‘We were not considered poor before, but now, things have changed,’ - Hien, mother of four
In Viet Nam, almost 11 per cent of children suffer from multi-dimensional poverty (2022).[i] UNICEF Viet Nam supports the development of a social protection system that ensures every child reaches their full potential.
“I am doing all I can for my four boys to complete high school. I want them to have a better future,” Hien shares as she wipes drips of sweat off the face of her 12-year-old son Huy after his soccer match.
Like 70 per cent of households that cut down on food expenses for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic,2 Hien had to reduce what’s on the table every meal and could no longer afford food that provides important nutrients for her children’s development. One year on since the end of the lockdown measures, the family’s economic situation hasn’t recovered. Hien continues to cut from essential needs while the existing fragmented social protection system is not prepared to adequately meet the needs of families like hers.
In Da Nang and other provinces, UNICEF Viet Nam is supporting the local authorities to strengthen the social protection system to be more child-sensitive, gender- and shock-responsive – one that connects children and their families with health care, nutritious food and quality education to ensure every child has a fair chance in life.
The far-reaching impacts of crises
Living in an outer district of the coastal city of Da Nang, Hien runs a bún mắm (Vietnamese fermented fish noodle soup) stall near the banks of the Cam Le river. Before the pandemic, she earned between 200,000 and 300,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND), equivalent to US$ 8 -12 a day – enough to take care of the whole family.
“It was good business,” she reflects.
“I wish my mom worked closer to home so she could come back earlier,” Huy shares.
However, like millions, COVID-19 took a toll on Hien’s family. After months of pandemic measures, with businesses closed and construction projects stalled, their total income dropped by half.
Across Viet Nam, the pandemic exacerbated poverty and deepened disparities. Like Hien, more than 10 million people lost their jobs or experienced a decrease in income.3 This in turn intensified impacts on the most vulnerable children, including Hien’s four children who continue to lack access to essential services. “After a long time off, I lost a lot of customers. We were not considered poor before, but now, things have changed,” Hien says.
The pandemic’s socio-economic impacts seep into all corners of Hien’s life, especially her children’s learning, nutrition, and early childhood development. The education of her third child, Thanh, has been interrupted; he is supposed to be in Grade 2 but has just started first grade.
“My biggest fear is if my children get sick, I can’t afford to have them treated. I am nervous. I can’t bear watching them in pain without being able to do anything,” Hien says.
Social assistance, the solution
In another district in Da Nang city, Hoa Vang, Phuong’s family was also impacted by the pandemic. However, thanks to the government’s cash assistance, the family is better equipped to respond to the economic shock.
“Her family was heavily affected by COVID-19. The father couldn’t go to work. The mother was sick,” social worker Le Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, who participated in UNICEF-supported social worker training and provides regular support to the family, remembers.
The only room in Phuong's rented space is divided into two by some carton pieces. One side is for Phuong and her husband, and the other is for her12-year-old daughter Thuy Duong and 8-year-old son, Anh Khoa. The two children are close and happen to have the same birthday. On her rusty bike, Duong takes her little brother to school in the early morning, and each night, under the ceiling taped in dotted star decals, she whispers secrets and giggles with him before falling asleep.
“Not to mention, their daughter has a mental disability,” Van continues.
It is difficult to notice Duong’s disability when she plays with her Rubik’s cube. Cross-legged, with eyes intently fixed on the colorful rows of the cube, she skillfully moves her fingers around its shiny edges and corners.
“When she was a baby, she was very slow. She learned to walk slowly and learned to talk slowly,” Phuong recalls. “When she entered first grade, she was behind her friends.”
As Duong has a mental disability, her family receives social assistance from the government, which amounts to approximately VND800,000 ($40) a month.
“Social assistance for children is very important because investing in them is investing in the future of the city and country,” Le Van Minh, Deputy Director of Da Nang Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (DOLISA), says.
The assistance is significant in alleviating some financial burdens for Phuong’s family. Thanks to this support, even during COVID-19, Phuong could invest in her children’s education and nutrition.
“Since then, Duong has been able to improve significantly. She had to repeat her first grade, but was able to go to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades smoothly,” Phuong recalls.
Not only is Duong doing better in school, but the family’s overall well-being is also enhanced.
“I am very happy and thankful, even if she is slower compared to her peers,” Phuong continues; her dream for two children is the same as Hien’s. “I will work hard to give my children an education. My hope is that they can finish high school.”
For households living in poverty, cash assistance provides direct support to address children's basic needs and access to education, health and protection. It is a powerful way to effectively address child poverty and vulnerability. In addition, cash assistance protects families from economic shocks caused by unemployment, illness, natural disasters or pandemics.
“Evidence highlights that universal cash benefits provided to families with children in middle-income countries at a cost of just one per cent of GDP would lead to a 20 per cent decline in poverty across the entire population,”4 Nguyen Thi Trang, UNICEF Viet Nam’s Social Policy Officer, states. “When the benefits are linked to access to essential services, social protection has a positive impact on the health and education of children and the livelihoods of households.”
No child left behind
In Viet Nam, only 10 per cent of children and less than one per cent of those under three have access to cash assistance.5 Spending on childcare and protection accounted for 0.2 per cent of government spending on social security (2020).6 Meanwhile, only 0.3 per cent of GDP during 2020-2021 was allocated to social assistance to respond to COVID-19, compared to an average of 5 per cent of GDP invested by other countries in the region.7
UNICEF supports the Government of Viet Nam to generate evidence, build capacity and identify fiscal space options to strengthen the child-sensitive, gender and shock- responsive social protection system. At sub-national level, we are working with partners to explore expanding child-sensitive social assistance coverage and value. Kon Tum and Dien Bien, two other provinces in Viet Nam, have already endorsed the expansion of social assistance in order to reach more vulnerable children.
In Da Nang city, over the next two years, UNICEF will support the development of child-sensitive and shock-responsive social assistance scheme, including the possibility of piloting a cash plus programme that aims to increase coverage of cash assistance for children aged 0 to 3 and promote the linkage between cash transfers and access to basic social services.
Tu, Hien’s fourth child, will turn three this year. He rarely cries, loves exploring on bare feet, and does not hesitate to share sweets with new friends. With this UNICEF-supported program, children like him can grow up to their full potential, like the hope that propels his parents forward to create a better life for their children.
[i] GSO & UNICEF (2022). Study on multi-dimensional child poverty.
Reimagine a better future for every child
UNICEF (2020). Rapid assessment on the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on children and families in Viet Nam. <https://www.unicef.org/vietnam/reports/rapid-assessment-social-and-economic-impacts-covid-19-children-and-families-viet-nam>, pp. 10
ODI & UNICEF (2020). Universal child benefits: policy issues and options. < https://www.unicef.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/UCB-ODI-UNICEF-Report-2020.pdf>
UNICEF Viet Nam (2020). Policy Brief: Child Sensitive Social Protection in Viet Nam.