DA NANG, Viet Nam, 30 May 2013 – For children at the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange, the end of a daily two-hour journey has turned into the beginning of a new life: doing things they have never done before.
A year ago, most of these children were forgotten or neglected, seen as a burden by their families. Once known for what they couldn’t do, now they are slowly becoming known for what they can do.
The Da Nang area was a hot spot for Agent Orange, a dioxin compound used during the Viet Nam war to defoliate dense jungle cover. Today there are an estimated 1,400 children in Da Nang with disabilities linked to dioxin contamination. Of around 200 children benefitting from UNICEF-supported day care centres here, about 60 per cent are thought to be victims of Agent Orange.
For some of the children at the centre, they’re learning how to dress and eat and wash themselves on their own – some for the first time. And they’re learning how to write or draw, discovering new tools, new skills, and making new friends. The social workers are starting to see the difference.
“The first time I worked with the children, when I slept the children hit me on the head. I cried a lot. I was very scared and thought I should stop working here – I can’t continue working,” said Nguyen Thi Cam, a social worker and teacher at the centre.
Children with disabilities study at the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange in Viet Nam. The UNICEF-supported pilot programme is making a difference in the lives of children and their families.
“But then I thought: No, I’m a social worker – I must try my best to help the children,” she says. “And now they seem very self-confident; they can do work such as writing, drawing, painting, singing a song, dancing. They can make products such as incense, flowers and T-shirts.”
Most of the children who attend the day-care centre have severe disabilities and can’t attend regular schools. The centres provide basic care, education, vocational training and rehabilitation services.
The Government of Viet Nam estimates there are around 1.3 million children with disabilities. Like children with disabilities in many countries, they are often stigmatized and discriminated against and have limited access to health care, education or other public services.
Legacy of war
They are victims of a war long passed – before they were even born – when their grandparents and parents were exposed to Agent Orange. Nhi’s grandmother has three grandchildren born with congenital defects. In the 1970s, she and her family fled their home because of heavy spraying of dioxin, which destroyed vegetation.
Few scientific studies have been conducted on the real impact of dioxin contamination, and the only available statistics are based on exposure.
Children learn sewing at the UNICEF-supported school, which educates children living with disabilities and provides them a safe space in which to play and learn new skills.
For Nhi’s grandmother, the centre has helped her and helped Nhi, who can now dress herself, sing songs and keep active.
“After going to the centre, she has made much progress, but not really her memory yet. I think that going to the centre is giving her a chance for better knowledge on how to take care of her family,” said Nhi’s Grandmother, Vo Thi Thoi.
A number of agencies and donors have been supporting the Viet Nam Government in the clean-up of dioxin, but only a third as much funding is going towards addressing the human costs of the war and helping children with disabilities.
A part of society
For Xuan, born with Down syndrome, being at the centre all day means that his family can get on with their lives again.
“When he started to crawl, I had to go to work to earn money to raise him, so I had to tie him to the bed or he would get lost, “ says Xuan’s grandmother, Le Thi Luu. “Now I can tell him that I am tired and ask him to bring the dishes out and to make tea. He can do exactly as I told him.”
Around the world, millions of children with disabilities are among the most discriminated against. They are left out and left behind. This year’s State of the World’s Children report calls for a new focus on these children, so that they, too, can be a part of society, and not apart from society.
By Sarah Crowe (unicef.org)