Their backgrounds are very different, but each must overcome huge hurdles in order to transform their lives. I can guarantee you there isn’t a dry eye in the house when those kids finally get up on stage as graduates.
The economic arguments in favour of education are staggering and for women and girls in particular it is a critical area of empowerment. An educated woman is more likely to marry at a later age and have fewer children. Under-five mortality rates are lower for these women as well. A girl’s income will increase from 10 to 25 percent for every year of schooling she receives. In turn, if she has children, she is more than twice as likely to educate her children.
But the obstacles to education remain and they can seem intractable. Over 500 million women around the world have never learnt to read or write and half of those same women were married before the age of 15. Their daughters will very likely face the same dismal future. One of the reasons for this illiteracy is that for deeply struggling families, putting a child in school not only takes away a potential income earner but the cost of doing so — uniforms, school books, fees — are simply too high a cost to bear.
Culturally, a premium is placed on education in Vietnam. There is a centralised curriculum and standardised teacher training which also contributes to Vietnam’s high literacy rate (94.5%). Notwithstanding the complaints about education by rote, the challenges faced by universities with a lack of postsecondary teaching staff, and student enrollment demand outstripping supply, the point here is to acknowledge the general support for unisex education.
As I watched the KOTO graduates on stage, I thought of the obstacles in Vietnam. While education is mandatory for the first nine years, a too-large portion of youth here are still not in employment, education or training (NEET). Statistically youth (age 15 to 24) make up about 20 percent of the population, but a disproportionate number of unemployed — nearly half of all the unemployed in Vietnam, says the International Labour Organization (ILO). In other words, a youth is three times more likely to be unemployed than an adult.
Add to that another four million youth in vulnerable employment, meaning these youth work in “low-productivity jobs with meager income, poor working conditions and lack of social protection,” according to the ILO. These are the shoeshine boys and the trinket-selling girls. This is the intersection between under-engaged youth and skills shortages among those living in poverty, creating interlocking barriers that affect kids long before they reach legal working age.
Steps in the right direction include increasing parents and caregivers’ participation in developing curriculum and managing their kids’ education. A commitment to building basic schools, closer to communities with more women teachers would increase enrollments in economically vulnerable locations. Paying attention to basic water and sanitation facilities at those schools with flexible timetables will also keep girls in school for longer.
Communities can look at partnering with local government agencies or nonprofits to create scholarships and bursaries to assist families who have lost a young income earner or household labourer. I know that the KOTO graduates (and others like them in similar programmes around the world) won’t find themselves in the circumstances that they were in before they joined the programme because besides that piece of paper they earned, they also now have hope and renewed self-confidence.
My favourite superhero, Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl shot in the head four years ago by the Taliban in Pakistan agrees. “Let us pick up our books and pens,” she has told UN audiences. “They are our most powerful weapons.”
Dana McNairn is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise providing vocational training for at-risk youth