|The big picture: Women from Phuc Loc Commune, Ba Be District are taught how to use cameras for their research. — Photo Nguyen Truong Giang
by Bach Lien
Until three months ago, Sam Thi Xinh had never held a camera.
Xinh, a Mong ethnic woman from Phuc Loc Commune in Bac Kanï Province, was chosen to take part in a research team with other women from her district.
She said that since she started this new undertaking, she has gained confidence and become more active.
In November, the Bac Kan Provincial Women's Union, Care International and the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) recruited Xinh and other 31 ethnic women in Phuc Loc Commune. They gave the women a camera and trained them on cultural diversity, photography, recording and participatory research methods, along with 10 local trainees.
These women, called "collaborative researchers" under the Voice and Rights for Ethnic Minority Women project, take pictures of their daily lives in the commune. They identify problems endemic in their communities, and advocate solutions to government agencies and social organisations.
The project lasts until 2018, and is being implemented in Phuc Loc and Banh Trach communes of Ba Be District in Bac Kan.
The Delegation of the EU has supported the project with 273,000 euros (US$296,500).
The first phase, in Phuc Loc, will be held in Banh Trach in June. Seventy-two women from different ethnic groups in two communes will take part in the second phase.
Vu Phuong Thao, iSEE's vice director, said the project applies the "collaborative research" method to give voice to Tay, Dao and Mong women so they can identify issues in their communities and tell the country how to solve them.
A seminar held in the province early this month marked the official start of the project.
Xinh and other local women showed excitement when taking part in the project.
Traditionally, research is carried out by professional researchers, but the concept has begun to evolve as more people become involved in the collaborative research process.
"Participating in the research team, I feel happy, but there are difficulties, too," Xinh said.
"Happy because I am the one who does research on the problems of my community, and listens to the stories. In general, I feel happy rather than worried. Sometimes, it was difficult when I faced unfamiliar situations and did not know how to deal with them, but there were local trainees and the project officers to support me."
Since taking part in the project, she said she always brought the camera with her so she could record whenever she saw something interesting.
"Some people feel shy, but some love to see their photos on my camera," Xinh said. "My team is enthusiastic with education because everyone in the communities quite school quite early. I want to find out the reasons for and the solutions to this problem."
After their first three months on the project, Xinh and the other women can proudly present their first photos to the public, showing the reality in her commune.
They discussed community issues such as pig raising, environmental hygiene and the loss of traditional culture.
Nong Thi Loc, a member of the Tay ethnic group from Khuoi Tau Village, expressed her worry that traditional identities were slowly disappearing.
"Before, if a girl didn't know how to weave fabric, no one would marry her," Loc said. "We also had to plant the cotton and indigo trees for materials. Only people my age can do these tasks. The young people don't know how to read and write Tay languages, or sing traditional music called luon.
"How can we keep our Tay ethnic identities?"
Another Tay woman, Dam Thi Tuom, chairwoman of the Women's Union of Ba Be District, is the focal person of the collaborative research team in Khuoi Tau and Khuoi Tra villages of Phuc Loc Commune.
"The collaborative research method is new both to men and to the people who I support," she said.
"In our imagination, researchers are supposed to be bald and wear glasses. We were worried at first. However, after I have been trained in research, I find it interesting. With collaborative research skills, our members will be empowered.
"I hope that when the research topics are selected and findings are available, there will be a seminar to scale up this method to other communes, so many people will see that ethnic women can also do research."
Ha Thi Lieu, president of Bac Kan Province's Women Union, said she highly appreciated the project, which could strengthen the voices and the roles of local women in the family and society. It also allows them to contribute more to the society's development.
She said that the lives of local people have remained difficult, as they have only relied on agriculture to live. The number of illiterate women is still high.
Biniam Haile, acting country director of Care International in Viet Nam, said he hoped the project would bring ethnic women, a marginalised group, opportunities to overcome challenges and make positive changes in their lives.
"We expect that with this new project, ethnic women will have the opportunity to strengthen their capacity to identify, articulate and advocate on issues that affect them to the Government and civil society," Haile said.
"And at the same time, at the national level, the Ethnic Minority Working Group and the Committee for Ethnic Minorities Affairs will listen more to the people, and increase respect for and sensitivity to the rights of ethnic women, as well as enhance the capacity to recognise and respond to their needs." — VNS