Thirteen-year-old Mai (not her real name) lives at a shelter for vulnerable children in An Giang, Viet Nam. She’s an orphaned girl living with HIV. After her parents died three years ago, she was looked after by her grandmother. They were very poor so instead of going to school, Mai worked in a rice shop. Her grandmother sold lottery tickets to make ends meet but she was 80 years old and in bad health. In the end, she was unable to look after Mai properly and contacted her local commune authority for help.
The commune referred Mai to An Giang’s provincial social work and child protection centre, where social worker Nguyen Thanh Trung was assigned to her case. “Mai and her grandmother were among the poorest families in the area, with many difficulties in their lives,” he says. “When we met them, Mai had contracted a very serious lung infection and her grandmother had broken her leg in a traffic accident. They just couldn’t cope anymore.”
Trung arranged for Mai to move to the centre for vulnerable children in An Giang, where she has lived for the last year. She now attends school and visits her grandmother once a week. “Mai is getting very good results at school – she’s fourth in her class,” Trung continues. “She’s also on antiretroviral medication for HIV so her health is a lot better now.”
Happy New Year
|Dragon performers on their way to prepare for Tet celebrations in An Giang
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
It is just before the Tet lunar New Year festival. People across Viet Nam celebrate by buying trees to plant outside their homes. In the north, they buy pink blossom trees, which symbolise good luck. Here in the south, they prefer yellow blossoms, which symbolise money. The wide river through An Giang town, where Mai lives, is busy with wooden boats carrying flowers and trees to market. During the day, their owners moor along the bank and set up stalls selling flowers and trees to locals. People walk down the roadside carrying their Tet trees, or drive home with the tree lashed precariously to the back of a motorbike.
An Giang’s social work and child protection centre was established in 2010, with support from UNICEF. It aims to improve access to social support and protection services for vulnerable children and families. The centre also provides key services for children at risk and child victims of abuse and exploitation. This includes psychosocial and emergency support, legal aid, and referral to relevant services when needed.
The centre is linked to local authorities, including the newly established community-based child protection system. “Some children are referred to us by the communes because they are difficult or complex cases,” Director Nguyen Hong Khanh says. “Others live nearby and come directly to us. Last year we handled 66 cases, including street children, children with HIV and victims of sexual abuse. We’ve had study groups from other provinces come here to learn from us.”
Trained social workers, including Trung, were recruited to work at the centres as case managers, and to provide support to commune staff and village collaborators. The centres also do public awareness raising about child protection issues. “The centre at An Giang is one of the first set up in the country and the model is now being rolling out to other provinces,” UNICEF child protection specialist Tran Cong Binh comments. “UNICEF is the lead agency supporting the Government in this area.”
Learning and playing
|Mai plays blindfold catch with other children at the centre
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2013/Truong Viet Hung
Mai seems happy at the centre, which is clean and spacious with lots of new equipment. Outside, children run around the yard and play on the swings. Others play a game of blindfold catch. It’s Mai’s turn to be blindfolded and her friends sneak up behind her and touch or tickle her, before running away giggling. Eventually Mai catches another girl and has to guess who she is. She guesses right and the blindfold is transferred.
Many of the children in the centre are disabled, given up by parents who either can’t or don’t want to look after them. The more able of them play with Mai and her friends, but others lie in a room of cots unable to move, staring blankly through the bars.
“I like living here because I have so many friends,” Mai says. “I enjoy studying maths at school and playing with the other children. My favourite game is blindfold catch. I like the staff here and my social worker Trung. They really love me. I miss my grandmother but I see her often. Last time I visited she bought biscuits for me. I prefer living here though because I never feel alone. When I grow up I’d like to be a doctor so I can take care of people.”
Social work is a new field in Viet Nam. UNICEF is working to retrain existing health and welfare staff in child protection, and to raise awareness in local communities so that people understand how to care for children better and protect them from harm. For children like Mai, this new approach means the chance for a better life.
Andy Brown is Communications Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific