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VIETNAM: Hard Times Put Lunar New Year on Hold for Children

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Feb 10 2010 (IPS) - There will be no Tet (Lunar New Year) for Doan Hung this year. As festivities heat up for the Year of the Tiger, which starts on Feb. 14, the 12-year-old boy is busy selling lottery tickets on the streets.

“Today, I’ve sold just seventeen tickets,” Hung lamented. He usually manages to sell at least 20 tickets a day, bringing home around 20,000 dong (1 U.S. dollar) to add to his parents’ meagre income.

Unlike past years, Hung has no time to dream of traditional glutinous rice cakes or new clothes that he and his sister used to receive from his parents at this most festive time of the year.

Proud to give his parents a helping hand, Hung said that he has been selling tickets for the past six months “since the day my mum and then my dad lost their jobs at Tan Tao industrial park”.

After Hung dropped out of school, his younger sister stays home to do all the cooking.

Their story is far from the only such case, because government figures show an increase in the number of children abandoning school in this country of more than 86 million people. According to the Ministry of Education, 138,000 children and high school students left school during the 2007-2008 schoolyear. The number has since increased to 147,000.

“The State has many policies — free textbooks, free tuition for children in rural and mountainous regions for instance — but they all did not help to bring back children to school. Inflation makes people think firstly of food and clothing,” Truong Thi Mai, head of Social Affairs Department at the National Assembly said.

Hung’s parents were among the first to be let go by their employer, a garment and footwear exporter. “They tried to apply for work at companies producing for the domestic market, but there too, companies have also slowed down production and diminished their workforce,” he said.

As Vietnam’s exports continue to be affected by the global financial crisis, companies and manufacturers like the Tan Tao industrial park saw their overseas orders go down and have had to cut jobs or slow down production.

In 2009, Vietnam recorded an economic growth of just 5.2 percent, the lowest in the last 11 years. Its year-on-year inflation rate of 28 percent early last year was the highest among Asian countries. In the first quarter of 2009 alone, Vietnam’s economic growth slowed to 3.1 percent.

Although Vietnam might not have been hit as hard as neighbouring countries such as Thailand or Singapore, it did see a sudden decline in production among small and medium enterprises and a worsening bankruptcy rate.

Statistics released in March 2009 by the Ministry of Labour-Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) show that by the end of February 2009, some 938 enterprises closed down and 976 exporting enterprises slowed production. This resulted in 74,500 jobs lost, 37,700 people unemployed, and 14,900 workers temporarily laid off.

Adding more pressure to the unemployment situation is the return of some 3,000 Vietnamese workers who lost their jobs overseas. In 2009, the government announced a stimulus package to support SMEs in order to help businesses survive and keep jobs. Initially set at 6 billion dollars in January 2009, it has since been increased to 8 billion dollars. The government also decided to extend it to 2010. Hung’s parents, who could not profit directly from the stimulus package, were fortunate enough to get some temporary jobs at a construction company that renovates private homes for the lunar new year.

“It’s okay for the time being. Our parents could buy us things to pay tribute to our ancestors and celebrate the Year of the Tiger. But I don’t know what will happen (to us) after that,” Hung said sadly. Already, economic worries have lowered consumer spending. With tighter budgets, companies have lowered workers’ bonuses or 13th month pay for Tet. This leaves many with little money to spend during the biggest money- spending time of the year. Many families have been forced to spend less on food, health care and the schooling of their children. They are also worried about looming price rises, such as those of electricity, which is expected to increase in March.

Thus far, Vietnam has taken pride in its impressive economic growth in recent decades and its success in poverty reduction. Its poverty rate fell from 17.2 percent in 2001 to less than 7 percent in 2005, official figures say. However, this rose to 19.5 percent in 2008 and 2009.

As families tighten their belts, investments in children’s welfare get affected as well, as Hung and his sister’s plight shows. Already, MoLISA itself says that 7.6 million Vietnamese children could be rated as “needy” because they could not enjoy at least two of the rights stipulated by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). About 7.6 million Vietnamese children do not have adequate housing, five million lack basic hygiene facilities, 2.4 million have no clean drinking water; 3.4 million could not access information, two million suffer from malnutrition; and .3 million do not go to school.

Another sign of hard times can be seen in how more parents, especially those who have lost their jobs, are keeping toddlers and younger children home instead of sending them to day care. These day care centres or crèches charge almost 500,000 dong (27 dollars), per month per child.

“We have seen a large enrollment decrease in the last two years,” said Nguyen Thi Nguyet, 46, owner of a day care centre near Bay Hien Carrefour, a well-known textile manufacturing district in HCMC. Nguyet’s crèche used to have 20 to 30 children, but now only has six. She says she is not sure if she will be open for business next year.

Other crèches near Thi Nghe Bridge, a popular quarter in HCMC also report a significant decline in enrollment.

“Economic growth coupled with better social security policies have contributed a lot to poverty reduction. But the problem of poor children is becoming more and more widespread and acute,” said MoLISA Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

She says poverty among children has serious repercussions for their physical and mental development, arguing that they should get priority in intervention measures against poverty. “The reduction and elimination of poverty for children is still one of the basic policies on child protection, care and education in Vietnam,” she said.

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

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