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Holding Up Half of the World

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

An article in the August 17th’s issue of The New York Times got me thinking about how women are valued in their communities. The article told the story of a woman named Vang Thi Mai who is transforming the lives of former trafficking victims in northern Vietnam. Ten years ago, human traffickers began kidnapping young women and children in Mrs. Mai’s village to sell them as wives, forced laborers or sex workers over the border, and into China. With a combined effort, between 2001 and 2005, the Chinese police and Vietnamese government waged a significant and successful anti-trafficking campaign, which resulted in the return of many Vietnamese women to their home villages. However, rescued women faced a multitude of challenges upon returning home. Due to the stigma attached to victims of sex trafficking, many young women were ostracized by their families and communities. Some women, disowned by their families, were forced to build and live in makeshift tents on the outskirts of town. They were left without food, an income, or hope.

That’s when Vang Thi Mai stepped in. Mrs. Mai took the women into her home and invited them to join a small textile cooperative founded by her and her husband. She taught them how to separate hemp stems into strands, spin the strands into thread, weave the thread into fabric and dye the fabric for clothes and other items. When she first began working with former trafficking victims, Mrs. Mai received harsh criticism from her fellow villagers. Nonetheless, Mrs. Mai believed that if these women could earn money, support themselves and care for others with their earned money, the attitudes of her neighbors would have to change. And just as Mrs. Mai suspected, other village women were eager to join the cooperative when the cooperative’s profits soared. Moreover, much of the stigma and the idea of “unpureness” associated with former sex slaves has been lifted, as many of the former sex trafficking victims have married local men. Today, the cooperative is 110 women strong, and working there can increase a household’s income fourfold.

Vang Thi Mai, who continued her education until the age of 17 (which is rare among the province’s Hmong population), is an example of how a seemingly small investment in one woman’s education can transform an entire village. Mrs. Mai is literate in Vietnamese and single-handedly manages the cooperative, which now sells textiles to customers all over the globe.

Mrs. Mai’s story reminded me of a book I read a while back by Raj Patel called “The Value of Nothing” (a recommendation from Jonathan Crisman). It talks about how our faith in market prices as a way of valuing the world is grossly misplaced. In one chapter, Patel highlights how undervalued “social reproductive work”, or  “women’s work”, (the work of replacing, nurturing workers and managing natural resources) is in our society today.

Because of the important role a woman plays in her family and community, when development agencies invest in women, as opposed to men, the social yields are greater because it results in inter-generational and intra-generational benefits. Moreover, each 1% increase in female secondary schooling results in a 0.3% increase in national economic growth.  As more development agencies and national and local governments recognize the importance of women in development, we look forward to hearing about more stories like this one!


Cohn, Julie. “In Vietnamese Village, Stitching the Wounds of Human Trafficking.” The New York Times (2011): A9. 16 Aug. 2011. Web. 17 Aug. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/world/asia/17vietnam.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2>.

Patel, Raj. The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. New York: Picador, 2009. Print.

The World Bank. By Derek H.C. Chen. Gender Equality and Economic Development: The Role for Information and Communication Technologies. Web. 17 Aug. 2011. <http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/117321/35079_wps3285.pdf>.


Posted on 08/23/2011 by Melanie Young

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