Monday, May 27, 2013

Children with disabilities overcome the legacy of Agent Orange

Three-year-old Dan was born with disabilities because of Agent Orange
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
Dang Hong Dan is just three years old but he’s a victim of the Vietnam War. He was born with disabilities because of Agent Orange – a chemical sprayed in the south of the country during the war to destroy crops and forests. Although the war ended almost four decades ago, Agent Orange still contaminates fields and rivers in the Mekong Delta region. It gets into food and drinking water, causing birth defects in children.

Dan was born with a cleft lip, which has been partly repaired with surgery, and a deformed hand and foot. He is too young to be aware of his disability and the stigma that sometimes surrounds it. He is a happy and active child, with an enormous sense of curiosity and clearly intelligent for his age. “Dan likes to play with anything,” his mother Oanh, 30, says with a laugh as he tries to figure out how to use UNICEF’s digital camera.

Oanh had a difficult pregnancy. “I was sent to the hospital twice because of heavy bleeding,” she says. “After Dan was born, the doctor did some tests and told us that the cause of his disability was Agent Orange.”

The family live in a small house in Phu Tho commune, An Giang province. One side of the road is lined with identical concrete houses. On the other side are paddy fields. A vendor in a traditional conical hat guts snakehead fish at a roadside stall, while farmers work in the fields spraying crops with pesticide. It is harvest time for chilli peppers and further down the road hundreds of small red peppers are spread out on tarpaulin sheets, drying in the sun.

Dan’s parents lack regular work and the family is very poor. “My wife and I both work as hired labourers,” his father Phong says. “We take any job we can but the work is unstable. We don’t earn enough money to look after Dan properly.”

Farmers spray crops with pesticides in the fields opposite Dan’s house
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
Community collaborators

Luckily, the family were able to get help from a ‘community collaborator’, as part of a pilot scheme supported by UNICEF, which aims to strengthen local child protection systems. UNICEF is working to train local officials and volunteers in child protection issues, the basics of social work, and counselling skills.

“Social work is a new area in Viet Nam,” UNICEF child protection specialist Tran Cong Binh says. “The communes already have existing networks of health workers, social welfare officers and community collaborators. We’re helping to broaden their skills to enable them to also function as child protection workers. We are also raising awareness in the community so that people understand how to better care for and protect children from harm and abuse.”

Community collaborator Nguyen Thi Bich Hanh, 26, provides support for families in Dan’s village and helps run a monthly children’s club that provides child rights and life skills education for vulnerable children, as well as play activities. “I joined the network because I love to be close to kids,” she says. “I want to organise useful activities and care for the most vulnerable children.”

Hanh, who is also deputy head of the village, monitors the situation of vulnerable families in her area and raises awareness of children’s needs. She helps families register their children’s birth and access services such as health and education, in coordination with local officials.

Dan’s parents didn’t even know they were entitled to help. “Hanh told us that we could get support for his medical needs,” Oanh says. “She helped us fill in the forms and arranged transport to Ho Chi Minh City so he could go to the hospital there. One year ago Dan had an operation to get his lip fixed. He still needs another operation.”

Hanh also provided counselling for the family on how to bring up a disabled child. “We are very happy and grateful for Hanh’s support,” Oanh says. “We are a poor family and couldn’t have afforded the operation on our own. Now we have health insurance for the whole family and our financial situation is much better.”

Commune collaborator Hanh (centre) leads a game at the local children’s club
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
State of the World’s Children

UNICEF Executive Director Tony Lake was stationed in Viet Nam many years ago, working for the US State Department. This week, he is returning to the country to launch UNICEF’s annual ‘State of the World’s Children’ report.

The theme of this year’s report is children with disabilities and the choice of location reflects the importance of this issue in a country still dealing with the legacy of war. Disability rates are higher in Viet Nam than other countries in the region, with birth defects centred on Agent Orange hotspots.

UNICEF is working at the national level with government ministries to improve the legal and policy framework for children with disabilities. In June 2010, Viet Nam approved a new law which is in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Despite his disability, Dan’s future is relatively bright. The nearby orphanage is full of children with disabilities who were abandoned by their parents, but he has a loving family and support from the commune and UNICEF. Both his parents are affectionate and attentive to his needs. His mother hugs and kisses him, and wipes his nose when it dribbles. His father helps him ride his bicycle.

“It was difficult for Dan to learn to walk because of his foot, but we practiced a lot and now he can,” Oanh says proudly. “We were so happy the first time he walked.”

Commune collaborator Hanh name (left) with Dan and his family
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
Find out more about UNICEF’s work in Viet Nam »

The author
Andy Brown is Communications Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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