Thursday, July 25, 2013
UNICEF's Next Generation Vietnam Field Visit
My UNICEF field visit to Vietnam with fellow UNICEF’s Next Generation (Next Gen) USA Steering Committee members afforded us the opportunity to see exactly where our donations and fundraising efforts for our Vietnam Project went. We had the incredible opportunity to see the UNICEF-supported programs first hand, and see the impact they have made in protecting and saving the lives of children in Vietnam. Since 1946, UNICEF has led the efforts to implement resources and funds for children's rights, protection, and education. Next Gen provided support to help UNICEF establish a better Child Protection System in Vietnam. This field visit was a direct representation of how the funds raised through Next Gen go directly to our goal of ensuring ZERO children are left behind; that ZERO children fall through the cracks of societal deficiencies or poverty. This is the "why"...
…because, I Believe In ZERO.
The following is my reflection on the dedication and advocacy efforts UNICEF does on behalf of children and the impact that UNICEF and Next Gen has made and will continue to make within our global society.
Arriving in Vietnam, the very visible population of over 90 million people all speeding past our caravan on scooters and motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City was clearly a vision of an up and coming economy and fast-paced, evolving culture....( those Vespas can move!). The efforts to modernize and enable growth became evident throughout our visit. But Viet Nam’s over 26 million children are not benefitting equally from this new prosperity. Gaps between the rich and the poor, between male and female, and between the country's various ethnic groups are clear. Understanding this landscape was critical to uncovering the “how” in implementing programs, both humanitarian and political. Although we can try to equip ourselves with the necessary background and processes, it is difficult to truly understand the depth of the challenges this country still faces. That’s why I traveled here. I believe that we have to see the difficulties that abused, neglected and vulnerable children face. We have to hear their stories, share their tears and help establish an action plan. We were able to do this with our first field visit to the Thao Dan Social Protection Center.
The Thao Dan Center focuses on providing vulnerable street children who are at risk for exploitation, trafficking, abuse and crime, a safe place to go. This program teaches the children important and crucial life skills to equip them with necessary survival methods in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Educating, empowering and advocating for these children, who may otherwise fall through the cracks – now, thanks to this center - have a model of what life can be like if they have a different road to choose. Another perspective not commonly thought about is what happens to these children once they enter the system, either as a perpetrator or a victim, which brought us to a police training…
We attended and participated in a police training to enhance the interviewing process of child victims and offenders to ensure that any child that goes through the legal system has a proactive and protective experience in dealing with authorities. I was able to share lessons learned by my father- a former Sheriff, and share that by having trust in the law, can be the best way to ensure children don't commit another offense and helps to ensure that children feel the law and its implementers are there to protect them. I was amazed at how open these officials were in accepting feedback. While hearing my story, it was as if a light bulb went off and they were able to recognize that they are the first touch point a child may have with the law, especially the most vulnerable children. “Thus, you [police] are the catalyst to ensure they get back on track or feel protected.” When a child doesn’t have anyone at home to care about/for them, at the very least, people in law enforcement should.
Day 3, as we made our way towards the Mekong Delta, to the southern Province of Dong Thap, the urgent need for support in rural Vietnam became very clear. As we passed small markets on the road and waves of green rice fields; you cannot escape the beauty among the despair. Then through vastness of bright and bold colors, lies the murky river and fish-farming. When you look even closer you can see a silvery, shiny, tin box atop wooden legs that erects from the brown waters. “What are those?” I inquired. They were toilets; river toilets, literally next to the area they were fishing. As we made our way into the community, we attended a “Water and Sanitation Triggering” session where water and sanitation programs the UNICEF Tap Project and Next Gen supported were being implemented to educate the families and promote proper defecation routines and the critical need for private latrines. The program has been so successful in that area, that 80% of the community now has a latrine in their home. And latrines cost about $400 USD, when the average annual income in that community is $600 USD, think about that for a minute…
Also among the Province of Dong Thap are the intricate details and personal stories of struggle, loss and the need for education, both for children and their families. We learned that the main cause of death for children over 5 years of age in Vietnam is drowning (oftentimes due to climate change and the flooding in the Mekong Delta). These are all truly preventable deaths with just a simple solution: swimming lessons! So that’s exactly what UNICEF did, they implemented a swim class to help ensure ZERO children die because they do not know how to swim. UNICEF taught 2,000 children to swim and now the government took the program to scale and an additional 50,000 children have been taught to swim since the UNICEF program was first implemented!
As we met with the People’s Committee in the local commune, the delegation included the Deputy Director of Labor, Child Protection, Woman's rights, and other officials, I was pleased to hear, “Vulnerable children need to see efforts being made on a communal level.”
We helped them identify the needs of regular educational training about abuse, sanitation, child's rights and home visits to assess children’s situations, especially disabled and vulnerable children. We shared some of the challenges we heard about from the people we met on our travels…such as child labor, the need for migration to other provinces for work and the challenges collaborators/social workers face (and the need for more social workers!) in assessing risk and providing proper intervention and support. UNICEF is helping the government work on the solutions, i.e. maintaining regular meetings with the government to properly understand the situation for children and how to better overcome the issues, assess pathways, enhance education for social workers/collaborators and reinforce the critical need for personnel and technical support for resources.
Family visits to households with children living with HIV and disabilities was probably the most profound representation of the increasing need for attention in these areas. We were moved by the stories of financial hardship, social stigmas and the challenges these vulnerable children face. Nuyen, a local girl disabled from the effects of Agent Orange shared her touching story of the desire to attend school, have friends that weren’t afraid of her, receive a proper education and the hope to become a doctor one day, so “I can help children like me and so, no child will ever have to suffer through what I have.” It’s in knowing these stories that we will be forever dedicated to help cultivate change in these areas. Visiting individuals and the community and seeing the impact the programs that Next Gen has helped to fund and UNICEF has implemented, provided us with the fuel our efforts need to enhance support for children across the world.
As we approached the local Baby Friendly hospital in Dong Thap, I was humbled by UNICEF’s efforts in enforcing the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. Educating women, mothers, mother’s-in-law and the men of this community on the critical importance of breastfeeding, and then seeing these mothers’ breastfeed and now truly understanding its importance, showed us that no matter the place or circumstance, women want to do what is the very best for their babies. This approach of breastfeeding seminars, serves to promote an understanding that formulas mixed with the poor water conditions prohibit proper nutrition, increases the risk of infection and disease in young infants. It also facilitates the understanding that breastfeeding enhances the stimulation of brain development in infants by increasing baby-to-mother connection, and increases milk production and thus creates healthier nutrition for the child during the most critical time in a child’s development.
When you stop and take a look at what it means to really be a part of a global initiative that is working to make the world a better place, few of us rarely have the opportunity to see all that the world suffers from. Children, are the ones that are impacted the worst by adversity and we have a duty to ensure that what we leave behind to them and for them, enables a secure foundation for them survive and thrive. I am honored to support the great work of UNICEF and UNICEF’s Next Generation. I commend the hard working staff of UNICEF Vietnam for all they have accomplished and everything they continue to do on behalf of the children of Vietnam.
By Nicole Neal, UNICEF’s Next Generation NYC Steering Committee member