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A creative shift for Vietnam

Mental Health
Children drawing in Vietnam

Children with disabilities are benefiting from art classes in Vietnam. © Tohe

Housing, health, food and education are often the first things that spring to mind when considering how best to improve the lives of marginalized children around the world. Social innovators strive for years to achieve these fundamental goals – with varying levels of success.

But once there is a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food for them to eat, how do we provide these children with a quality of life enjoyed by those from more fortunate circumstances? After all, to achieve true sustainable change, we must aim to break the cycle that leads to these circumstances in the first place.

In Vietnam, community centres and orphanages funded by the Ministry of Labour, Invalid & Social Affairs provide the basic necessities for abandoned and disabled children. A great initiative by the government, for sure, and something many countries do not provide, but is it enough? The poor in Vietnam often deem those living with a mental or physical disability to be a burden; many are abandoned by their families to be cared for by the government. The conditions provided by these centres are extremely basic, yet often the children stay in them for their entire lives. Children without disabilities are moved to an adult centre when they are 18. Here, they undergo some basic vocational training to enable them to find work and are then released to fend for themselves.

Those children with disabilities who stay in the centres as adults are given little mental or social stimulation, other than what happens within the confines of their compound. An unfortunate by-product of funded support is that children with disabilities are encouraged to live within the centres, rather than supported to forge their own way in the world. Many of the residents would, with the appropriate support, be able to live normal lives in the outside world, but because ‘more residents’ equates to ‘more funding’, there is little incentive to provide such support.

Life in the centres can be monotonous; there is little to inspire or educate residents or even to help them gain awareness of what they can achieve. There are highly intelligent individuals within the centres who have never been provided the opportunity to fully realize their potential due to minor physical disabilities and lack of support. So what can be done within the confines of the system to implement sustainable change? To take the younger generation past the social chains that hold them back?

Social entrepreneurs Ngan Pham and Nguyen Nguyen are a new breed of citizen to be found across Vietnam. They are striving to create change in a unique way. What originally started as a hobby and recognition of the plight of disadvantaged children in their country has evolved into a venture whose aim is to create a sustainable difference in the lives of many. Their social enterprise, Tohe, aims to provide the creative and interactive engagement that so many of us take for granted. A host of simple art programmes has been designed to help develop self-confidence and expression in individuals normally not encouraged to live beyond their disabilities. In contrast to traditional thinking, especially regarding disabled individuals, the children are encouraged, supported and reinforced to think independently. A strong message is conveyed to them: irrespective of your differences and disabilities, you and your views matter. Tohe hopes to lead by example in the burgeoning creative industry of Vietnam. With our minds, imagination and a great dose of fun, anyone can find their place in society, regardless of their circumstances.

There is no quick fix to the issue of achieving sustainable change for marginalized children across the world. But perhaps all that is needed are more individuals to take action on the issues they see around them, in simple ways. After all, nobody really has the answers, but, like Tohe, we can extend a helping hand first and then figure out the rest along the way.

Yan Zhi Lai is a freelance writer and consultant from Australia committed to the development of social ventures around the world. You may contact him at [email protected]

Tohe is a Social Enterprise committed to the creative and personal development of the children of Vietnam.

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