Economic Transition in China and Vietnam: Crossing the Poverty Line Is Just the First Step for Women and Their Families

Article excerpt


This paper will examine how families, especially poor families and women in those families, in China and Vietnam have been affected by and responded to economic transition policies. The concept of the family employed is one where: the group is made up of individuals who frequently cooperate but at times find individual interests conflicting with the larger group interest; relationships among the members change over time and are influenced by policy changes as well as other factors; and a variety of living arrangements can be accommodated. This concept is discussed further in the following section.

The paper then briefly reviews the transition policies in China and Vietnam and their impact on poor families. The following sections examine key areas for family and individual strategies related to survival, improving well-being, and participating fully in both social development and the family: employment changes including migration and changing sources of income, education and human security areas such as health care, and the basic struggle for survival of girls reflected in the sex ratio. The conclusion focuses on comparative aspects of policies, family strategies and women.


In contrast to the "black box" approach where the family is considered a unified decision-making unit, this paper treats the family as a "cooperative-conflict" where members may care deeply about each other and cooperate to improve the quality of life of the family but also may exhibit aspects of conflict, especially over the division of labor and income (see Sen 1990). These differences may limit the effectiveness of development policies and lead to unexpected results (Haddad et al. 1994). Because women are disadvantaged in society, the gender aspects of intrafamily bargaining are particularly interesting and relevant for policy analysis. As female-headed households with no adult males present become more common, however, the dynamics change, but the aspects of cooperation and conflict still hold because generational and other conflicts are present. For many female-headed households, the gender issue also remains because the "unseen" father, brother, or uncle often plays a decision-making role.

The discrimination women face in opportunities outside the home affects their position in the cooperative-conflict within the home. The ability to earn some income improves a woman's standing in the household and also provides security to the family through the diversification of earnings (see also the discussions by Tinker and Cohen in this symposium). Higher school fees and opportunities for home-based work mean that daughters may lose the access to education in a conflict with their parents and brothers in the family. More opportunities for women and girls in society translate into greater bargaining power at home and vice versa. Thus, the division of power within the family is not a static phenomenon but a process that changes over time and is influenced by both factors within the family and societal changes such as types of employment open to women (Senauer 1990; Summerfield, forthcoming).

The family, especially in societies where traditional bias against women is still strong, provides a paradox of comfort, security, and discrimination for women as discussed in the introduction to this symposium. It is an excellent vehicle for the participation of both women and men in the development process, but the threat of domestic violence, long work hours, and other indications of oppression for women demonstrate a need for change in the family as a social institution.

The strains on the family during economic reforms have alarmed many residents of these countries as they observe the destruction of their base of security without new sources for that security (see IURD 1994). Singapore has begun promoting an Asian model of the family that reinforces the traditional, patriarchal form (see Pyle's paper in the Symposium). …