INASIA

Weekly Insights and Analysis

Int’l Day of the Girl Child: Celebrating the Power of Girls in Vietnam and Across Asia

October 7, 2015

By Elizabeth Romanoff Silva

On October 11, global communities will mark the International Day of the Girl Child to celebrate girls’ rights and to recognize the achievements and shortcomings since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 in improving the lives of girls. While there is much to celebrate around the world and across Asia, girls still face complex challenges that limit their ability to access education, live a life free from violence, to delay marriage and pregnancy until adulthood, and to influence the critical decisions that affect their lives.

In the Asia region, where income inequality is pervasive and different ethnicities and minority groups have varying levels of access to education, girls among the lowest 20 percent income quintile and minority groups tend to be least able to access education. Photo/Roz Plotzker

In the Asia region, where income inequality is pervasive and different ethnicities and minority groups have varying levels of access to education, girls among the lowest 20 percent income quintile and minority groups tend to be least able to access education. Photo/Roz Plotzker

Early and forced marriage is one of many challenges facing girls globally. One in four girls are married before they turn 18. In East Asia and the Pacific, one in five girls marries before 18, while South Asia accounts for the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Over half of girls in South Asia (56%) will be married before they turn 18. Girls who are married as children tend to have less decision-making power within relationships and families, and face increased risks of domestic violence and higher rates of adolescent pregnancy. Adolescent girls are more likely to suffer life-threatening complications in pregnancy and childbirth than adult women. And when a girl marries, it often means the end of her education.

Education is critical to providing girls with the tools they need to become healthier and more educated women who are better prepared and able to participate in the formal labor market and earn more income, which in turn lifts families and communities out of poverty in Asia and around the world. There have been substantial advancements in primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment rates of girls and boys in recent years, as two-thirds of countries in the developing regions have achieved gender parity in primary education, but gaps still remain as girls continue to face unique challenges within education systems. An estimated 31 million girls of primary school age, and 32 million girls of secondary school age, were out of school in 2013, and girls who are out of school are substantially less likely to ever return to school, compared to boys.

In the Asia region, where income inequality is pervasive and different ethnicities and minority groups have varying levels of access to education, girls among the lowest 20 percent income quintile and minority groups tend to be least able to access and be retained in education. In Vietnam, progress has been made improving the quality of public education and increasing school enrollment rates. Parity has been reached in primary education, and while the gap in secondary school enrollment rates between girls and boys is narrowing, girls are still less likely to be enrolled in secondary education. Tuition fees, combined with the costs of books and other school materials, are considerable and prevent many adolescents – and especially adolescent girls – from graduating from secondary school.

Staying in school can unlock opportunities for a girl in Vietnam that she wouldn’t have access to otherwise – from obtaining higher-paying jobs to attending university and delaying marriage, and girls like 17-year-old Thao are defying these odds.

Thao, who grew up in a poor family in Can Tho Province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where more than 50 percent of drop-outs are girls, gets up before sunrise every morning to help her family with housework and care for her two younger sisters before getting on her bike to pedal the 40-minute-ride down a dirt road to attend school. On flooded days, Thao has to roll up her pants to walk to school in the rain. Thao’s parents are hired laborers and her mother is illiterate, so the financial burden of staying in school seemed insurmountable. “I have a number of girl friends dropping out of school because they were very poor [and it was] challenging to their families’ financial situations. They dropped out of school to go to work with a desire to share the family burden with their parents,” Thao says.

Faced with such barriers, her story could have been very different.

Thao, at her home in Can Tho Province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where more than 50 percent of drop-outs are girls, gets up before sunrise every morning to help her family with housework and get to school.

Thao, at her home in Can Tho Province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where more than 50 percent of drop-outs are girls, gets up before sunrise every morning to help her family with housework and get to school.

As an Estée Lauder Companies Scholarship Recipient, Thao has been able to buy school supplies, pay for classes, and help support her parents. In the fall of 2010, the Estée Lauder Companies and The Asia Foundation launched a partnership to begin a three-year secondary school scholarship program for 70 disadvantaged Vietnamese girls in the southern province of An Giang in the Mekong Delta. All 70 girls who received an Estée Lauder Companies scholarship in 2010 graduated from secondary school in June 2013. Forty-four of the 70 (63%) young scholars have since enrolled in university or vocational school after graduation, while 26 (37%) are now working to help support their families. The Estée Lauder Companies Scholars Program in Vietnam currently supports 134 girls, including Thao, who began their studies in September 2013 and will be supported through their graduation in 2016. Thao continues to earn good marks in school, loves studying history, and dreams of becoming a policewoman. Thanks to the Estée Lauder Companies Scholars Program, Thao’s dream may very well become a reality.

On the International Day of the Girl Child, it is important to celebrate the progress that has been made across the world and in Asia, while recognizing that much work remains to ensure girls have the chance to reach their full potential and become empowered women who can be leaders in their communities and countries.

The Estée Lauder Companies Scholars in Vietnam program is part of The Asia Foundation’s broader effort to empower young women through education. Read more about the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program.

Elizabeth Silva is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at Elizabeth.silva@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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