by Bich Huong
BAC KAN (VNS)— The image of ethnic women carrying their babies on their backs while doing farmwork or collecting firewood is one of the main visuals associated with Viet Nam's northern mountainous provinces, such as Bac Kan.
|Children play in the yard of the newly-built Duong Son Pre-school in Duong Son Commune, northern Bac Kan Province. Awareness about child care in the northern mountainous area has been improved. — VNS Photo Bich Huong
It harks back to a time when children from ethnic minority groups in remote mountainous areas did not go to school. Instead, youngsters slept soundly on their mothers' backs while the older children played in front of their houses or in the rice fields.
However, 24-year-old mother Hua Thi Bong, of Duong Son Commune, Bac Kan Province's Na Ri District, said that fewer and fewer local children accompanied their parents to work nowadays.
"We send our children to school so that they can learn many useful things," she said.
"My son likes his school, friends and teachers," Bong said, adding that he never had any problem getting up and going to school on time in the morning, and he even remembered to wash his hands before meals.
The mother said she was happy to see her son sing songs and talk about his school life during family gatherings at home.
Since Bong's son started school last year, she has grown accustomed to playing with him in the yard of his pre-school every morning before starting her workday.
This requires them to leave home a little bit earlier, around 6a.m. To get to the school, in the centre of the commune, Bong has to ride her motorbike for half an hour, traversing a 10-km path through the forest. But as the young Nung mother said, this brought joy into her day.
Duong Son Pre-school principal Dinh Thi Bay said that local people, mostly from the ethnic groups of Tay, Nung and Dao, were now more aware of the need to send their children to school.
Previously, at the beginning of the school year, teachers came to households to encourage parents to send their children to school. However, in the last few years, parents voluntarily went to the school to register their children, she said.
This was a big change for the school, she said, noting that it was based in one of the most disadvantaged communes in the mountainous district, about 300km away from Ha Noi.
The pre-school used to share classes and a teachers' dorm with the local primary school until last year, when a new pre-school was built.
Surrounded by mountains, terraced fields and a winding pathway, the concrete Son Duong Pre-school impresses people with its colourful walls, cartoon pictures, a large front yard with swings and a slide, and, above all, its five well-furnished classrooms.
For years local children dreamed of having such a nice school, Bong said, recalling her poor childhood, when there was no pre-school to attend.
Life has changed significantly since Bong was a child. Now, as a mother, Bong feels luckier than the former generation, as she receives support from others besides her own parents.
Through civil societies like Women Association and Youth Union, parents like Bong were taught how to take care of their children and given access to healthcare services, she said.
Distance seems to pose the biggest challenge to people in the commune, which spans an area of nearly 3,800ha of mostly hills and mountains.
There, houses are scattered about 2-3km away from each other, and many are separated by springs.
Thus, the community houses, although they are only simple buildings in the heart of each hamlet with a few benches, a notice board, a table and a bulb, have become fixtures in local residents' lives.
"Gathering at community houses after work, we just sit around chatting, sharing our experiences with farming and child rearing," Bong said
However, the most impressive item in the community houses is full bookshelves for children.
On Sunday mornings, the houses are opened for children to play and read.
Luan Thi Chanh, a 9th grader, said that she usually took her two younger brothers and sister to the community house on Sunday mornings because they could find many books and toys there.
"Older sisters and brothers from Youth Union also teach us to sing and dance and tell us about children's rights and obligations - not only through vivid stories and pictures but also by making us become actors/actresses to deal with different situations," Chanh said.
For example, children had the right to go to school, go to the healthcare centre when they get ill, and play away from springs, rivers and burning stoves, she said.
"If only we had a place to play badminton and football," Chanh said, adding that they usually made use of the terraced fields after harvest time to play football.
Nine-year-old Lo Thi Hong Gam said that reading books helped her learn about people and the world outside.
To reach the community houses, many of the children have to walk, climb hills or cross a spring for an hour, but they said this did not bother them because they were so happy to go.
Duong Son Commune People's Committee vice chairman Trieu Van Chi said that awareness of proper child care and protection had been improving among local people.
Efforts have been made to make changes in their attitude as well as improve facilities, he said.
However, as a poor commune, Duong Son Commune faced many difficulties, and could use more support from the Government and other organisations.
ChildFund Australia's International Programme director Mark McPeak said that helping people and children understand children's rights was one way to help them overcome poverty.
"Children are poor because they lack access to important things like healthcare and education, their parents lack income and they feel their voices have less power and less influence in society," he said.
If they knew about their rights, they could speak out, he said.
Since 2009, ChildFund in Viet Nam has tried to support local communities, including Duong Son Commune, to understand child rights, empower children to speak out and help local authorities build a community fit for children. — VNS