By the age of 15, Nguyen Thi Thuy from Vu Xa Commune in northern Hung Yen Province's Kim Dong District already understood the hardships that over 20,000 street children have to endure in Viet Nam, trying to earn a living on the streets of big cities.
These difficulties helped her understand what true happiness was after she returned home and started attending school again with other children of her own age. She also started a special class where she and about 70 other disadvantaged children were taught to sew beads and make craft products to support their families.
Since 2003, Thuy is just one of thousands of beneficiaries of a project to help street children reintegrate into their communities.
The project, funded by the European Commission, was implemented in 10 cities and provinces by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs.
During its first phase from 2004-07, about 7,000 children were given access to healthcare, education and employment, and around 3,000 children returned home self sufficient, said Hoang Van Tien, deputy head of the ministry's Department of Child Care and Protection and also the project manager.
The project's achievements proved the effectiveness of the joint efforts of different sectors in the community including the families, social workers and enterprises.
Volunteers in particular played an important role in communication and raising public awareness while encouraging parents to ask their children to return home.
The project also created favourable conditions for families to improve their incomes by offering loans and job training courses for the children and their families.
The ministry has planned to set up and expand community-based models to support children in special circumstances, thought to be 1.53 million, accounting for 6 per cent of Viet Nam's child population.
The project is expected to help 80 per cent of disabled children access education, healthcare and other public services; 100 per cent of children abandoned or orphaned by HIV-infected parents get alternative care; and reduce child abuse and violence towards children as well as juvenile offenders.
This is one of the six projects included in a draft national programme by the ministry on child protection for the 2011-15 period.
Viet Nam had run programmes for children in the sectors of education and healthcare in the past, that helped effectively realise objectives set out in the National Action Plan for Children 2001-10, but did not have a child protection programme at the national level, said Nguyen Hai Huu, head of the ministry's Child Care and Protection Department.
The country needed a national programme to protect children because the issues of child abuse, child maltreatment, violence against children, child trafficking, child labour and children with HIV/AIDS were becoming more and more complicated. It would be a struggle to achieve the targets set out for child protection in the national action plan this year, said Huu.
He said the programme would solve the problems that Viet Nam had faced in the past, including the shortage of a comprehensive legal framework, poor awareness on the issue, staff shortages and poor social services.
He added that there was currently a huge shortage of professional social workers. There were about 160,000 volunteers working in hamlets in 2007 but that figure dropped to just 7,000 following the closure of the Committee for Population, Family and Children. The committee had been responsible for child protection but its role was taken over by the ministry. At higher levels, staff working in this field were forced to take on additional responsibilities in other fields, increasing their workload.
In terms of child protection services, Viet Nam has developed out-of-home care services including about 400 social centres that care for about 20,000 disadvantaged children while in-home-care services including consultations, supervision and early interventions are in the process of being developed.
The programme consists of six major projects on communication; improving staff; supervision and assessment of the implementation of children's rights; building child protection supply services; developing child protection support models; and adjusting the legal system accordingly.
The VND1,700 billion (US$87 million) programme will be implemented nationwide, covering children under the age of 16 with priorities given to poor children, children with special circumstances and victims of child abuse, along with the families and adults who are responsible for taking care of them.
It is aimed at creating an environment where all children, especially disadvantaged ones, are protected and have equal development opportunities, preventing and reducing the threat to children.
In detail, the programme is expected to reduce the rate of children with special circumstances from 6 per cent at present to 5.5 per cent in the next five years. 80 per cent of them would receive Government and community support and a further 70 per cent of vulnerable children would also be helped. Efficient child protection systems would also be set up across half of the nation's provinces and cities.
The draft programme has been studied by relevant ministries and agencies including the ministries of Education and Training, Finance, Public Security and Justice and Home Affairs, before being submitted to the Prime Minister by the end of this year. — VNS