By: Jaewon Son (Guest writer)

-The Case of Lao Cai Province, Vietnam-

This December, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is turning 70. Although it holds the Guinness World Record as the most translated document, a lack of fundamental human rights continues to shape the daily hardships faced by millions. One such group is the girls living in the Lao Cai Province in Vietnam, who continue to lack access to basic education, clean drinking water and toilets.

Gender equality and education are not only related to each other, but also to each of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth, and SDG 10, on reduced inequalities. Gender equality in education plays an especially important role in achieving SDG 4, which has as its goal to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This is reinforced by SDG 5 which promotes gender equality.

The Lao Cai Province, bordering Yunnan Province in China, is one of the poorest and most mountainous provinces in Vietnam. Women in the region are facing appalling human rights abuses, such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation. It also has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country. According to the Vietnam-Sweden Mountain Rural Development Project (MRDP), half of the people aged 10 and above are illiterate and female illiteracy rates are much higher than those for males, especially amongst ethnic minorities like the Hmong. Although girls’ enrollment rates in primary school are high, their attendance rate is comparatively low, and many of them end up dropping out of school.

In 2008, a powerful typhoon named Kammuri destroyed most of the water supply systems and washrooms of primary schools in the Lao Cai Province. Thereafter, only 47 percent of the schools had sanitary latrines and there were not enough separate toilets for girls and boys, which made girls regard school as an unsafe place for them. Although the government has built new schools in the province, they often still lack proper toilets and water supply systems.

Local authorities and citizens seem to have a different perspective on gender inequality and the right of girls to gain an education. Dr. Le Quoc Phuong, Deputy Director-General of Vietnam Industry and Trade Information Center, says that instead of sending the children to school, parents send them to work and fetch water, thinking that education does not provide much of a benefit compared to the opportunity cost of labor and the cost of education including tuition, textbooks and other materials.

Furthermore, water is hard to come by and has to be fetched from upper streams, since the province is located in a mountainous area. The water flow is often interrupted during the dry season when girls are sent to fetch water from far away, making it difficult for them to attend classes.  

All this is the case despite the fact that “everyone has a right to education,” according to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to education is a recognized human right enshrined in various international legal bases. Equal access to education for women and men is thus also an obligation for international society to carry out. Yet, the high illiteracy rate among women leads to a vicious cycle. Above all, it makes them increasingly marginalized as most decisions are made by men with higher education levels. Thus, by not having a direct way to express what they need in the decision-making process, male-dominated decision making will potentially worsen the inequality of girls’ access to education. Less schooling might be one factor of poverty, but poverty simultaneously limits children’s access to education which makes them unqualified for well-paying jobs, thus remaining poor.

However, increased girls’ access to education not only benefits the girls themselves, but also society at large and the next generation. With higher education, they will be able to participate more in the decision-making process and their knowledge and skills would be put to good use in the workplace. By educating mothers, their children will more likely have access to better education, thanks to improved educational policies. Thus, society as a whole will benefit from girls’ increased access to education.

For educational improvement, parents and policy implementers should understand the importance of enabling equal access to education and trying to reduce the barriers for girls’ education. As a developing province, a larger portion of Lao Cai’s budget should be provided by the central government and other countries to improve infrastructure, especially Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities, accommodation, and roads leading to schools. But above all, girls’ education will remain the same if public awareness of the value of education is not raised. As it will take considerable time to change ideas, values and opinions, related policies and projects must be managed with a long-term perspective.