* Ms. Ngo Thi Kim Dung is a research fellow of the Center of Sociology and Development,
Institute of Social Sciences in Hochiminh City.

It is no accident that sociologists in Vietnam have during the past decade devoted considerable attention to gender issues, in particular in the role of women in urban and rural areas due to the impact of changes in macro policies (1).
Although the rate of urbanization in Vietnam is not yet high (only 20%) a new round of urbanization is starting. The social consequences of this process are creating promising opportunities for the development of women. At the same time, they are posing stern challenges that are unlikely to be overcome rapidly.
In this article we wish to deal with opportunities and challenges to women in the suburbs of Hochiminh city, a densely populated city "overspilling" beyond its narrow limits. Social problems pertinent to the change of female occupation in the city's rapidly urbanizing rural suburban areas will be the main theme of this article.


1. As a big urban center and the country's most populated metropolis, Hochiminh City is at present Vietnam's pole of strong attraction. It embodies pressing problems that are representative of the reality of lively, hectic and multiform development in all sectors.
The distribution of population in inner-city areas and suburbs is very uneven. Figures of 1995 show that 70.2 per cent of the population (that is 3,365,000 people) live concentrated in an inner-city area which occupies only 6.8 per cent of the total area of the city's entire area, whereas 29.8 per cent (that is 1,430,000 people) reside scattered in villages extending over 93.2 per cent of its total surface. Under the impact of the renovation policy, the city's economy grows very rapidly (on the average 12 per cent yearly; 15.3 per cent for 1995). Wide suburban areas are becoming urbanized. According to projections of zoning experts, within the next fifteen years Hochiminh City's inner city will double its present area, and every year agricultural land in the city's suburbs will diminish by 1.2 to 2 per cent on the average.
The urbanization process has made areas on the outskirts of the city transform then economic structure, having strong impacts and deep influences on the societal structure and lifestyles of people residing in suburban villages. A part of the rural population must move to new places of residence and change occupations. They must reorganise their lives and shift their lifestyles to adapt themselves to the urban environment. Women are most sensitive to the strong impacts of this process of rapid urbanization and face the largest problems copying with the impacts.
The processes of urbanization, industrialization and modernization provide opportunities for rural women in the city's suburbs to integrate themselves into a more diverse progressive socio-economic structure, to develop their present potentials, and express their new capacities more adequately. At the same time, some rural women on the city's outskirts encounter difficulties when they are no longer engaged in agricultural work. They must look out for new employment to stabilize the lives of their families and their own.
2. For Hochiminh City in general, working women play an important role in the overall growth of the economy. Figures of 1995 show that there are at present 710,864 working women in almost all professions and occupations, belonging to the state and private sectors and occupying 40.8 per cent of the city's total work force. Women hold the key role in a number of light industries (textile, leather, garments, food processing) and in all urban small service trades of both formal and informal sectors. At some joint-venture enterprises in the export processing zones, women account for from 60 to 80 per cent of the entire work force. Some of them come from newly-urbanized rural areas. Hochiminh City's working women have gradually risen up to master new complex technologies (like in textile, electronic assembling, informatics and computer science) and participate strongly in greater numbers in newly developed profession and occupations like finance, banking and marketing.
However, the development of female labour in this city is facing many difficulties. The overall level of education of women is still very low compared to that of men. As a consequence, they have difficulties in learning a profession, finding employment and bettering their status (see Table 1).

Table 1: Hochiminh City's working population from 16 years of age upwards by technical level.

Technical level

The whole city















Technician training on the job






Technician with diploma






Secondary technical college






High technical college and university


















Source: General Population Census of Hochiminh City undertaken 1989.

