Education for women: a promising direction to reducing poverty in Vietnam

In college freshman and sophomore years, I wrote plenty of essays for (inter)national essay contests (which sadly never won, by the way. Competition is fierce!)

This following essay sprang from my many trips to my hometown, plus the review of literature and U.N.D.P documents. Its genesis was actually from my watching CNN Hero of the Year, December 2011, which featured Robin Lim, an extraordinary activist in Indonesia. Then I was completely dumbfounded to know of a girl who was “fighting” the Taliban for her education, later she was known to the world as the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2014). A year later, I decided to send this essay to an international contest held in Indonesia, September 2012. I had just turned twenty years old at that time.

The contest’s theme was “Dreaming of a World without Poverty.”  So, what are your dreams for the world without poverty?

essay


Women in developing countries have limited access to basic social services such as primary health care, education, nutrition, shelter, etc. In Indonesia, when giving birth, many women cannot afford sanitary deliveries, leading to a higher possibility of death in the following twelve months. In parts of Pakistan, it is culturally accepted or forced that women stay home; schools for girls are closed down because of the Taliban’s use of violence. These causes deprived women of essential life skills and social services, which brings them to the verge of human rights violation, such as women trafficking, forced labor, or sexual exploitation. According to the United Nations, “poverty” is defined as “not having a school or clinic to go”, “insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities,” and “susceptibility to violence.” From this point of view, these women are not living in poverty; they are living in destitution. These are two cases in the fourth and sixth most populous countries in the world. Let’s have a closer look at the situation in Vietnam.

Unlike Pakistan with an extremely low rate of women employment, Vietnam has done a good job in recent years in improving women’s employment. The Vietnamese government has provided more opportunities for women to access social activities, from governmental jobs, foreign trade activities, to home-based businesses, etc. Many women now become the bread-winners of their families, even leaders in community services. After “Doi Moi” (Vietnamese economic reform in 1986,) Vietnam successfully reduced poverty rate from 60% in 1990 to 18.1% in 2004.1 Nevertheless, serious problems persist, which might prevent Vietnam from eradicating poverty.

Throughout Vietnam, especially in rural areas where 70% of the population lives, boys are favored over girls largely because of their future responsibilities: performing ancestor worship, continuing the family line, taking care of the whole family, etc. Many families that follow strict patrilineal tradition cross the two-child limit, continuing to produce babies until they have a son. This consequently leads to overpopulation, serious sex-ratio imbalance, and gender disparity. Moreover, while educational opportunities for boys are well-provided, girls are often overlooked. Nowadays, girls in vastly agricultural-based areas do not receive adequate education; consequently, they enter the labor force even before reaching the age of sixteen. Their parents are lured to the factories in industrial zones by the prospect of better-paying jobs, working from dawn till dusk, thereby hardly caring for their children’s education. Without standard education, girls and women are vulnerable to a variety of threats. They are at a higher risk of unwanted pregnancies, of having unsafe pregnancy terminations or sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV. In addition, many women are tricked into underground businesses such as forced labor, trafficking and prostitution. Even more dangerously, after being exploited and involved in those businesses, they can be ostracized or discouraged from integrating into the society.

In my dream, a Vietnam without poverty is where everyone receives a quality education. Vietnam is an ethnically diverse country with 54 different ethnic groups, among which the Kinh (Việt) make up nearly 90% of the population. Kinh people have more access to basic services such as public health, education, clean water and electricity; those available to other ethnic groups are extremely limited. It is challenging to bring public resources and facilities to rural areas, not to say remote, mountainous regions. In the meantime, the better way to protect women from the above-mentioned threats is through Education. Being more aware of the threats, they are more likely to be able to protect themselves and one another. Educating women should focus on two directions: one is vocational training; the other is through social empowerment. Both should be at the grass-root level, so that even underprivileged women can participate in.

Firstly, vocational education serves the need of educating women at the grass root level. Currently, Vietnam’s workforce is still largely unskilled with poor education. 22.2% of Vietnamese women are unpaid family workers, compared to 11.8% of men.2 This indicates that a large proportion of women are falling out of micro-businesses and falling back into family-based businesses where the paid income is precarious. Women from less-developed, ethnic communities cannot afford a well-rounded education; as a result, they need vocational skills to earn a living. Jobs like sewing tapestries, making pottery, jewelry, basket weaving, painting, cooking, etc. go a long way in increasing employment, creativity and cohesion in the society. Enhancing agricultural, farming, nursing techniques can actually enable them to support one another in their local communities. Vocational training is practical, easy to understand, and easy to spread out. It creates jobs so that people (including women) will not take part in dangerous, illegal activities such as growing narcotic plants, mineral over-exploitation, deforestation, illegal hunting, gambling, trafficking, etc.

