Local NGO helps women in need find work and raise families
A visitor looks at pictures of disabled single mother Phung Thi Hau at the "Cactus Blooming" exhibition in Hanoi
Being a single mother is hard enough in Confucian-influenced Vietnam. But being a disabled single mother is even more difficult.
A photo collection capturing the lives of single disabled mothers in Hanoi recently showed just how difficult it is. But the show also revealed the hopes and dreams that strong and determined women still have in the face of extreme diversity.
Entitled Xuong rong van no hoa (Cactus Blooming), the two-day exhibition September 20-21 was the first phase of a project by the same name that aims to raise funds to support single mothers with disabilities and their children.
Organizers at a local NGO called the Action Center for Community Development (ACCD) said there would be many more programs to come as part of the series.
"We have wanted to do this program for many years but due to lack of funding, we have had to delay it until now," said Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, director of ACCD.
"With this opening event, we luckily had the support of five photographers, both professional and amateur, who volunteered to go with us to the localities from July to August to shoot photos featuring the hard lives of these women."
The show, sponsored by the British Council and the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies, was a collection of the 50 best photos featuring 27 single disabled mothers.
"They are poor but always try to overcome a sad fate," said Lan Anh.
Being disabled herself, 34-year-old Lan Anh understands the difficulties of these women. She has dedicated her life to helping others like her have better lives.
|Lan Anh (R) with a Mexican friend at a conference on disabilities in the United States.Photo courtesy of Cactus Blooming Exhibition Organizers
Born to a poor family in the northern province of Thai Nguyen, Lan Anh suffers from glass bone disease and has been confined to a wheelchair since she was a child.
"I faced great difficulties during my school days," she recalled.
"I was admitted to a local primarily school two years later than other friends of my age after much imploring by my parents. My grandmother, parents and friends used to carry me to class until I finished university because none of the schools had elevators or other facilities for disabled students."
Despite these challenges, Lan Anh always surprised friends and teachers with her excellent marks. After earning a bachelor's degree and graduating with honors from the Hanoi University of Foreign Languages (now Hanoi University), she continued to complete an MA at the University of Economics under the Vietnam National University, Hanoi in 2010.
When asked about how she achieved such good results, she just smiled from her wheelchair and said: "Because I could not do anything else but study."
After many years of working for the disability community, Lan Anh understands how much discrimination the disabled face in Vietnam. But she says disabled women suffer double discrimination.
"During field trips to different areas and through two small programs in support of subsistence for women with disabilities, we found that the door to marriage is often closed for women with disabilities and lots of them choose to be single mothers. Some are abused and cheated," she said.
"Difficulties of family, prejudice and lack of education have brought them a hard and unstable life. Their children are among the most pitiful as they often leave school to help their mother. Some are so poor they haven't got enough money to study in the first place. And that's why we decided to start the "˜Cactus Blooming' program as soon as possible."
Lan Anh said they chose the name because disabled women are like cacti that grow strong even in severe conditions and can produce beautiful blossoms, which are their children.
Phung Thi Hau, 44, from Ba Vi District just outside central Hanoi was among the 27 disabled single mothers featured at the "Cactus Blooming" exhibition. Hau lost her ability to walk properly due to a severe fever when she was three.
"I left school after finishing primary school due to my poor health and then I learned to sew and earned money from this job to support my family," Hau said.
She said that for years she did not dare entertain the idea of beginning a family even though she wanted to have a child to lean on when she got older.
When she first floated the idea of having a baby out of wedlock, she faced strong objections from her parents and prejudice from her neighbors.
But she still became a single mother in 2000.
Hau had to struggle alone to raise her baby. Her sewing work did not bring her enough money to support her small family so she learned to ride a bicycle (no easy task for someone with difficulty walking) to sell vegetables as a mobile vendor. After ten years, her legs are now much stronger.
Hau now helps her brother trade scrap iron, which is an easier job and provides a higher income. However, the VND1.5 million (US$72) she makes every month is still not enough and it has been very difficult to support her 12-year-old son.
"I've always tried my best to bring up my son but there are a lot of barriers that prevent us from having a good life," she said.
The photos and life story of a young woman named Le Thi Huong from Ba Vi District were also very moving.
|A picture of Le Thi Huong from Ba Vi District at the exhibition. The 28-year-old lost her husband in a traffic accident just after giving their second son four years ago. She is now chairwoman of the Ba Vi District Club for Disabled Women.Photo courtesy of Cactus Blooming Exhibition Organizers
Huong, who is disabled in one leg, is a beautiful woman who had a good husband. However, she lost him in a traffic accident just after giving birth to their second son.
Now the 28-year-old widow can only earn enough to make ends meet by sewing. Though it is difficult to raise two children, one eight and one four, in these circumstances, she is also chairwoman of the Ba Vi District Club for Disabled Women.
Nguyen Thi Hien, 36, from Son Tay Town, was born to a family of five children, three of whom, including Hien, had birth defects.
"My parents are very poor so they could not afford school for us," Hien said. "Therefore, I learned to sew and earned money from this job. My life was very sad and I decided to have a child so that I will not be lonely when I get old. Becoming a single mother was a very difficult decision, especially in my condition, but luckily my parents supported me."
Hien said that due to her poor health and low income, her pregnancy was very hard but raising her baby is now even harder. However, she still decided to move out of her family's house and bring up her son alone.
"I don't want to put more burdens on my parents," she said. "Now I must work much harder, but I have my son to encourage me."
Phung Thi Hau, Le Thi Huong and Nguyen Thi Hien will be among some 200 single disabled mothers to participate in two of Cactus Blooming's first-phase (2012-2013) pilot support projects in Hanoi's Ba Vi District and Son Tay Town.
"We will provide training in financial management, business idea building, and guidance on how to access loans," Lan Anh said.
The projects will also include training on reproductive health and sexual health.
"I hope that through the project, disabled women, and especially, single disabled mothers, will receive more understanding and sympathy from society," she said.
"And this will open new opportunities for them to get good jobs and be more confident and included."
Before establishing ACCD in late 2011, Lan Anh had worked for the Disability Forum Vietnam, where she organized projects and activities for the disabled community for ten years.
She also taught transport safety training classes for disabled people across the country, and because of her stellar English skills, Lan Anh also represented Vietnam at international conferences on the disabled in several foreign countries.
Lan Anh said, ACCD's missions include providing free legal consultancy and assistance for vulnerable people through a hotline (043 564 3053) and email. The group also provides life skills training for disabled students and works to protect the rights of disabled children. The NGO lobbies the government and proposes policies for vulnerable people and aims to develop institutions and a sustainable community for the disabled.
"We are receiving hundreds of questions [from disabled people] on various things that may occur in their life," she said. "The questions may be as simple as how to climb stairs safely, or as complicated as how to react when being teased by other people."
Besides providing assistance at their office, ACCD works with other organizations to go to remote areas in the north including Mu Cang Chai District (Yen Bai Province), Si Ma Cai District (Lao Cai Province) and Ba Vi (outskirts of Hanoi) to teach life skills to local disabled people.
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