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Illiteracy and hunger haunt Hmong girls

Education still eludes many Hmong in Vietnam

Hmong girl Sung Thi My (right) returns home with a heavy load of bamboo shoots Hmong girl Sung Thi My (right) returns home with a heavy load of bamboo shoots
  • ucanews.com reporter, Yen Bai city
  • Vietnam
  • July 18, 2012
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Sung Thi My gets up early in the morning, makes a fire and cooks vegetables and rice mixed with cassava for her seven-member family.

After breakfast, the 13-year-old gathers a knife and hoe, straps a pack basket over her shoulders and walks four kilometers to the forests, where she spends the day digging for bamboo shoots.

Pale, drawn and weighing only 25kg, My returns home at dusk with 40kg of shoots on her shoulders. She sells the shoots for 120,000 dong (US$6) and buys 10kg of rice.

“I started to work to support my family when I was six years old,” she said. Before then, she looked after her siblings at home while her parents were away.

My's story is not unusual for Hmong girls in Vietnam's northwestern Yen Bai province.

Her illiterate parents got married when her father was 16 and her mother was 14. Her two sisters are also illiterate. Her younger sister is in third grade and her youngest brother is at a local nursery.

Her eldest sister, 16, who married two years ago and has a son, has been abandoned by her husband and returned to her parents' home.

Ho A Tinh, an official of Hong Ca commune, said the commune has about 100 illiterate girls under the age of 16.

Local families usually have five to 10 children each and suffer from food shortages six to nine months a year, Tinh said. Most of the 800 local children suffer from malnutrition and a dozen of them under five die from malnutrition each year.  None of the commune’s 1,600 people goes on to college.

According to 2009 census data, there were more than a million Hmong people. Almost 82,000 of them lived in Yen Bai province.

“Other girls drop out of secondary schools, work to support their families and get married,” he noted. Traditionally, Hmong ethnic women get married at the age of 14-16. If they are older and still single, they are badly treated, he explained.

“My name - My - means ‘lucky’," the girl said.

Looking into the darkness, My wishes for enough money to buy shampoo to wash her unruly hair and to buy a new set of traditional Hmong skirts, "so that I can look better and find a boyfriend,” she said.

Sitting on the earthen floor by an oil stove giving light to her ramshackle leaf-made house where there are only two beds, some shabby pots and chipped bowls, the illiterate girl said she has never stepped foot in a classroom.

"I wanted to be a teacher, but my parents could not afford the school fees," she said.

When the bamboo shoot season is over, she will go back to collecting firewood to sell to buy food for her family.

Her parents and two sisters also collect firewood in forests and harvest cassava for a living on their 1,000 sqare meter plot of land.

“We have two meals a day and our main food is rice, cassava and vegetables. We need four kilograms of rice and six kilograms of cassava a day," she said. "Some days we have only cassava.”

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