Secondly, women need social empowerment. That women afraid to stand up for their rights is a worldwide phenomenon, particularly in Asian cultures. Girls and women need encouragement and motivation to come out of their comfort zone to stand up against violence, sexual abuse, and discrimination. They need both physical and emotional support from the society to raise their demand for essential health services. For example, Vietnam has the highest rate of abortion in the region and all over the world. The abortion rate among teenagers was 25% in 2010 and is increasing rapidly.3 Lots of young teenagers do not (fully) understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health. Once they have had unwanted pregnancy and been known by the public, many seek secret abortion despite its detrimental complications; some even commit suicide. Communities have been trying to create a welcoming environment for them; but the progress has been slow. Family planning, safe pregnancy and HIV prevention methods are among the programs being multiplied; girls and women should regain their confidence, social status, thus constraining the AIDS epidemic.

Women are one-half of the world, playing a crucial part in maintaining peace and stability. As a result, a women-sensitive society will ensure productive results. Poverty reduction requires international cooperation as well as interdisciplinary measures, among which education’s vital role is undeniable. Education for women will open up a door for prospective changes, helping Vietnam eradicate extreme poverty and hunger in 2015 as part of Millennium Development Goals.

 

References

1  United Nations, Vietnam, Vietnam at a glance.

2  United Nations Development Program, Social Services for Human Development: Vietnam Human Development Report 2011, box 2.2, p.31.

3  United Nations, Vietnam, Achieving the MDGs with Equity, MDG 5: Improve maternal health, 2010.

“Home” – short story by William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

This is a mid-term essay that I wrote in English Literature class, analyzing the short story “Home” by William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) – a British writer famous for his novels, “The Moon and Sixpence“, “Of Human Bondage“, “The Razor’s Edge“, and “The Magician“. Maugham’s short stories are famous for the hidden satire, which sometimes requires us to know the British culture and history to comprehend.

I haven’t found the online version of “Home”, but here are some outstanding books that mention Maugham’s stories.

Penguin Outstanding Short Stories

Mind the Gap – Short story study guide, grade 12

Let’s Read and Discuss, by European Humanities University

Sixty-five Stories, by W.S. Maugham (“Mr. Know All” & “The Escape” are two stories taught at my school, the University of Languages and International Studies, VNU.

And, a good Blog about W.S. Maugham


 

Question:  In the story “Home” by William Somerset Maugham, captain Meadows was introduced by the narrator with respect and admiration. Do you share this opinion? Use details from the story to support your ideas.

 


 

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It is never easy to analyze a well-written short story, often because there is very little unfolded. This is true for William Somerset Maugham’s short stories, for his are often autobiographical and abundant of nuances. “Home” is an example of Maugham’s mastery storytelling. The main character, Captain George Meadows, appears in the second half of the story and is introduced quite favorably by the narrator. Nonetheless, the story ends with a solemn, yet satiric note, which makes us wonder whether the narrator truly respect and admire this man. Let’s go deeper into the character to find out the truth.

The story begins with a homestead lying “among the Somersetshire hills”. The family is traditional in that ever since the house was built, “from father to son they had been born and died in it.” Captain Meadows is introduced in a rather awkward situation: he had deserted home to live “an exile’s life”, and for more than fifty years, nobody ever heard of him. Now crippled with rheumatism and longing for home, he left the sea and went home to see once more the house where he was born and grew up in. Arriving home, the Captain faced the reason (or more correctly, the person) that he left for a sailor’s life: Emily Green (now Mrs. Meadows), once courted by Captain Meadows, chose to marry his elder brother.

The narrator, who was a friend visiting the family, felt that the story of Captain George Meadows was like an “old ballad”. Had we been in the narrator’s shoes, we would have felt the same. We would expect to see a rough man of profound naval experience. Both the narrator and Captain Meadows had been to China and the Oriental coasts; a heart-to-heart talk could be expected. Therefore, ours and the narrator’s first impression of Captain Meadows were that he was brave, strong-minded and had a lot of sea experience.

However, the rest of the story tells us very little about the narrator’s viewpoint. Rather, the real Captain Meadows was left to the reader’s interpretation. This is not a surprise because in Maugham’s novels as well as short stories, there is hardly anything purely good or purely bad, purely saint-like or purely evil. In order to conclude, we have to put the characters and the events in the complexity of the environment surrounding them.

We see that Uncle George Meadows (Captain Meadows) did not have an easy life. Even though he was brave and adventuresome, in the mind his family, he was not a man of high stature or stability; he was wild and indecisive; and for many years overseas he had done everything but “to make a fortune.” This made him a less desirable man to Emily Green, who sought stability and firmness, a shoulder she could rely on.

