UN Women chief goes back to school in Viet Nam

During her first visit to the country, the former teacher engaged young students on leadership and ending gender-based violence.


Hanoi — High school students in Hanoi were thrilled today to welcome an eminent teacher back to the classroom. As part of a three-day visit to Viet Nam, UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka visited the historic Chu Van An High School to deliver an important lesson on gender-based violence.

A former teacher herself, it was clear that Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka had lost none of her classroom magic. She engaged more than 450 students in an animated and inspiring 90-minute dialogue on the role of young people in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka with Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education and Training Nguyen Thi Nghia pose with students at Chu Van An high schoo
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka with Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education and Training Nguyen Thi Nghia pose with students at Chu Van An high school after a dialogue on safe schools in Hanoi, Viet Nam on 29 March, 2014. Photo: UN Women/Chau Doan

“Today’s discussion is about your role, your actions and your responsibilities to help prevent violence against women and girls,” she said. 

Gender-based violence has been identified as a major problem in the country, one of the main barriers to empowering girls and achieving gender equality. The National Study on Domestic Violence against Women in Viet Nam from 2010 suggests that a third of ever-married women have experienced physical violence at some point in their lives. If sexual violence and emotional abuse are added, the figure climbs to nearly 60 per cent.

In spite of the sensitive subject, the students actively engaged with their high-level visitor, sharing insights into a problem that they said they believe is deeply rooted in traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

“I think the main roots of gender-based violence are in the past. Traditional thinking believed that men were the decision-makers in the family and women didn’t have a voice,” said Viet, a boy in grade 11 (for children aged 16-17 in Viet Nam).

Others had more personal experiences to share. “I’ve observed this kind of violence. I’ve personally seen the effects of abuse and sexual discrimination. It didn’t affect me physically, but it has affected my learning and my life. Mental abuse is very hard to see,” said a girl in class 11D.

A teenaged boy at Chu Van An high school in Hanoi
A teenaged boy at Chu Van An high school in Hanoi asks a question during a dialogue on safe schools and the role of youth in preventing violence against women and girls. Photo: UN Women/Chau Doan

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka had some practical advice to share. “If you see violence at home, at school or in the community it’s your responsibility to report it."

“As girls you must know your rights, and find out where you can access assistance and support. Some of you spoke about psychological violence – it’s important that you don’t suffer alone. Schools should also have a mechanism where you can discuss what to do with the support of your teachers, and they need to be proactive to take action when needed,” said the Executive Director. “Of course the strongest action is for the laws of the country to be enacted in the strongest possible way.

Although the students acknowledged that bringing about social change will be far from easy, it was clear that they have already been exposed to new ways of thinking and acting and have the potential to be catalysts for change.

“If we see violence we must raise our voice. We should also find ways to show others what impact it has,” said Phuong, a boy in class 11A1.

Established by the French Colonial Authorities in 1908, Chu Van An is one of the oldest secondary schools in Viet Nam, with many high-ranking politicians, generals, scientists, professors, poets, writers and a former Prime Minister numbered amongst their alumni.

“I’m told that you are some of Hanoi’s brightest students,” said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. “We have future government leaders, heads of corporations, heads of NGOs and community leaders here in this room. You are being trained to lead, and to make a difference for the future of Viet Nam.

UNTF Pilot Project

The dialogue on the Role of Youth in Preventing and Responding to Violence against Women and Girls was held as part of an innovative UN, Government and Plan International project to prevent and address violence against adolescent girls in 20 schools in Hanoi, including Chu Van An.

Over a three-year period, the Gender-Responsive Schools Pilot Model project supported by the UN Trust Fund for Ending Violence against Women, will reach approximately 30,000 adolescent girls and boys aged 11 to 18. The model promotes safe, accountable and child-friendly spaces where adolescent girls and boys receive a quality education in an environment free of violence. The project will empower students, engage teachers and parents as change agents, and establish strong collaborations with the Government to institutionalize strategies that have proven to be effective.

Based on the model’s success, the Hanoi Department of Education intends to replicate the initiative across 766 schools in the city, potentially reaching over 500,000 adolescents, presenting a unique opportunity for promoting alternative gender norms and relations in urban Viet Nam.

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