At present, there are some 220,000 unemployed people every year in the whole city , of whom 60 to 75 per cent are women. In addition, seeking employment is generally more difficult for women than for men because women are limited in their capacities to meet requirements for recruitment, such as physical health, education, the level of acquired skills and capacity for mobility (being burdened by their families).
3. In suburban areas, the majority of working women are still mainly engaged in agriculture. In general, women play a more important role in this sector since men tend to move strongly towards non-agricultural professions and occupations. Yet most women are doing unskilled work no technique involved. A considerable number of women are also becoming active in petty trade. A small number are employed in non-agricultural enterprises operating in their localities.
Related to women's employment social problems have arisen in the city's suburban areas have arisen, most prominently in villages that have recorded a rapid pace of urbanization. Here larger areas of agricultural land are being turned into urban areas through construction of industrial firms, new towns, city-type infrastructructure, etc. Urbanization haste inevitable consequence that a considerable portion of women in these areas are forced to change occupations so as to ensure stable earnings for their families and for themselves. This represents a difficult transition for women.


As sizable investments in zoning and construction projects are being implemented, the social and physical faces of the city are changing every day. Distant and remote places on the outskirts are entering a phase of big change. Agricultural land is giving way to factories, industrial estates, and export processing zones. Urbanization is an unavoidable step of social life. Nevertheless, peasants of the city outskirts have long depended on agriculture for their livelihood, yet their livelihood has all of a sudden become disturbed and endangered as agricultural land has shrunk. Agricultural occupation is not the unique means of earning a living for a portion of peasants. Our survey revealed that 86 per cent of the households included in the study in An Phu village (Thu Duc district) had sold all or part of their agricultural land, whereas in Phu My village (Nha Be district) 68.6 per cent of those under study had received government compensation for the withdrawal of all or part of cultivated land for the purpose of building urban infrastructure. Some 4 per cent of households had sold their land because of high prices on land.
Peasants must change occupations and lifestyles to comply with the new conditions. As a segment of suburban residents, women must also rise up to the new circumstances, transform themselves to fit them and the new occupations with a view to performing and fulfilling their roles as wives, mothers and workers. They can find employment at factories and export processing and industrial zones located in suburban areas, especially light industries. In Nha Be district, the Tan Thuan export processing zone extends over 300 ha. In July 1994, the zone had only recruited more than 300 persons. In March 1995, this number rose to 2,000. According to recently compiled statistics (February 1996) the total work force at the 38 factories in the export processing zone reaches 5,444. It is planned to attract some 300 enterprises of small and average scales once infrastructure is put in place. These firms will create stable jobs for some 75,000 people who will produce a wide range of goods with export earnings estimated at above 2 billion US dollars per year during the next few years. The bright side of this investment for development in the South is that it attracts female labor into light industries such as leather shoe manufacturing, garment, food processing, and textile. Women account for a high proportion of the labour force, from 50 to 90 per cent depending on the branch of activity. An Phu village (Thu Duc district) has already attracted more than 50 enterprises and offices with headquarters there. In additional to employment in the fields and factories, a number of new occupations appropriate for women have recently emerged in suburban areas: service activities (helping with household chores, cooking, hair-dressing, dress-making...), petty commerce, bricklaying, construction, etc. Handicrafts including incense-stick manufacturing, rice paper making, ornament-tree growing, knitting, and crocheting are also contributing to raising the earnings of women in suburban areas. In Tan Tao village (Binh Chanh district), part of the land has been used to build towns, factories, and warehouses, as urbanization happened during the past few years at a rapid pace. After having received government compensation, a number of people have continued productive investments to improve their land, to take up gardening and animal breeding on their remaining land. Nearly 1000 people have turned to manufacturing incense sticks with average earnings of 450,000 to 600,000 Dong per month per person. Peasants in suburban areas do not depend exclusively on agriculture for their livelihood. Rice-paper making at Hoc Mon, Cu Chi, Can Gio, embroidery of export at Thu Duc... provide additional sources of earnings for local residents.
Women in suburban are have also the opportunity to find or create employment in the private sector within family productive units. A considerable proportion of labor in the informal sector is reserved for women because the work does not require high skills, allows for flexible working hours and for freedom, and is more congenial to women who can work and look after the household at the same time. "Contracting work to be performed at home is more convenient than to go out to work for the state; at the same time this very much fits women's conditions. Contract work to be done at home is better for women" (Opinion expressed by a female delegate at focus group discussion). The ratio of female labor in agriculture gradually decreases depending on the development of specialized economic activities and diversification toward non-agricultural occupations, handicrafts, and services (36% compared to 53.5% three years ago). In addition to fulfilling their role as workers, there is a segment of women who are owners of productive and business units.


