Courage and Education: The Unseen Struggles of Women in Bien Hoa, Vietnam 

5 min read — December 6, 2023

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Courage and Education: The Unseen Struggles of Women in Bien Hoa, Vietnam

By Marta Rosa Spiga

The condition of women's education in Vietnam isn't the best. Despite a high enrolment rate of girls in primary school, their attendance is low, and many end up leaving school before completing their studies. The lack of adequate transportation and roads still devastated by war form enormous barriers that significantly impede access to education. The costs involved are also not to be underestimated. Families desiring to educate their daughters must consider school fees and the purchase of textbooks, which are not free for secondary and tertiary education.

Parents unable to afford these expenses sometimes encourage their daughters to work to support the family, leading to early marriages. This results in a kind of "feminization of poverty" where girls don't realize their full potential, perpetuating a cycle of poverty through generations, making it incredibly challenging to break.

I’ve chosen to introduce this context because I want to share this part of my journey in Vietnam, beginning with an observation about the sacrifices and efforts made by women to allow their children to study. Often, attention focuses too much on the great heroines of history and not on the extraordinary ordinary women whose lives, choices, work, and courage make a difference every day, contributing to changing the world.

These women, often mothers and sometimes grandmothers, are the tireless workers we meet in the evening at the teaching facility supported by E-ducare in Bien Hoa. They often come from remote areas, leaving behind a desolate rural reality in search of opportunities, sometimes improving their living conditions, sometimes not.

Bien Hoa, though appearing as a village, is a city of about 1.251 million people, as large as a European capital. The capital of Dong Nai province, situated east of Ho Chi Minh City, is often overlooked in tourist itineraries but plays a crucial role in wood furniture production. It presents itself as a dynamic industrial reality, where the focus is seldom on the workers' living conditions and their low salaries, averaging around 300 euros in local currency. They spend about a third of their income, roughly 100 euros, on their accommodations.

The entire family lives in a single room covered with corrugated metal roofs; beds are mattresses laid on the floor. There's no kitchen or refrigerator as electricity is generally a luxury. The other small space in the accommodation is designated for personal needs, but a bathroom with running water is unthinkable. These houses are clustered along narrow streets where streams of foul-smelling stagnant water flow. Emaciated dogs play with children in hopes of coaxing some food occasionally. The smell of a forsaken humanity can sometimes be unbearable.

It seems like a Dantean circle, a space and time entirely unimaginable for us millennials but is a concrete reality, far removed from our world, a scenario tragically ignored by the spotlight of modern civilization with its comforts and contrived needs.

Yet, these women have the courage to show us, distant Westerners, their daily lives and poverty with remarkable dignity. During our meeting in a classroom where we present our educational projects for their children, they share their stories and lives.

Tai (a pseudonym) speaks with timidity, referring to herself as the young grandmother of two students at the school. The parents of these children left to seek work, leaving her to care for the grandchildren. She becomes emotional, sharing that her husband passed away a few months earlier. She decided to send her grandchildren to the teaching facility, lacking adequate economic resources to enroll them in state schools.

The women of Bien Hoa work tirelessly to help their children and grandchildren escape from a bleak life with limited opportunities. Staying at home with them or having a babysitter while they work isn't an available option. Without the teaching facility supported by E-ducare, their children, often as young as 9 years old, would spend the entire day in gloomy and unhealthy streets, devoid of educational activities, left to themselves, vulnerable to dangerous accidents or, worse, ill-intentioned adults.

Often, these children, having never attended school, are completely illiterate, a situation that persists into adolescence. Due to their age, they either can't access public schools because they are too young or are considered too old. For adolescents who never learned to read and write, it's nearly impossible to embark on an educational path to make up for the lost years.

Sometimes these children or teenagers are bureaucratically invisible because they lack or couldn’t bring a birth certificate, immediately preventing their enrollment in school. Access to a reference place where children can spend time and learn makes a huge difference in these people's lives.

Gaining legal support to obtain all the necessary documents to at least register the younger siblings in public school breaks this vicious cycle at its core. During this informative day at the E-ducare school, the mothers and grandmothers decide to meet us and share their needs.

We ask a simple question often directed at parents: what do you dream your children will become when they grow up, what are your ambitions for them? We expect stereotypical answers, maybe proudly stating that their child will become an engineer, a doctor, or a teacher. Instead, they candidly inform us that they have no idea about their children's future professions because they can't predict what lies ahead. Their ambitions are limited and tied to immediate needs: they simply wish their children, boys, and girls, to learn to read and write to secure a job different from theirs. In a poor world, even ambitions become more economic, and dreams do not transcend the desperate daily existence.

People often tell me when I share my journey that these children and people always smile because they rejoice and "are content with what little they have." Perhaps this is a naive or even hypocritical statement, justifying the much that has been taken away and denied to them.

E-ducare for Youth CLG
41a Oakview Avenue
D15 KH68, Dublin, IE
Charity Number: 20100186
Charitable Tax Exemption: CHY 21966
CRO Number: 549959