CHANTILLY, Virginia — While increased development and aid have helped reduce poverty in Vietnam, millions still live below the poverty line. In 2018, 22.4% of the nation lived on less than $5.50 a day. These numbers likely increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most affected are children and single mothers, particularly ethnic minorities and those with disabilities. Without adequate healthcare, nutrition, clean water and sanitation, many Vietnamese children and their families struggle to break the cycle of poverty. To combat this, the nonprofit organization Children of Vietnam employs resources and workshops to help Vietnamese youth fight poverty and give back to their community.
How Vietnamese Children Are Affected By Poverty
Although civilians in urban areas continue to move into the middle class, poverty remains highest in “rural and mountainous regions,” which are home to more than 65% of Vietnam’s population. According to UNICEF, eight out of 10 Vietnamese children belonging to ethnic minorities live in various pockets of multidimensional poverty.
Concerning water and hygiene, approximately 80% of minority children suffer from deprivation of clean water and sanitation. Furthermore, six out of 10 children do not have proper housing or electricity, and healthcare remains inaccessible to 50% of minority children. The above factors force children and their families further into poverty, which leads to malnutrition. As a result, children experience stunted growth and often develop disabilities.
The Connection Between Disabled Children, Education and Poverty
Vietnamese children with disabilities not only grapple with the above but face higher instances of poverty and discrimination due to healthcare expenses and fewer educational opportunities. A World Bank report showed that children with disabilities are often denied an education. Almost 96% of children without disabilities attend primary school while enrollment lies at only 69% for children with disabilities. The percent of children enrolled in schooling continues to decrease at the secondary level even for children without disabilities.
Such barriers also hinder children’s success by limiting their scholarly pursuits. More than half of disabled children never attend school. Additionally, more than 20% of minority children aged three to five experience delayed entry into grade school. Because they do not receive the education necessary to enter the workforce and earn a living, these children remain impoverished. Many fall victim to child labor, human trafficking and prostitution.
How Children of Vietnam Helps Those in Need
Children of Vietnam’s story began when American engineer Ben Wilson and Vietnamese businesswoman Huong Thi Luong became friends. Riding through Da Nang, Vietnam, and into rural areas, they would try to provide the impoverished with as much “food, shelter, medicine and clothing” as possible. In 1998, Wilson and Luong expanded their efforts into the creation of the organization Children of Vietnam.
According to the organization, the first focus was on “providing food, shelter, healthcare and encouraging children to stay in school.” The organization began working with children with disabilities in 2007. Now, the nonprofit works to provides all impoverished families with the necessary aid to thrive.
During an interview with The Borgen Project, Executive Director Nancy Letteri said, “We saw that these [disabled]children might have mobility issues, but they also might have malnutrition or they might have issues of getting access to school. So, we created a multidisciplinary team to look with the parents, to look at one child at a time and develop what we call a care plan.” Such programs and initiatives fall under Children of Vietnam’s five established initiatives: Helping Children with Disabilities, Educating for the Future, Keeping Children Nourished, Delivering Clean Water and Sanitation, and Empowering Single Mothers.
Providing Food and Nutrition
As part of the Keeping Children Nourished initiative, Children of Vietnam distributes vitamin-fortified meals within Kindergartens through its Lunch and Learn program. As a result, children not only receive nourishment but are encouraged to begin their educational journey. Additionally, the Soybean to Soy Milk project serves more than 400 children with freshly-made milk every day at schools “in mountainous areas serving mostly ethnic minority children.” According to Letteri, the programs “help reduce stunted growth and help [the children]develop normally.” Furthermore, they lead to parents “bringing their children to school.”
Further promoting education, the Children of Vietnam’s Study Steps program (part of the Educating for the Future initiative) enrolls at-risk children in tutoring programs that provide study and life skills. The organization also administers university scholarships to ensure students can enter the workforce and earn above the poverty line. Of the first 25 girls participating in the Study Steps program, “22 of them graduated from high school and passed all their exams. Of those, six of them went on to vocational training, and the remaining went into university,” Letteri said.
Accessing Medical Care
To ensure improved living for disabled children and other vulnerable populations, Children of Vietnam organizes a fair where medical specialists, educators and therapists gather to help treat children and formulate accessible treatment plans. The nonprofit also organizes small business training and administers micro-loans to single mothers to help them overcome poverty and provide for their children. Mothers of disabled children also have access to support groups.
“Not only were the children getting the services but the parents were getting to know each other. They were not living in isolation. [The parents] realized they weren’t alone. They were finally connected to professionals that they could call on if they needed help,” Letteri said.
To combine education and sanitation, Children of Vietnam builds schools with clean bathrooms for children and installs community water systems to provide all villagers, especially minorities, with clean water. The organization also helps constructs bathrooms in the homes of people in these communities.
Alongside programs under the five initiatives, Children of Vietnam hosts events like the Vietnamese Art Impact Auction. The nonprofit allocates contributions from bidders and the proceeds from funds from all five initiatives to further help Vietnamese youth fight poverty. “The children we touch, their lives are changed and transformed. I really believe that because I’ve seen it,” Letteri said.
– Riya Sharma