The structure of Hochiminh City's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000 is expected to be following: industry: 46%; agriculture, forestry and fishery: 2%; services: 52%.
To the city's development, women in suburban areas must overcome the following-challenges:
1. Education and Skills: The educational level of the population in the city's suburbs is very low. The average education of suburban women is the sixth grade. The illiteracy ratio of women in these areas is proportional to age and is generally higher than that of men. Of the women included in our study, 6.3 per cent of women from 16 to 49 years of age are illiterate.
The country's and city's economic development have created good prospects for female labor to make a living (including participation in specialized, high-quality rice production with reduced pollution). But this development also requires that the quality of human resources is commensurate. At present the number of women in the city's suburbs who hold highly remunerative occupations is insignificant. Women in non-agricultural jobs (main or subsidiary) are in absolute majority engaged in motley services, hawking, unskilled work or domestic help. Though the work is hard, it is badly paid and unstable. Table 2 below can give us a concrete idea about this situation:
Table 2: Employment situation in An Phu village, Thu Duc district (%)

Level of stability of employment

Male worker

Female worker.

Having stable employment



Having temporary employment



Source: Statistics of An Phu village.
Firms which have begun operations continue to attract female labor in the suburbs. But with the market mechanism, owners and managers of enterprises have the right to select and recruit workers who have gone at least through the second educational grade and are moderately skilled (usually the 3/7 grade). In this way, they don't lose time training them to meet the demands for handling higher and higher techniques and sustaining the intensity of work in modern production. They usually recruit young unmarried women between 18 and 25 years of age.
Low educational levels and skills stand as among the biggest obstacles that suburban women seeking employment are wrestling with. For the middle-aged women with 2 or 3 children, the obstacle is greatest. What worries them most keenly is that after having sold their land they have to find work. This represents the most urgent problem confronted by household heads interviewed (83.5%), especially in the case of households headed by women (84.4%).
Vocational training centers are currently running courses in Thu Duc, Nha Be, Binh Chanh, but they are operating under capacity; the number of attendants is still small. Many reasons are preventing women from coming to these centers: great distance from home; inability to settle family obligations to attend; husband's or family's willingness to grant permission; financial paucity, lacking money to pay for tuition fees. The women themselves have not shed their inferiority complex: fear to attend classes; worry of finding no employment after training, etc. In current vocational training classes, the majority of attendants are unmarried people, have few children or already grown up children, come from relatively well-off families, and are therefore able to pay training fees.
2. Lack of capital is another of the great difficulties which suburban women have to face. The majority of peasant women have from past to present times been engaged in agricultural work. Now that land is no longer available, they want to switch jobs and earn a living. They don't consider larger ventures for fear to be unable to manage the business and of lose money. In fact, households who have sold land are not poor. But what is preposterous is that they have spent big amounts of the revenues from land and compensations on building and repairing housing, purchasing consumer goods for their families, or depositing savings in bank accounts to draw interest for consumption. Investments in production, animal breeding, or professional training are still low. This constitutes another contradiction to be settled and to draw lessons from in order to actively shift the attitudes and behaviour patterns of residents in areas to be later impacted.
3. Challenges to changes in lifestyle: The portion of rural women who are recruited to work in industrial enterprises (about 10%), are confronted with many difficulties caused by mental and physical stress factors (increases of work shifts and working hours). Even their kin are wondering if they are being over-exploited.
