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Women’s Work in Vietnam
by Arlen Eisen Bergman
The Vietnamese people forged their unity and determination into an effective force capable of repelling the most advanced technology of death and destruction. Reliance on the strength of people’s political commitment and organization, not technology, is one of the defining features of People’s War. People in the North and in the South have been making progress in filling craters and reconstructing their villages. In reconstruction, as in war, there is no choice but to rely on people. It is a pre-industrial society.
In this article, I will try to convey the reality of People’s War and reconstruction in Viet Nam through the experience of women I met and worked with. I was invited by the VietNam Women’s Union to visit their country. The visit lasted three and a half weeks in the fall of 1974. It included a ten-day jeep trip to the area administered by the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in Quang Tri Province, south of the 17th parallel. Except for the final week, I travelled with several sisters from the International Section of the Viet Nam Women’s Union and with Margaret Randall, author of the book, Cuban Women Now.
Overcoming the Past
Women’s participation has been essential to the success of the People’s War, during which they have made enormous strides towards their own liberation.1 I spent a lot of time with Vo Thi The, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Viet Nam Women’s Union. She belongs to a generation of women who joined the struggle against French colonialism in the forties and once taught literature in Da Nang. She is from the South and hopes to rejoin her family there. She spoke a lot about the accomplishments of the Women’s Union and was especially proud of their campaign against polygamy.
Until recently women were sold as concubines to men who found it cheaper to buy a wife than hire a servant. Women were allowed out of the kitchen only to work in the fields. They had no control over their lives or their bodies. Many were ignorant of even the basic hygienic and nutritional requirements. It was commonly believed that a pregnant woman had to keep a strict diet and eat only rice, salt and fish sauce. It was feared that eating other items would result in an over-developed fetus and difficult deliveries. Some even drank male infants urine as a tonic.2
The Bitter Legacy
Vo Thi The usually set a very encouraging tone to our conversations, modestly emphasizing the collective strength of women. There was only one time when I heard a hint of bitterness in her voice. We were inching our way through traffic in the outskirts of Hanoi. The two-lane road was clogged beyond capacity with trucks, carts, bicycles, jeeps, few cars and many people on foot. She remarked, “The French were here for 100 years, taking our taxes, our rice and rubber, mining our coal. And they could not even leave us a decent road.”
Other legacies of French colonialism, imposed on top of a feudal foundation, that I found out about were:
- 1943-45: Two million people died of starvation because the French and Japanese appropriated all surplus and forced the peasants to plant crops for war material (such as hemp) instead of food.
- 1945: There were a total of 300 hospital beds for maternity care in all of Vietnam. Infant mortality was 40%.
- 1945: Less than 5% of the women were literate.
A woman that I met at a coop in Quang Binh Province, named Thiem, now 52 years old and a survivor of this famine, recalled, “One hundred people died of starvation in this village. I had only enough rice to eat one bowl every other day.”
In the district of Vinh Unh, just north of the 17th parallel, we visited Vinh Thach village. There, our hosts from the local Women’s Union apologized for the mud roads, mud-thatched homes and spartan benches, saying,
Life is still very hard here because we have just begun to live above ground again. Beginning 1965, when the bombing started, no tree or plant could live on earth. All the people’s belongings were destroyed. We dug tunnels with our hands. We had no machines or dynamite. We had to live in the tunnels and caves for six years. We had 17 babies born there, nursery and elementary schools all underground.
They led us to a small opening in the side of a cliff. I had to stoop as we made our way through the winding corridor that was pitch black except for the light from a small candle our guide held. The corridor connected 200 small alcoves, each one about 7 square feet, one for each family in the village.
Further south still, in Quang Tri, our PRG hosts were constantly pointing to expanses of sandy land, barren scrub, “This used to be fertile land. It was red soil, rich enough for industrial crops. . . Here was a village where 3000 people lived. It was totally demolished by US bombs and bulldozers.”
