Friday, August 28, 2015

Protecting Viet Nam’s Invisible Children

Mai* is 12 years old and lives in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam’s largest and most prosperous city.  Her house consists of a 10m2 slab of concrete with aluminum sheeting for walls and roof. Mai lives there with her parents and four siblings, who up until recently had never gone to school, nor had regular health checkup, vaccinations or access to social assistance programmes that are normally available the poor in Viet Nam.

While 96 per cent of Vietnamese children are registered at birth, Mai and her siblings are part of the four percent who fall through the cracks. Unregistered children in Viet Nam are almost always from poor, ethnic minority or migrant families.  Mai’s parents cannot read or write and did not understand the benefits that birth registration would confer on their children.  

Apart from being the first legal acknowledgement of a child’s existence in Viet Nam, the registration of births is fundamental to a child’s access to basic services and social protection and later on as an adult, secures a person’s right to getting a passport, opening a bank account, obtaining credit, voting or finding employment.

One morning in early 2011, while Mai was out with her mother selling lottery tickets to make some extra money, she met Ms. Thuy a social worker from the Thao Dan Social Protection Center.

Thao Dan Social Protection Center is one of the few civil organizations in Viet Nam that has a key focus on protection and care for children and adolescents in need of special help.  Supported by UNICEF Viet Nam, Thao Dan Center provides emergency outreach to childen who are poor, street living or victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, and domestic violence.

That meeting changed Mai’s life.  Ms Thuy spoke with Mai’s mother and convinced her to send Mai and her siblings to Thao Dan in the afternoons to attend reading, writing and life skills classes.

“Before meeting Ms Thuy, my day consisted of waking up, going out on the street to eat a bowl of noodles for breakfast. Then I would go to sell lottery tickets with my mother until 11 am and then again in the afternoon. I hated selling lottery tickets. It is hard work and when we did not sell all the tickets we lost money and that was a big problem for us,” Mai explains.

In addition to educational classes, Ms Thuy helped Mai’s family get legal support to complete the birth registration process for all the children.

“Mai and her siblings were invisible members of society,” tells Ms Thuy.  “They couldn’t access any health or education services because they didn’t officially exist in the national database.”

In September, Mai will go to a public school for the first time. A good student and a quick learner, her regular attendance at Thao Dan’s afternoon schooling brought her reading and writing levels up so that she can join other children her age at school. Her parents have also been able to apply for government social assistance programmes to ease the burden of poverty.

“I’m scared about going to school in September,” admits Mai. “I don’t want to get bullied but I am excited about learning how to read and write.  My dream is to finish 12th grade and then become a teacher. I love my teacher here at Thao Dan Center and I want to be like her.”

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