In Thu Duc and Nha Be districts the proportion of household heads still engaged in agriculture is very low. At present women are more mobile and active that when they worked on the land, but the stable character of the work is definitely diminished. They tend to move more, even to go to work in the inner city. The proportion of women holding stable jobs tends to fall while the proportion of those doing temporary work or seeking employment increases. These changes in their life pattern are giving rise to particular stress - the stress of change. Society must pay attention to this issue to find measures which assist women in building a stable new life-style. Urbanization has improved aspects of life in the suburbs, such as more comfortable housing; durable consumer goods (like television sets and motorcycles) which are purchased by good number of households; more and wider roads; developed commercial and service businesses; and schooling for more children.
On the other hand, according to observations by the people themselves the impact of urbanization here is full of with contradictions as there are more people unemployed (81.7% of opinions) and social evils increase (23.9% of opinions). Together with the strong immigration from some provinces (and in the near future from the inner-city to satellite towns) competition for jobs is and will be stiff. Finally urbanization of the city's outskirts has raised land prices, which has resulted in land disputed in land disputes breaking out within nuclear and extended families and villages and hamlets. The good relations between village neighbours and kinship sentiments have been damaged and have deteriorated. In the absence of proper guidance materialism and spendthrift psychology will find fertile ground to thrive.
We believe that every social measure to cope with problems that have arisen and impeded the rise of woman status in the urbanization process should be viewed in the light of the multidimensional nature of that process. In order to reach of social progress, attention should be attached to reduce the price to be paid for the following perplexing steps forward. This represents an aspect of achieving the objective of building a "just and civilized society".
1. We maintain the position that policies of conversion of the city's suburban socio-economic structure cannot neglect the importance of fostering a high-quality agricultural production on the city's belt, which will demand less but better skilled labor.
The creation of a network of non-agricultural professions and occupations should be closely linked to market forecasts (output) and to a strategy of building appropriate human resources and raising people's cultural standards. These three homogeneous facets of occupations should not be limited to the suburban areas, like a closed "self-sufficient" system. Furthermore, in the process the private sector has to be drawn in, and the State should develop policies to encourage private enterprises to actively participate in the task of training and re-training.
2. As far as institutions are concerned, care should be taken to perfect three key types of organisation aimed at implementing the above policy system:
- Vocational training institutions, tightly associated with human resources-hiring organs;
- Credit institution and agricultural extension;
- Institutions of economic information and marketing.
3. From the cultural standpoint, a flow of social information should be maintained for local people to become aware of the various "scripts" of development of city in general and of the city's outskirts in particular. This is the element assisting in the early development of healthy value directions for the people, and in encouraging the birth of pattern of proper behavior, the present culture being subject to strong and even violent upheavals.
In brief, perfecting policies, institutions and directions influences culture as said above, which will eventually contribute to the
self-sustaining development of this largest metropolis. And to speak of "self-sustaining development" also means that the urbanization process should be humanized.

Le Thi Nham Tuyet (1995): "Gender and Development in Vietnam", Hanoi, Social Sciences Publishing House.
Le Thi (1990): "Employment Creation, Income Generation, Improving Women's Status", Hanoi, Social Sciences Publishing House (in Vietnamese).
Nguyen Cong Binh, Do Thai Dong, Nguyen Quang Vinh, Nguyen Quoi (1995): "The Mekong Delta - Research on Development". Hanoi, Social Sciences Publishing House (in Vietnamese).
__________ (1995): "Family and Women Status in Society - A Look from Vietnam and the USA", Hanoi, Social Sciences Publishing House.
Luu Phuong Thao and others (1995-1996): "Set of Survey Figures on Women at the Two Districts of Thu Duc and Nha Be, Hochiminh City, Vol.3 and 4". To be found at the Center of Sociology and Development, Institute of Social Sciences in Hochiminh City.