Ngày Qu Ốc tế Phụ nữ - International Women’s Day
Celebrating the unsung
When talking about inspirational women, we typically refer to those who rise in the face of adversity, speak their truth, stand tall in a (white) man’s world, and make history. Maya Angelou. The Williams sisters. Nightingale. Greer. Malala.
But why should we limit our inspiration to those who are famed by their accomplishments?
On International Women’s Day, the Start Network is paying tribute to the unsung warriors of this world. The mothers. The carers. The workers. For so many women and girls, to provide for their family is an achievement that far eclipses any prize.
Last week I was privileged to meet several such women in the highlands and the lowlands of Vietnam. The primary objective of my visit was to assess Start Fund projects and to ensure compliance quality and accountability to affected communities, Start Network members, and our donors. But it was also an opportunity for us to learn from our programmes and local partners, to better shape future projects.
Vietnam and the Start Fund
Vietnam was awarded funding from the Start Fund for the first time in October 2017 after an alert was raised for flash flooding and landslides in the northern provinces. Only weeks later, a second alert was raised following the devastation resulting from typhoon Damrey – the strongest typhoon to strike south-central Vietnam since 2001. At the time of writing, the Start Fund has awarded more to Vietnam than to any other country in this financial year. Save the Children, Care International, and Catholic Relief Services each implemented 45-day Start Fund projects in response to these crises.
How flooding affected women Sang Pao and how they responded
In the early hours of an October morning in Sang Pao hamlet, in the mountainous area of northern Vietnam, flash floods and landslides swept away livestock and belongings, damaged homes, and flooded rice fields and fish ponds. Lives were tragically lost.
I spoke to eight women and girls who received support from Save the Children through the Start Fund. One woman, with a young girl on her back wrapped snugly in a hmong, worked dried bark string into a skirt as she spoke. With an unreserved strength she explained the impact of the flooding on her family, her loss, and how she used the cash she was provided by the Start Fund. Like her, all the women I spoke with in this village used the money for clothes and food for their family, as well as shoes for their children to be able to attend school.
The women were among the poorest in Sang Pao. While they were very appreciative of the support they were provided, their loss was significant. Their greatest needs were new large livestock and support in repairing drainage systems for the rice and vegetable fields that they cultivate through long days, all destroyed by the flooding. Their resilience in the face of such loss, to continue to nurture their children and work the land to sustain a livelihood, was immeasurable.
Typhoon Damrey and the story of five women
The next day, over 700km to the south of the country, a lady called Thua invited me into her home to talk about the Typhoon Damney which struck in November.
Thua described the flash flooding that came down like a wave from the mountains, bringing over a metre of muddy floodwater into the home she shares with her husband and their two children (aged one and four). She had never seen anything like it before. As she bounced the baby on her hip, she shyly spoke of her loss of food supplies and how 70% of the paper trees in the area were lost. She and her husband are casual labourers, dependent on the trees for their livelihood. Thua received an invitation letter shortly after the storm, to come to the hamlet meeting where the community would discuss who was to receive support from Save the Children. As one of the poorest in the village, she was provided with 1,500,000VND (around £48) which she used to purchase one month’s worth of food, as well as milk for her baby. Thua explained that had she not received this support, she would have had to borrow from others who had also been badly affected.
Ninety-one-year-old Hoa described how she lost her livestock in the storm – a sow and her 10 piglets, as well as around a dozen chickens and ducks. She uses her livestock for food and to sell on at the local market. Without hesitation, Hoa told of how she has never seen flooding like this in her long life. Despite her loss and gentle nature, Hoa has an air of unquestionable strength and her presence is radiant. I offer her a hand as we move to take her portrait and she barely notices as she bounds down the steps towards the house, joking about where best to stand in the light.
Hang and Nhi
Nhi is a five-year-old with an intellectual disability and severe disability of the legs. Unable to walk, she rests on her mother’s knee with a peacefulness one rarely sees in a child of this age. Her gentle-speaking mother, Hang, has two other children and is a casual worker, harvesting the paper trees like Thua. After the storm they had no source of income for around two months. Hang received 1,500,000 VND through the Start Fund response, which she used to buy medicine for her daughter and milk and food for her children. As she gently massaged Nhi’s feet, she explained how she used to take her daughter to physiotherapy for the first three years of her life but can no longer afford it. As she talks, Nhi lovingly wraps her arms around her mothers’ neck.
Tien has four children, including her beaming girls, Trinh (10) and Trang (8), who, when not pouring over a comic book, lock their arms gently around their mothers’ neck and stroke her long hair with loving affection. The house is a beautiful turquoise, but the neck-high stains from the muddied floodwater have left their damaging mark. Tien has a long-term illness in her throat that means she is unable to work her small paddy field and bean plantation. Her husband is currently bedridden with severe spinal pain. Tien explains how she purchased 50kg of rice, enough to feed the family of six for almost two months, with the money provided by Catholic Relief Services. Had she not received this support, she tells us, she would have had to buy the rice with credit, to be paid back in kind with a very high rate of interest. This would have left her at a loss in the next harvest season.
She wants to explain that she and her husband work very hard. If it wasn’t for their poor health, she is confident that things would be fine. This is their biggest challenge. They now invest in their four children, which gives them hope for the future. Tien later received some help from the community and describes how the criteria for this support is not only to be poor, but to demonstrate a strength and willingness to cope and help oneself.
To raise children with the love, joy, and selflessness these mothers demonstrated is an all-too-often overlooked achievement. To do it with courage and strength, while working as a casual labourer in the heat, and in the face of powerful winds and flooding, is truly inspirational. As a working mother, I will look towards women like Tien, Hang, Hoa, and Thua for my inspiration when life is most challenging.
They are the warrior women.
Laura Lousie Fairley is Start Fund Programmes Officer.