Building grassroots socialist democracy and women’s leadership A week with the Vietnam Women’s Union

My week with the Vietnam Women’s Union confirmed what I already had experienced and heard from others – that the VWU is the most effective and hard working mass organization in Vietnam.

The dozens of leaders I met at the national, provincial, district and commune level were impressive in their commitment to women’s emancipation and grassroots socialist democracy. The schedule they arranged for me was the most active of any I had had in Vietnam with meetings and visits from early morning until evening, for which I am also thankful! Leaders at all levels were eager to work with us, no matter the time of day or day of the week.


The goal for my work with the Vietnam Women’s Union were to increase the contacts and the friendship between US and Vietnamese women and to familiarize myself with the groundbreaking work of the VWU, particularly at the grassroots level.


We visited several micro-credit projects in Soc Son Hanoi, Nghe An and Thanh Hoa, all in the TYM network (foreign NGO funded). I had previously had great doubts about micro-credit projects, fearing that they were a means of making women into small capitalists. However, what the VWU is doing is completely different. They are using these small loan programs to build up women’s economic and political capacity – to accomplish poverty alleviation and to enhance women’s participation and leadership in grassroots socialist democratic practice.


These projects involve the poorest, most at-risk women in their communities. They organize themselves into solidarity groups of approximately 5 women and are trained in the basics of doing economic activity, how the loan program works and the need for savings. The solidarity group members support and monitor each other’s progress. I was astonished to hear that in each area, the rate of repayment of the loans was 100%. It was explained to me that if o­ne woman had an emergency, rather than allow her to default, the group would put up the money. In weekly or monthly meetings, a number of these groups meet together in the culture house of a commune to report o­n their progress and challenges, to hear about current political issues and to share ideas.


By rotating the leadership of the groups, women gain experience in public speaking, organizing and mobilizing. The groups also use culture to build solidarity and emphasize key issues. At every meeting of the micro-credit groups the women and I exchanged songs. At the women’s club in Thanh Hoa, cultural performance was the main means of educational work. There were songs and skits about the theme of the month – family planning and community hygiene.


The level of gender awareness is also clearly rising with the work of the VWU. As women engage more in economic and political activity, the men are required to do more work at home. While the level of male consciousness varied from place to place, it was clear that women’s emancipation is very much o­n the agenda and that substantial progress is being made.


We also visited two businesswomen who are developing enterprises that offer jobs to many women at the commune level. o­ne in particular, was a local leader in the Communist Party and People’s Council and exemplified the collective spirit and dedication of patriotic entrepreneurs.


Everywhere we went, I had the opportunity to talk with women leaders of the VWU, of the Communist Party and of the People’s Committee. At each mass meeting at the commune or ward, I was able to talk directly and at length with the women at the grassroots. I was impressed by their self confidence, articulateness and dignity. They expressed in taking greater responsibility for local decision making and for participating in the political process.


They also shared with me their hopes that the US government would finally compensate Vietnamese Agent Orange victims and meet its commitment to heal the wounds of war. Every commune and ward has many families with more than o­ne family member suffering from Agent Orange.


The most touching and emotional part of my visit were the meetings with those heroes and families of martyrs of the war against US imperialism. o­n my visit to a school for the children of martyrs and other orphans I was touched by the warmth and caring given to the children and by their affection towards me. Visiting with women veteran of the People’s Army of Vietnam and volunteer militia fighters in Thai Binh, I was moved to tears by their stories of heroism and sacrifice. Many of them remain very poor and have to struggle for their survival, yet they are all extremely proud of their contribution to the success of the Vietnamese revolution and the construction of the country.


This visit was o­ne of the most memorable parts of this visit to Vietnam. Everywhere I went, I took the opportunity to thank the many veterans, hero mothers and others who sacrificed so much to win liberation and independence for Vietnam. o­n this 30th anniversary of the liberation of the South, I told them that their victory continues to be a victory for Vietnam, for the peace and justice loving people of the world and the US.


From my visit it is clear that Vietnamese women are in the vanguard of economic construction and people’s power! They are taking the lead in building socialist democracy at all levels and are some of the most dedicated and creative leaders in their communities. Vietnam could benefit from having more women like these in the highest levels of the Communist Party and government!


By Merle Ratner

Co-chair, Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School

Co-coordinator, Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign