Nguyen Thi Bich Lien and Keo Souvannaphoum, country directors of ChildFund Vietnam and ChildFund Laos respectively, faced similar challenges growing up in countries that have traditionally undervalued the role of women.
“I almost missed an opportunity to attend college because my parents thought I should help with work at home,” Keo says. “They thought it was unusual for me to move to a different province to study by myself.
“The reason given was both of my older sisters did not continue their studies, even though one of them did very well with her high school final results. I was stubborn enough to fight against it.”
Lien was the third-born of five girls in a poor family in Vietnam. While Vietnam has made significant strides in recent decades, she says there are still stereotypes about a woman’s role.
“Being a female we are born strong already, but in such a patriarchal society and country, we need to be stronger, braver and never give up pursuing the life we want,” Lien says.
Lien started at ChildFund Vietnam as an admin officer in 2001, when the organisation was a team of 10 people helping around 8,000 children.
She has worked her way through the ranks and now oversees an organisation that employs more than 70 people and supports more than 33,000 children in three provinces.
At ChildFund, Lien found a way to reach her potential, but she says the wider Vietnamese society still has trouble embracing the valuable role women play in the workplace.
“In Vietnam we are still at the crossroads of modern ideas and traditional ideas,” she says.
“One popular perception from most men and even from many women is: being a female you must show femininity.
“This can mean a girl obeying her parents, a wife obeying her husband, or being a good mother who is skilful at, and fully responsible for, feeding and looking after the children. If you are a woman in the workplace, you should only do easy, simple and light work, helping male colleagues to check bills, etc.
“The burden of being an excellent wife, mother and employee still remains.”
Keo has been working in the international development sector in Laos for 18 years and has often encountered problems associated with the traditional roles of men and women.
“I have been involved in development since the first day after my graduation,” she says. “I have had to face the challenges of dealing with colleagues and supervisors, who were both older than myself and who were men.
“Growing up, we were taught to respect older people, including your parents at home and teachers at schools. Challenging them with questions or different opinions, or any kind of disagreement and confrontation, is seen as inappropriate things that one should not do.”
Now Win May, Keo and Lien are overseeing development programs across their countries, and hope to break down barriers for girls.
“Women have been stereotyped for a long time,” Lien says. “They have been made to believe they can do only some jobs and not other male-dominated roles.”
Lien, Win May and Keo have proven that is not true. Now they are in the position to create an easier path for the women and girls who follow them.