by Nguyen Thu Hien
HA NOI —Four one-year-olds lie on the bed, scrambling for toys. Seeing a stranger come into the dark, dank room, they sit up and stretch out their hands. Their limpid eyes move toward the stranger and crane their bodies toward her as if waiting to be held in her arms.
|Four abandoned children cared for at Bo De Pagoda in Ha Noi. Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs statistics show that more than 176,000 children were abandoned or orphaned during the 2004-12 period. — VNS Photo Thu Hien
When one child is picked up, his feet grasp the stranger's body and he happily giggles, but the other three children cry out.
They are not siblings. But they will grow up together in the orphanage at Ha Noi's Bo De Pagoda, one of a few of its kind in the city.
More than 176,000 children were abandoned or orphaned during the 2004-12 period, according to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs. Nguyen Trong An, deputy director of the ministry's Child Care and Protection Department, said the real number was much higher because there were many unofficial orphanages at pagodas and churches and in family homes.
Only 12 per cent are living in State-owned orphanages, mostly in Ha Noi, Dong Nai, Quang Ngai, Lang Son and Thai Binh provinces.
Thich Dam Lan, the Bo De Pagoda's chief monk, says she will never forget the first newborn baby she brought up.
It was a chilly winter morning nearly 25 years ago. When opening the pagoda gate, she saw a basket covered in black cloth.
"I was puzzled but decided to open it. Inside was a newborn baby who had become deathly pale," she said.
Just one year later, more than 10 other babies had arrived at the pagoda and the number has kept increasing. Currently, there are more than 150 children living there, mostly less than five years old.
These foundlings are left in public places like toilets, bus and train stations, hospitals, street corners and bridges, and taken to the pagoda by passers-by.
Without any support from relevant agencies, the monk struggles to take care of them all.
Each disadvantaged child – orphans included – is supposed to get VND180,000 (US$8.5) per month, equivalent to 20 per cent of the average living standard two years ago. This amount does not come close to meeting the minimum nutritional demands of children, according to deputy director An.
Ministry statistics show that only 30 per cent of children in need get this assistance.
And many localities have failed to implement such policies so a number of children – like those Lan supervises – have yet to get any support, according to An.
Rashes and risks
Every month, Lan must pay VND60 million ($2,857) for cooks and guardians at the pagoda in addition to millions more for tuition fees for the children. Voluntary donations are the main source of funds.
"It is difficult to ensure enough food for them to be full and clothes to be warm," she said.
Overcrowding makes the problem worse. There are at least 20 children of the same age living with five foster mothers in each small room. Each foster mother is responsible for caring for four to five children.
Many children suffer from pimples and rashes on their faces and bodies.
Nguyen Thi An, Senior Programme Manager of Child Protection of Plan International Vietnam, said there were many other potential risks for abandoned children when they lived in centres, especially unofficial ones.
Once homeless, with no place to live in but the pagoda, the foster mothers devote themselves to these children. But most of them have not been trained in childcare – and having a good heart is not enough. They need professional skills because any mistakes, even tiny errors, can seriously harm children.
Moreover, each mother must care for several children at a time, so she has few minutes to devote to each one.
Poverty and lack of education are the main reasons for the increase in the number of orphans, according to a recent survey conducted by the ministry and UNICEF in five provinces and cities.
Female students with unexpected pregnancies, young workers in industrial parks, women with health problems (especially HIV and mental disorders) and single mothers with financial difficulties were most likely to abandon their babies, An said.
These findings were confirmed by a survey of 10 provinces made by Adoptions Centrum, a Swedish non-profit and child rights organisation.
Trinh Tu Linh, head of the organisation's Project Office in Viet Nam, said there were three groups of children with the highest risk of being abandoned: children living with or otherwise affected by HIV, children with disabilities and children of single mothers living in poor conditions.
Preventing children from being abandoned should be the focus of future efforts, experts agreed.
A community-based system of child protection has been implemented in eight localities. Its network of long-term volunteers is responsible for monitoring children's situations and detecting when a child risks being abandoned or suffering domestic violence. Then a case management agency will work out intervention plans.
And in co-operation with local women's unions and the Association for the Support of Vietnamese Handicapped and Orphans, Adoptions Centrum is improving the knowledge and skills of children and parents on protecting children's rights.
Poor families will get financial and technical support from local authorities, especially the local women's union.
Deputy director An said it was also necessary to implement a replacement for foster care by foundlings' relatives or neighbours.
Kong…kong…kong… The ancient copper bell of the pagoda rang for the first time that afternoon. A few minutes later, children rushed outside to play.
Looking at their faces, Lan said that while it was difficult, there would always be some way to save orphans.
More than 150 abandoned children had grown up and left the pagoda to work in many cities around the world, she said, adding: "I pray to Buddha that someday their parents will return to the pagoda and their children can finally call them mum and dad."—VNS