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Hope for children forced to beg

In a special report from Vietnam Jeremy Sutcliffe meets young people trapped by extreme poverty - and investigates moves to help them get an education and work

Pham Van Cuong is one of the lucky ones. Now 18, he is training to be a chef, learning French and Vietnamese cuisine. He has every prospect of getting a good job in one of the smarter hotels or restaurants in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. His future looks secure.

But it wasn't always like that. Six years ago, Cuong left his home in Thanh Hoa province, 100 miles away, and boarded the bus for the capital in search of work. He was 12 years old.

"I came here with my friend. My parents had five children and they were very poor and didn't have enough to feed us all. I was the oldest. So I decided to come to Hanoi to earn a living.

"At the time my only thought was to get enough food to eat. I was very nervous and scared. Everything was very strange.

"I started cleaning shoes for money. I earned enough to feed myself, but I lived on the streets for a year."

Every day children like Cuong are making similar journeys, forced by extreme poverty to leave their families in the provinces and head for Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. They hope to find food, shelter and to earn enough to live on. But many fail, falling into street crime, drug addiction or prostitution. Many become the victims of sexual or physical abuse, and sometimes murder.

These street children are an extreme example. But millions of ordinary children living in Vietnam also experience severe hardship. Poverty in the provinces is so widespread that even the majority, who grow up with their families and go to school in the mornings, have to spend long hours working in the fields from an early age.

A decade after the country's ruling communist party introduced its own version of perestroika - doi moi - most families in this still mainly rural country remain critically dependent on children to contribute to the household larder.

But with the accelerating switch to a market economy, paid child labour is becoming widespread. According to a recent report by Save the Children, the employment of children as young as 10 is growing. It varies from seasonal day labouring - helping out with the rice harvest - to long-term work for small businesses and sweatshops.

Some families are forced, through sheer poverty, into renting out, selling or giving away their children. Some are sent by their parents to work in mines at Vietnam's new Klondyke, in the remote and mountainous Bac Kan province, where gold deposits found in the early 1990s led to a gold rush. Children caught trying to run away from the mines' harsh conditions can expect corporal punishment and physical abuse.

The children most likely to be driven on to the streets come from the poorest families. Often one or both parents will be sick, disabled, have left home or have died. It is these children who are forced to go in search of work or face starvation. Some cross the border into China to do seasonal work or head for Vietnam's coffee plantations.

But many, like Cuong, go to the big cities. Here they try to eke a living by polishing shoes, collecting rubbish, selling postcards or begging. No one really knows how many street children there are. Official estimates put the figure at 20,000 for the whole country. But unofficial estimates are far higher - 30,000 in Ho Chi Minh City alone, with perhaps as many more living and working on the streets of Hanoi. But, say aid agencies, these are low estimates.

According to Joanna Clark, field director for Save the Children (UK) in Hanoi, about half of these children will have come into the cities on their own and are homeless. The rest may have a settled place to stay, be living on the streets with their families, or go home after a day's work to live with their families.

There are numerous initiatives aimed at helping bring employment, food, clothing shelter - and education - to these children. One of the best known is To Ban Bao Xa Me - an agency dedicated to helping homeless street children set up in business selling newspapers. Another is Nha Tinh Thuong - literally, Loving Family - which helps feed homeless children.

Since the early 1990s - when doi moi was accelerated following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vietnam's former ally, restrictions on families' movements have been eased, making it easier to travel in search of work. But because Vietnamese citizens still have to be registered in their permanent place of abode, most street children are not registered in the cities.

This makes it far more difficult for them to get access to education. While the first concern of the children themselves - and the government agencies and independent charities that help them - is food, shelter and employment there are a number of schemes to try to ensure they get a basic education, learning to read and write. Not all of these are popular. Some of the bigger government institutions round up often reluctant children and put them into what are technically schools, but are disliked for being impersonal and too formal. Many children prefer living on the streets, where they are less restricted.

But other schemes are more compassionate. The Communist Party affiliated Women's Union supports "street educators" who hold informal schools - which might, for example be on the steps of an office - in the evenings. Such street schools have proved popular with the children. Some schools - and individual teachers - also run voluntary classes after hours for homeless children.

Despite having to overcome its many problems such as the legacy of wars with China, Cambodia and the US and the transition to a free market economy, Vietnam's literacy rate remains high, officially 91 per cent. Aid agencies put it at 85 per cent, but this still reflects the high value put on education under a communist system underpinned by traditional Confucian values.

At least for Cuong, compassion has brought rewards. After a year living on the streets, he was taken on by To Ban Bao Xa Me, given somewhere to live and earned a living selling newspapers for four years. In July 1996 he began to train as a chef at the charity-funded Hua Sua training school.

Soon, he hopes, he will get a decent job, doing something he likes. But, having once lived on Hanoi's streets, he is cautious. "I do not have any dreams," he says. "I only wish to live a normal life."

VSO in Vietnam, Friday magazine

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