Kate Thomas, Research Fellow at Birmingham City University

Academic Kate Thomas has recently been using her poetic skills to help build a better future for some of the world’s poorest children, through a ‘Poems On Demand’ service that gives people the chance to commission a bespoke poem in return for a donation to support the work of Plan UK. 

Plan UK works with children in 50 of the world’s poorest countries so they can move themselves from a life of poverty to a future with opportunity.

Here, Kate blogs about a trip to Vietnam as part of her fundraising activities…

A week ago today, I woke early, disturbed by the sound of roosters and ducks in chorus – and a loudspeaker in the nearby paddy field broadcasting government information about forthcoming regional elections. So began the fourth of five days trekking through hill villages in the little-visited Pu Luong nature reserve, four hours drive south-west of Hanoi, Vietnam. My five fellow trekkers and I were all long-term sponsors of children in developing countries through the global charity, Plan International UK. All strangers at the start of the trek, we had had to quickly adapt to communal sleeping arrangements in the wooden stilt houses typical of the region; basic sanitary facilities and humid hiking temperatures as we travelled through the reserve.

stilt-house

We were rewarded with spectacular scenery: neat acres of paddy fields and misty hill ranges; unfailingly generous hospitality in the homes of villagers belonging to the Muong and Black Thai ethnic minority groups and an insight into lives dependent on subsistence agriculture, physical labour and community.

final-night-stop

The trip was organised by Plan International UK, whose flagship campaign Because I’m a Girl highlights the fact that worldwide, girls bear the brunt of poverty but, with education, protection and support, can be a powerful force for change. The trip to Vietnam offered an opportunity to see the work of the charity at first hand and to better understand the way it supports children through community development. The trip was both a celebration of my 50th birthday and a challenge – I had been raising the required sponsorship amount of £3,000 for over a year.

Having completed the trek and enjoyed a night in a comfortable bed at a hotel in Hanoi’s vibrant Old Quarter, the culmination of the trip was a full day’s visit to Plan Vietnam projects in Thái Nguyên province, an area famous for its green tea. Placing value on children’s education, health and rights is particularly significant in rural, poor communities as, I had been surprised to learn, families have to pay for schooling and healthcare in the Socialist Republic. Escorted by Plan Vietnam staff and two black-suited government ‘minders’ straight out of John le Carré novel, we first visited a large kindergarten, where initiated by Plan, staff are adapting from traditional transmission and rote learning methods to a more interactive teaching style. The playground was a riot of colour and we participated in the children’s games and daily exercises – much to their amusement! At the primary school next door, we paid a visit to an immaculate new library, funded by Plan and listened to children taking it in turns to read aloud. The community medical centre provides four beds, a delivery suite, a pharmacy and a vaccination schedule for young children, crucial facilities in this isolated community.

library

After lunch, at which the ‘minders’ let down their guard a little, toasting us several times with rice wine, we were taken to see a Plan-funded irrigation system which enables local famers to crop rice twice instead of only once per year, increasing their income stability.  Authorities in Thái Nguyên province have already begun to fund the medical centre, promote children’s rights in its communities and adapt central teacher training curricula.   Plan’s overall approach to community development emphasises sustainability and having worked there for over 10 years, the Plan projects have only a year to run before the charity focuses resources in an even more remote and disadvantaged community further north.

Finally, I spent some time with 11-year-old Sung, the eldest daughter of rice and tea farmers, who has been sponsored through Plan since the age of three.  Bright and composed, Sung told me that she hopes to become a teacher.  Plan Vietnam’s work in education, health and children’s rights is particularly important for girls like Sung.  Our travels through the paddy fields in the Pu Luong had provided ample visual evidence that Vietnamese women’s support family income through agricultural and physical labour, as well as taking primary responsibility for the domestic sphere.  Girls are often taken out of school early with only basic qualifications, to work in the fields or look after younger siblings.  In some ethnic groups in northern Vietnam, there is no lower age limit for marriage, meaning girls may be married and start families by the age of 14.  A lack of education, qualifications, opportunity and confidence lead to an overwhelming under-representation of women in Vietnamese public life and public office.  To use a familiar metaphor from my work as Athena SWAN Research Fellow and Project Manager at BCU – this is a chronically ‘leaky pipeline’.

On my return to the UK, a letter was waiting for me from the child I sponsor through Plan in Burkina Faso.  Just turned 14, she informed me that she no longer attends school, but is participating in ‘literacy tuition’.  It is all too easy in the West to throw up our hands and despair at the waste of female talents and resources in developing countries.  The trip to Vietnam with Plan has given me a greater insight into the complex interaction of culture, economy and gender – and ways in which agencies such as Plan can contribute to enhancing all children’s choices and potential.

More information about Plan International UK and the Because I’m a Girl campaign.

More information about Poems on Demand.

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