Captain Meadows came home in a rather weak condition: toothless, crippled, old and penniless. This image might have inspired sympathy from the narrator. It might have inspired admiration and respect for the glory of Captain Meadows’ life. But does this kind of admiration and respect resonate with the admiration we come across in the story’s beginning? the kind of respect for a man of adventure and thrill-seeking? It might not. By now Captain Meadows seemed like a burden to his family; his many experiences became meaningless. The strong man could now barely walk with his own two feet.

In my conclusion, the “admiration and respect” that the narrator felt for Captain Meadows changes as the story proceeds, but subtly. We cannot look at the outer layer, the glowing skin of the matter and judge somebody’s opinion. In the end, Emily Green had made the right decision to marry Tom Meadows (Captain Meadows’ brother). “Fate had been kind: death had written the full stop in the right place”. Captain Meadows died at home where his past generations had been born and died. The narrator at this point might have had another kind of “respect and admiration”: for a man who valued his family’s tradition and who made his final, and perhaps most sound decision in his adventurous life. Who can tell?

“The Selfish Giant”: Something concealed, Nature does reveal

I wrote this essay in a 60-minute test for the English Literature class (Spring 2015), studying “The Selfish giant” by Oscar Wilde. An example of story-telling mastery, its style differs much from that in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”; more similar to that of Flaubert’s Three Tales. In this essay, I only analyze the setting of the story. Before you proceed, I recommend reading Oscar Wilde’s original story here.

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For people studying or interested in English literature, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is not a strange name. His exuberant personality, his eccentric and flamboyant fashion style, and perhaps his infamous arrest and imprisonment for being homosexual – all left his indelible marks on earth as a passionate artist who adored beauty. His novel, plays, and short stories usually embrace philosophical and/or theological questions. “The Selfish Giant”, a short story from “The Happy Prince and other Tales” (1888), is an excellent example. After emerging in in the dazzling nature in the story, readers are left surprised at the story’s revelation. But, is the setting of the story also significant for us to understand the protagonist, the Giant, at all?

Firstly, the “setting of a story” is the physical place, the scenes, time and space of the story. No characters can function alone without their interaction with the physical place. In return, the physical surrounding environment affects the characters physically and emotionally. “The Selfish giant” revolves around a big garden owned by a giant, the natural changes, and the human interactions within it. On the outset, the garden was quite desolate because the giant had hung on the gate a big sign saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, shoving away everyone. It was covered with snow, frost, hail, and wind. The trees never gave fruits. There was no delightful music.

These physical features obviously indicate that for such a selfish giant, the world he resides was not at all comfortable; or he deserved to live in that lonely, depressing castle. As we read on, we clearly see that the giant’s mood and his “selfishness” started to change when the poor little children snuck in the garden to play. Suddenly, there was warmth and joy in the garden; there was jovial music and laughter, which “melted” the giant’s heart. He realized that the Spring didn’t come to his garden because he was so selfish and cruel. The stone wall, the symbol of isolation between the two world, his and the happy outside world, was knocked down. This makes me think of the joy and ultimate freedom that people from West Germany and East Germany finally achieved when the Berlin Wall was torn down, 1989. Oscar Wilde’s story is timeless in hinting that no “walls” would bring unity and freedom. Knocking down his wall surrounding the garden, the giant made a huge leap forward, changing his attitude towards the world (and truly, who he was). He became more loving, more generous, more SELF-LESS. As a result, we the readers become more sympathetic with him.

Another striking feature was the story’s time lapses and the seasonal changes. They seem to represent human lifespan: spring represents youth, winter old age. Perhaps dying in the “winter” would be most painful. At the end of the story, Wilde let the giant die, which was a very solemn note for a children’s story. However, the giant did not die in solemn winter, but “under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.” The giant came to a more beautiful, eternal garden called “paradise”. The story’s message is that the good and loving, the self-sacrificing are rewarded generously. The giant started out no less similar to us: insecure, selfish, at times self-seeking. But he could change for the better; he stepped bravely forward and admitted his mistakes; he could sense and smell the wonders of this beautiful world. He could be better, and so do we.

“The Selfish Giant” has a rich source of Biblical fables; the setting of the garden (twelve trees, spring, flowers, etc.) somehow suggests a longing for Paradise. Put in a decaying moral world of the late Victorian era, the story still resonates Queen Victoria’s ideal of a peaceful loving world embraced by Christian values; a world where the righteous are rewarded eternal life. Keeping this note in mind, we come to another lesson that “The selfish giant” espoused: We do make mistakes in our life, but as long as you repent, there is a way to forgiveness and salvation, as was the case for the selfish giant.


 

Visit Penguin readers guide for the summary and exercises to better understand the story: http://www.penguinreaders.com/pdf/downloads/pyr/factsheets/9780582456099.pdf

See the animated film on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btNVUWikg7M