'It’s hard to get away from this idea that we’re all ladies who lunch,” says Gill Lever, President of the Hanoi International Women’s Club (HIWC) since May 2015. She remembers first arriving in Hanoi as the wife of British ambassador Giles Lever, and being taken to the club’s biggest charity event by a friend.
“I was dragged kicking and screaming to the Annual Charity Bazaar. I didn’t want people thinking that because I’m married to an ambassador, I’ll turn up with my scone kit and go out to all the bazaars. But I realised it’s this amazing event.”
The bazaar has been put on by HIWC volunteers for 25 years, and since 2005, the club has raised over US$1.1 million for charities in Vietnam. It supports everything from education and assistance for families of autistic children, to child healthcare and corrective surgery, to sexual and reproductive health for disabled women, to micro-financing for ethnic minority women.
In October, the club hosted its 9th Vision Award for Inspiring Women, recognising Dr. Khuat Thi Hai Oanh for her work as Director of the Centre for Supporting Community Development Initiatives, an organisation that works to improve the lives of sex workers, drug users, and people living with HIV.
“We’re trying to inspire our own members and friends with examples of women who have triumphed over some quite serious obstacles.”
Women such as last year’s Vision Award winner, Nguyen Thi Thu Thuong, who has battled Brittle Bone disease from birth. In 2014, she used 10 years of her own savings to open Thuong Thuong Vocational Centre, a training resource where others living with disabilities can learn skills for employment.
Besides their efforts to enrich the lives of Vietnamese women, the club acts as a strong support network for expats.
“It’s difficult when you come to a new country,” Gill says. “We’re very much about supporting people who are new in town, providing a source of friendship, advice, and helping people get the best out of Hanoi. What we’re talking about is giving them self-confidence and know-how.”
To do that, HIWC has launched a new website with an extensive list of frequently asked questions, from finding a house to paying bills to setting up a bank account. Once a month, the club hosts a coffee morning, where members new and old (and non-members, too) can network, exchange, and support each other. There are also “night owl” meet-ups, for working women with full daytime schedules.
The club, which officially began in 1991, now boasts around 70 nationalities and close to 450 members.
“I’ve done quite a lot of work over the last 18 months making our board look more diverse,” Gill says. “I think we’ve got about eight or nine different languages on the board now, and four or five nationalities.”
Though it is very much a women’s club, there are 10 men involved, and Gill isn’t opposed to putting one on the board, too.
“My own professional experience is that it’s better if you have a mixed gender dynamic… times are changing, and we’ve made it clear that we welcome men.”
“But, do men join women’s clubs?” she asks. “They’ve always had their own.”
Photo by Julie Vola