The effects of the U.S. policy of genocide and ecocide [destruction of the ecology] in Viet Nam have been thoroughly documented. But the magnitude of this deliberate destruction seems like a fantastic nightmare when viewed in detail. We visited the new Provincial Hospital in Quang Tri. The population in that area had worked hard to build it. They filled the bomb craters and built a complex of long, narrow, mud and thatch buildings in less than a month. During our tour of the hospital, one doctor explained that before the ceasefire there could be no central hospital, only mobile medical teams. She told us that in those days 80% of the women they examined had cervical inflamations caused by living in tunnels, often partially filled with stagnant water. She was glad to be able to report that they had been able to eliminate most of these infections.
Women and Reconstruction
Two-thirds of the construction teams in Viet Nam are women. Rebuilding homes, hospitals and schools has priority.3 Most Vietnamese and all foreigners marvel at the success of these teams. Now, everyone has a place to live. As we drove south, we followed construction teams, often riding over roads that women paved moments before. I can’t count the times they reminded me of President Ho Chi Minh’s words, “Our mountains will always be, our rivers will always be, our people will always be. The American invaders defeated, we will rebuild our land ten times more beautiful.”
The women’s construction teams fascinated me. Out of habit, I not only expected to find men working on construction sites, I also expected to be harassed by them as is most women’s experience in the US. As I watched the Vietnamese sisters lift large cement blocks and fill small wicker baskets with a mixture of pebbles, they laughed shyly and responded to my nod, “Chao dong chi. “. . . hello comrade.
Later, about 65 miles south of Hanoi in the city of Vinh, I worked for a brief time with a team of seven women digging a foundation. Eight of us formed a line. The first would heave a few shovelfulls of earth onto a shallow wicker basket, the next would pick up the basket and pass it to the next. And so on. After about an hour of work, our human conveyor belt moved the same amount of earth that a steam shovel might have moved in a minute. The team worked every day from 6:00 AM to 5:30PM with about three hours of rest at mid-day. The work is extremely strenuous – especially in the tropical heat.
A very high cooperative spirit among the women working helps ease the physical burden of the work itself. After U.S. bombings, few buildings remained standing in the city of Vinh. The women I was working with were proud to be digging a foundation for a building that would improve the health of the people in that district. It would house “modern toilets” … helping to prevent epidemics of dysentery and other intestinal deseases that had once been prevalent. “We will rebuild the country ten times more beautiful.”4
We worked well together taking turns at the hardest shovelling job. Whenever one woman seemed to grow tired, the others worked harder so she could rest. These women all belonged to the same local chapter of the Women’s Union. Their chapter meets once every two weeks to discuss how its members can best fulfill their responsibilities for reconstruction, defending women’s rights and building socialism. After the completion of each task, they try to summarize their experience and evaluate it to improve their work next time.
Everyone in the DRV belongs to an organization that helps them learn from the collective experience, strengthens their unity and enables them to defy technological handicaps. For example, we met a women’s artillery unit in the fishing village of Ngu Thuy not too far north of the 17th parallel. Some members had only a 2nd or 3rd grade education. But within one month of intensive training they learned to operate a sophisticated 85 millimeter cannon capable of sinking the warships which had been shelling the village from 20 miles offshore.
They thought that their good organization and leadership enabled them to sink a ship the first time they tried. They explained:
In our village, there were many families that lost all their members due to the shelling. It was difficult to continue fishing but we were unwilling to give up one centimeter of land. . . We practiced day and night. We learned to calculate the distance of the ships quickly. Some of us also had to learn the art of commanding. Our commander is 20 years old. At first we had difficulties. It was hard to learn the technology. Those with higher education taught those with less. In our meetings we practiced criticism and self criticism, trying to learn from each battle. . . It was natural that we have errors and disagreement. Criticism and self criticism helped us to keep our unity and to create greater love among us. We never use heavy pressure. If the error is one of principle, we struggle to the end. But if the error is one of personality, we usually let it pass. In any case, no one is ever pressed into the mud. Our struggle is always in the spirit of love.
Consolidating Women’s Victories
The Institute for Protection of Mothers and Children in Hanoi is a national center for research, education and treatment for gynecological and obstetrical health. During the air war, the center was evacuated and its activities dispersed. Since January 1973, the staff and functions of the Institute are reunited. 80% of all workers and 65% of the doctors at the Institute are women. Madame Thanh, director of the Institute, welcomed us, and gave us a tour.
