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Teen unions perpetuate poverty and illiteracy, say nuns

Vietnam nuns spell out the perils of marrying young

Teen unions perpetuate poverty and illiteracy, say nuns
Ethnic women watch video clips on abortion, domestic violence and sex education provided by nuns reporter, Hue

February 22, 2013

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Six years ago, 16-year-old Peter Ho Son ran away from home after his parents told him to drop out of school and marry a 14-year-old girl. 

Following tradition, his father and mother married when they were 15 and 14 years old respectively, and his four siblings married at a similar age.  

“I refused to marry since I wanted to pursue my studies to be a teacher in the future,” said Son, of Huong Hoa district in central Quang Tri province.

Son got support from Lovers of the Holy Cross nuns and now he is a third year student at a pedagogy college in Hue city.

But his is a rare case among ethnic minority youths in the district.

Sister Anna Tran Thi Hien, who started to work with three local ethnic groups – Co Tu, Ta Oi and Van Kieu – in 2002, says local ethnic people marry young, perpetuating a cycle of illiteracy, malnutrition and poverty.

It is a cycle she and her convent are trying to break. 

Almost 60 children from age 5 to 17 live at a hostel near Sister Hien's convent in Dong Ha city, 65km away from Son's home. 

Nuns teach basic education, catechism, ethics, computer skills, music and handicrafts. They take children on their motorbikes to pay monthly visits to their homes and offer the families clothes and food. Some youths study at public schools.

The nuns use videos to teach youths to avoid abortion, abuse of alcohol, domestic violence caused by marrying young and premarital sex.

“Many parents are ready to send their children to us and no longer ask them to get married early,” Sister Hien said.

Ethnic minorities generally get married when they are 14-16 years. Girls who are older than 16 are considered old maids. Sex and relationship education is virtually nonexistent.

Son, who embraced Catholicism in 2011, says he and his girlfriend are attending a Church-run course in preparations for marriage and plan to marry after graduation.

So far 70 local couples who attended the Lovers of the Holy Cross program have waited until they reached the legally required ages to marry. Men and women are required to be 20 and 18 years old respectively to get married by law.

Those who marry early are fined 100,000-200,000 dong and required to do seven days community service. But in practice, the regulations are rarely enforced, Sister Hien says. 

Ho Van Phi, 18, an ethnic Co Tu, married when he was 16 after he got his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant.

Phi, who is 18 but looks older, now has two children. He says he and his wife have not received welfare services as they have no marriage certificate and their children have no birth certificates. He says local authorities did fine them 200,000 dong (US$10) for marrying young.

Sister Hien says the custom of marrying young badly affects ethnic minorities who traditionally want bigger families to work on cassava, corn or banana farms. Grandchildren mean prosperity.

Last year, A Luoi district alone recorded 250 marriages of ethnic couples between the ages of 14 and 16. The district has a population of 41,000 mostly ethnic minority people.  

A Lang Vit, 46, a local villager whose only son got married when he was 16, also says local authorities often fail to fine young couples the mandatory 100,000-200,000 dong each.

"Local people say they have no money to pay the fines, while others blame their children who threaten to leave home for another place to live together or even commit suicide if their parents do not allow them to marry," she adds.

There are 1,200 Catholics from ethnic minority groups in the district, although the government limits religious activities for security reasons in this area that borders Laos and is home to more than 100,000 ethnic minority people. 

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