacher/trainers all the time. For gender trainers, though, “being on” does not end when they leave the classroom, as many of the gender practitioners I interviewed pointedly reminded me. “We are still wives and mothers when we go home,” they would say, and negotiating gender equality was easier in the office and organizational settings, than it was at home.
When I asked Xuan what her biggest challenge was at work. I expected her to answer something about bureaucracies, or lack of funding or spending time away from her family. I was curious when she answered that the real challenge lay in coming home where partners, parents, parents-in-law, and neighbors were often more in control of daily gender relations than she was as a “gender expert.”
By day, I am a researcher, theorist, manager, teacher and activist. I cannot turn that off at home. I see gender everywhere and I get tired. I see why people burn out. It affects my personal relationships. My husband will say to me “don’t do your gender on me!” But I know, too, that when I am not around, he tells his friends about gender, like he is an expert, and he really is compared to them, but for me it is tiring – not like a regular job.
This indicates the long-term significance of considering training not in the abstract but in relation to who the trainers are, what their standard background is, how they negotiate their lives inside and outside their offices/organizations. How they live their lives is not separate from their efforts to win the hearts and minds of supervisors, staff, government officials, and the targets of their work.
“So how do you keep going?” I ask Xuan. “How do you know you are making a difference? ARE you making a difference? Does it matter?” She answers:
Oh, I know I am making a difference. I often get to go back and visit villages or offices where I do training. The biggest compliment to me is when husbands of participants seek me out, or men in the offices. I might visit the women at home or in the markets, and men come up and say: “We weren’t unhappy until this workshop” Then I know that they have been discussing things and that women are struggling. And the men are struggling, too. Many trainings are now targeting them, the men, directly. They are struggling hard. It is a long process for social change.
Xuan’s words echoed those of other Vietnamese trainers I have met through the years who told me about how strong patriarchy is in their lives. Without addressing it however, even in little ways, they expect nothing to change. As they articulate it, change does not happen because you have the right data, or the right indicators, or the right training, the right toolkit, the right methodology, the right trainer, nor about the right scientific evidence. If anything, they tell me it is about struggle – both personal and political – it is about resistance and meeting both men and women at the level of highest “friction” (Tsing, 2005) – whether that is about teaching class inequality first, generation differences, or gender. What issue or encounter is used to teach does not matter since these relations are intersectional, both at the level of personal experience and at the level of policy. The technologies of gender – protocols, checklists, procedures, trainings, consultations, quotas, reports – although perhaps necessary for getting gender on the table and documenting the use of donor funds, nevertheless, bury gender as a lived experience.
What I learned on this trip is that gender challenges reach far beyond the classroom, organizations, families, or national legal reform. The patriarchal system of governance that permeats international and national work on gender equality remains nearly untouched at the local level where it is deeply entrenched. For gender practitioners working on rural development projects, this is a real challenge. But not one that Xuan and her team are unable to navigate. As they move between their work in Hanoi and rural communities, Xuan and her team also navigate different political projects shaping their individual relationships to local government leaders, the communities in which they work, and each other. In the experiences described here, they had to negotiate more directly aligning with Party interests via negotiations with Mr Viet and the bureaucrats at the provincial level who needed the right stamps and signatures to allow me to observe the training. They also had to navigate interests among male community leaders like Uncle Sang working to protect women’s status as wives and mothers. Negotiating these relationships mandated Xuan, Manh, and Minh to adjust their presentation of selves as more or less conforming to appropriate masculine and feminine standards of behavior, and to recognize the power relations at play between different social locations of those they encountered.
However, Xuan has also found a way to not let the rationalities of administration bury her own and her colleagues’ work. They use gender mainstreaming and gender training as both a strategic tool and a transformative process. It is a tool to be employed strategically as part of their democracy-building campaign at the grassroots level; however, it is also a living process, one in which they themselves remain bound up in and committed to as they continually push themselves, their project partners, their families, and each other to grow and become more gender aware in their daily work and home lives. In revealing the work of gender training – both behind the scenes and in the classroom, we can see what they see – that education and training are always political processes. What counts as knowledge is socially constructed and politically contested. Curricula are imbued with what those in power would like others to learn. If not resisted or rejected outright, there is the additional concern that formal lessons may be co-opted or reframed by those intent on maintaining (or regaining) their privileged position in society sometimes by reproducing the very effects that training aims to limit. Teachers and trainers do not leave their personal projects at the classroom door. Students and trainees are not empty vessels to be filled with rote skill sets and ideas to be mechanically implemented upon completion of the course. Trainers and students each bring to the classroom complex understandings about how the world works, and how it should work. Their experiences are explicitly and implicitly gendered and always intersect with other social experiences of inequality such as age, race-ethnicity, education, and global location. Lived experiences mediate teacher and student self-presentations, interactions, discourses, behaviors and attitudes toward each other, toward training itself, and toward the subject matter at hand. In addition, local cultural, social, and economic contexts inform the ways that formal classroom lessons are reinforced or contradicted by everyday experiences, thus producing further resistance if not outright rejection of what is learned. We can also see that transformation is a slow process, it is filled with struggle, and these struggles make it hard to measure change in the fluid and messy world of gender mainstreaming.
Names of all organizations and people in this chapter are pseudonyms, and all other identifying information has been changed or removed to assure their confidentiality.
“Democratizing” in this context refers to the government’s stance toward inclusive and participatory practices of development at the commune and village levels.
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Research for this chapter, which is part of a larger study on gender mainstreaming in practice, was supported by grants from The Spencer Foundation, The Asia Foundation, The Henry Luce Foundation, The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Fulbright Program, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Columbia University, Drexel University, and the University of Helsinki.
- Gender and Practice: Introduction to Insights from the Field
- Part I: Education
- Chapter 1: Feminist Leadership in the Academy: Exploring Everyday Praxis
- Chapter 2: Gender and Education at Makerere University, Uganda
- Chapter 3: Gender Audit as Research Method for Organizational Learning and Change in Higher Education
- Chapter 4: Why Be Different? Teaching Development and Gendered Diversity
- Part II: Training
- Chapter 5: “Don’t Do Your Gender on Me!” Gender Mainstreaming and the Politics of Training in Vietnam
- Chapter 6: Transforming Data into Action – Implementing Gender Analyses in Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture Interventions: An Experience from Cambodia
- Chapter 7: “Power in Numbers”: Marginalized Mothers Contesting Individualization Through Grassroots Community Organizing
- Part III: Practice
- Chapter 8: Treating Beyond Ailment: Fistula and Gender Vulnerabilities in Remote Tanzania
- Chapter 9: The Benefits of Long-Term Treatment for Adult Victims of Sex Trafficking
- Chapter 10: Analyzing the Importance of Funding for Gender Focused Empowerment Programs
- Chapter 11: Restructuring Women’s Leadership in Climate Solutions: Analyzing the W+™ Standard
- Chapter 12: Being a Feminist Applied Sociologist in a Non-Profit Testing and Research Organization: Encouraging Fairness in Measurement and Management Practices