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The village chief who defied convention

Update: June, 02/2013 - 16:15
Paving the way: Thanks to village chief Giap, Co Tu villagers have better living conditions and more attention is paid to women's development. — VNA/VNS Photo Xuan Quang

In a remote Co Tu ethnic minority village, a young woman has become the first female leader. Her work to improve living conditions and develop agriculture has been hugely successful. Tam Ca and Nguyen Le report.

Six years ago, Co Lau Thi Giap overcame the unspoken rule in her village that women may not hold a position of power and responsibility.

In the time since she became the first woman among the Co Tu ethnic people in the mountainous Tay Giang District of Quang Nam Province to be named a village chief, she has made the skeptics think again by introducing a succession of measures that have raised living standards and stimulated the local economy.

Giap is the head of J'Da Village, and we decided to make the 200km trip to meet this enigmatic and inspirational woman.

As the eldest of three sisters in a very impoverished family, Giap was always motivated to create a better life for herself and her family.

After completing the 10th grade, she was forced to quit school and work on a farm to earn the money required for the education of her sisters.

At 16 years of age, Giap became an eager participant in the local youth movement. She would help the villagers achieve a better life by persuading them to adopt a more hygienic lifestyle, stop practicing backwards customs and stop drinking large quantities of alcohol. She and the other members voluntarily started digging irrigation canals, organizing the vaccination of farm animals and building barns for them to live.

Gradually, local residents began to recognise her strong leadership and vision, which shone brightly, even in someone of such a tender age. At just 18, Giap was nominated as a candidate in the village chief elections.

"I was very surprised to receive the nomination but I did not expect I would be given the chance to help my villagers," Giap recalls.

However, when election day came, she received the unanimous support of the villagers. She vowed to quickly repay their faith in her.

"Initially, I felt being a village chief was hard work, especially as a young woman, but every day since I have travelled around the region studying the circumstance of each family and learning about the difficulties they face so I can help," she says.

During her time as chief, Giap has worked tirelessly to improve every area of village life.

She realises that having a working population is crucial in order to eradicate hunger and reduce poverty, and so she has launched many initiatives to try and get people working successfully.

Giap has also made it her priority to educate her fellow villagers about the importance of family planning, an issue which proved too hard to tackle for her predecessors.

"Locals used to think that the more children they had, the happier they would be. This meant that many families had too many children and they could not support them as they only had low-paid farming jobs," she recalls.

"In my first days as chief, I organised meetings with the villagers, advising them not to give birth to too many children. However, that was ineffective so I spent every evening visiting each family and talking to them until they understood the importance of family planning. Now they are aware that they have to plan carefully to make sure they can live within their means."

Barn of hope: Giap stands by a barn she built, which stores rice for villagers to share during tough times. — VNS File Photo

Such has been the success of Giap's initiative that in the past three years no households have had a third child. This is a rare thing in the highland region.

Giap has also made members of her commune study successful models for developing an agricultural economy through effective farming and livestock breeding.

"Before, people used to cut down forest to clear land for farming. It was very hard-work for little reward. Giap told people to raise pigs using mixed feed; they took her advice and now can earn much higher profits. Our village is lucky to have such a young, dedicated and enthusiastic leader," comments village elder Bnuoch Hong.

The ‘Barn of Solidarity'

At the heart of the village stands a barn that local people have taken to calling "the barn of solidarity."

In the past five years, this has been a symbol of hope and reassurance to many families, helping them to overcome hunger.

The barn was the brainchild of Giap, who also built it herself. She asked each family in the village to annually contribute 30kg of rice after the harvest to be stored there.

"I persuaded villagers to build up this barn so that the rice could be shared among poorer families in the village in tough times," she explains.

To date, the barn has been a big success and many other localities have been inspired to follow the same model.

Giap says that in 2007, the rural poverty rate in J'Da Village was 15 per cent, but since she built the ‘barn of solidarity,' the rate has decreased. Today there are only two poor households among the 37 in the village.

"Thanks to the barn that can support us with 10kg of rice per month, we eradicated hunger. This is a noble gesture that shows the spirit of solidarity between the villagers. We have Giap to thank," says a local resident.

When we say farewell to the chief, we reflect that the local people are indeed lucky to have such a dynamic and devoted leader, full of bright ideas and a positive attitude. Surely in the near future the village will have a completely new face thanks to the efforts of Giap, the woman who proved all of her doubters wrong. — VNS

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