In the hospital section of the Institute, women with similar problems share the same room: pregnant women with high blood pressure; women with fertility problems; those who have miscarried; those receiving treatment for cancer and so on. There were four or five beds in a room. Labs are on a separate floor. There’s a special lab for researching the effects of dioxin, the chemical in defoliant responsible for deforming the unborn babies of pregnant women. The labs seemed to be less elaborately equipped than my high school chemistry lab. The patients’ rooms are physically spartan. All care is free.
Dr. Xiem, one of our hosts at the hospital and head of the fertility department, seemed to be familiar with all 250 patients in the hospital. She enjoyed a personal sisterly relationship with each woman receiving care in her department. While the physical surroundings were meager, the respect and warmth between patients and doctors was overwhelming. There were none of the familiar signs of hierarchy and paternalism one sees in US hospitals. Dr. Xiem was illiterate herself until she was 15 years old. The way she identified with her patients, who are peasants, provides a beautiful vision of the possibilities of medical care in a system that values human life above profit.
In the countryside, Committees for Protection of Mothers and Children spread the information gathered at the Institute in Hanoi – especially information on preventive health care, child care and birth control. The woman who heads the Committee in Quang Binh Province explained that during the air war, the Committee spent most of its time evacuating and dispersing children. Now she’s enthusiastic about the potential of improving the quality of collective childcare since it is safe for children to be together again.
South of the 17th parallel, in Quang Tri, when we asked about similar programs, the answers were different. There was not yet a special center for gynecology as there is in Hanoi, but there were Committees for Defense of Mothers and Children, which are still waging a heavy battle against VD. Other problems most often treated at Quang Tri Hospital are malaria, gastro-intestinal desease and anemia. When I asked about special nervous deseases, the doctor responded, “Liberation from the grip of the enemy frees the mind.” Medical care is free. People living in areas still controlled by Thieu took great risks in defying Thieu’s tabu on travel in order to visit the “Viet Cong Hospital”. I saw a nun in full habit waiting patiently on a bench along with others needing dental treatment. The dentist was a young woman trained in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese women I spoke with were extremely grateful for past and continuing American support of the Vietnamese liberation struggle, seeing our contribution as more important to the whole picture than we do, and theirs as less. Phan Thi Anh, Director of the International Section of the Viet Nam Women’s Union, exemplified this attitude in her generous statement, “As we were fighting US imperialism, we tried our best to win the support of people all of the world. We have made our own small contribution to world revolution …. but don’t underestimate the importance of your movement.” Vietnamese resistance to US imperialism has seriously weakened the capitalist system, paving the way for a stronger movement here at home. The liberation struggles in the Third World, of which Vietnam was only one, and the internal struggle within the U.S., can and should be joined around the issue of the drain of U.S. resources to support dictators like Thieu. The relationship between the billions spent to prop up the hated regimes of Thieu, Marcos, Park et al., and the worsening economic crisis within the U.S. cannot be emphasized enough, as an educating and organizing resource. It is correct tactically and also theoretically, since it exploits the contradiction inherent in imperialist capitalism’s dependence on the Third World.
And as for Indochina’s reconstruction, Science for the People should continue its special role of providing technical aid to our sisters and brothers faced with this tremendous task. This work of solidarity is essential. We must expand it. SESPA chapters are encouraged to renew campaigns to send funds, technical equipment and books to Vietnam. We should not allow the bloated standards of the U.S. to minimize the importance of our continuing aid,5 which has meant so much in the past struggle.
- For a detailed analysis of the process of women’s liberation in Viet Nam, see Women of Viet Nam, available from People’s Press, 2680 21st Street, SF, Ca., 94110.
- Le Zan, “Rural Health Service at the Hamlet Level”, Rural Health Work and Disease Prevention Vietnamese Studies #34, 1972, pp. 48-49.
- Information on the general achievements for women in health and education are available in Women in Viet Nam and in Vietnamese Studies #25, 30, and 34. (Vietnamese Studies are available from China Books, 2929 24th Street, SF 94110)
- From Ho Chi Minh’s testimony, May 10, 1969.
- Peoples Press has just published an exchange between women in prison in the US and women in Viet Nam. The pamphlet publishes letters showing the tremendous importance of small tokens of solidarity. Copies are available from Peoples Press for 50 cents.