|Empowerment: Dao woman Ly San May (first from left) and other women in Ta Phin Commune review lessons together before their evening class begins. — VNS Photo Bach Lien
by Bach Lien SAPA (VNS) — Holding a plastic bag in her hand containing a textbook, pens and a notebook, Hang Thi Xa quickly walks into the schoolyard of the Ta Phin primary school. It was 6.30pm. The school was calm and dark. The tranquility was broken by her quick footsteps with her plastic sandals.
Stooping in the chilly winter wind of 10 degrees, Xa waits for her other friends to attend the class. For eight months, she goes to the class almost every evening to learn how to write and read.
The class, opened for free to illiterate women aged around 30 to 45 years old of Ta Phin Commune, has been held at the local primary school every evening since April this year and was the idea of the Ta Phin People's Committee in Sa Pa District of Lao Cai Province.
Forty women living in the commune take part in the class to learn how to write and read.
Do Minh Tri, chairman of the Ta Phin People's Committee, said that the classes can only open in the evening because in the morning and afternoon, those women have to work on the farms and do a lot of housework.
He hopes to open new classes next year to encourage more women to take part.
"Women here work very hard all day and it's not easy for them to regularly attend the classes. However, some of them are very eager to learn as they recognise the importance of studying," he said.
Ta Phin, a poor commune of Sa Pa District which houses 3,000 inhabitants, is mostly comprised of Dao and Mong ethnic people. Most of them live from rice and maize cultivation and breeding animals. Before the class was opened, 80 per cent of women aged from 30 to 45 years old in the commune did not know how to write and read.
Determined to learn
Hang Thi Xa, a 38 year-old Mong ethnic woman, is among some of the most studious students at the class.
When she was a child, her family was very poor and she had to stay home to help her family do farm work. She had never attended school.
After she faced many difficulties in life due to her illiteracy, Xa decided that she had to learn how to read and write.
"One time my child got sick. I had to take her to the hospital. I wanted to bring her insurance card to the hospital. However, because I didn't know how to read, I wrongly took the insurance card of my other child. The doctor didn't accept it. And after I had to take my child back home, I decided to take with me all six insurance cards of the six people in my family so that I can know for sure that I brought with me the insurance card of my sick child that I need," Xa said.
"This travel took a lot of time for me from hospital to home, and from home to hospital, and my child became more sick. Luckily she got a quick treatment from the doctors and could recover from her illness."
She didn't know how to sign her name on documents, how to read road signs. Several times, she was reproached by traffic police.
However, the most tragic event that pushed her to learn how to write was when her youngest daughter, 13, was lured by a friend and was illegally sold to China to do hard jobs for a Chinese family near the border with China.
"I didn't know how to write an application to announce my family tragedy to the police and ask for help. I had to ask others to write it to me. However, when they helped me write this application, I didn't know how to read it. Therefore, it took me a lot of time to be able to send an application to the police," she said, with tears in her eyes.
"After all these sad events, I was determined to learn how to write and read."
And now she feels that her life has changed.
"Life has become much easier now for me. I know to do basic things such as signing my name, go to the commune alone to make a birth certificate for my child. Now, I can also read the newspaper to enlarge my knowledge," she proudly said with a radiant smile on her face.
Sharing almost the same difficulties as Xa, Ly San May, a 30-year-old Dao woman, is also a student at the class. She said she attended the class because she found it very necessary.
"When I was younger, I lived too far away from the commune's school. If I had gone to school, I would have not been able to go back home every day. Meanwhile, my family needed me to do farm work every day, so my family didn't want me to go to school," May remembers.
Now she doesn't hesitate to travel five kilometres from her house to the class almost every evening despite the rain and the coldness.
"I am more confident since I know how to write and read basic things. I have made friends with other women in the class, and together we share difficulties in life," she said.
‘Never too late'
The efforts to help community escape from illiteracy come from some local people themselves.
Before the class was opened by the Ta Phin People's Committee this year, Giang A Cua, a medical staffer of the Giang Tra hamlet of the commune, had opened a class in the evening to eradicate illiteracy of women in his village in February 2014.
Cua said that his village houses 83 households. While most men could go to school and know how to write and read, only three among 85 women aged from 35 to 45 in the village knew how to write and read.
"I volunteered to open the class to bring more knowledge to the local people of my village and help it develop further. Most of women here suffered not knowing how to write and read. I wanted to help them," he said.
Since the beginning, 24 women of the village took part in his class. They only had to pay VND20,000 (90 US cents) to buy electric wires for the class, while Cua used his own money to buy textbooks and notebooks for them.
Though the class was closed two months later due to personal reasons, it left a good memory among its students and evoked a fondness for learning in local women.
After closing the class, he opened a small library from his own budget, helping local people have access to basic books that help improve their knowledge and skills in different sectors.
"I highly appreciate Cua's efforts. Now I have come to understand that books can be important friends in life, and anyone should make efforts to be able to read them. It is never too late to study," Xa said as she hopped on her motorbike to go back to her house from school after the classes finished.
A long and cold road is ahead, but tomorrow will be an other day for her and other local women to study. — VNS