By Ha Thi Quynh Nga, Strategic Partnerships Lead, CARE International in Vietnam

After a car drive of over two hours from Dien Bien city, with all the ups and downs in the mountains, we finally arrived at the center of Toa Tinh commune. Toa Tinh is a mountainous commune of Tuan Giao district, Dien Bien province. It lies next to the old National Highway 6 and at the top of the Pha Din pass, one of the longest and most spectacular mountain passes in the North West of Vietnam. My sickness feeling due to the bumpy road quickly disappeared right after I got out of the car. I took a deep breath of cold, fresh air. Right now, I was at 1,600 meters above sea level.

The birth of Son Tra Group

Most of the roads leading to these villages are still dirt roads, which makes it difficult to get around especially during the rainy season. Photo: Ha Thi Quynh Nga/CARE

More than half of the households in Toa Tinh are poor or near poor. Almost 100% belong to the H’Mong ethnic group who mainly relies on agriculture for a living. Life is hard life here. Each person earns on average 8 million dong, or 345 US dollars, per year. Only 3 out of 7 villages have electricity. Leading to these villages are mostly dirt roads, which makes it difficult to get around, especially during the rainy season.

The place we visited is Hua Sa A village, just a 15 minute walk from the commune center. It shares a lot of similarities with the whole commune: 44 out of 108 households are poor and 16 near poor. The women used to attended Vietnamese language classes, yet many became illiterate again. People mostly live on agricultural cultivation and small animal husbandry.

Through the Reach to Excel project and support from P&G since September 2018, CARE International in Vietnam set up a self-managed savings and loans group (Village Savings and Loan Association – VSLA) in Hua Sua A. This is done via the collaboration with the Women’s Union of Dien Bien Province, Dien Bien Center of Community Development, the Women’s Union of Tuan Giao District and Toa Tinh Commune. The members named their group Son Tra, a local apple tree strongly associated with the northwestern mountains. The Son Tra group consists of 19 women members from diverse education backgrounds: some are illiterate while others have a college and vocational training degree. They meet twice a month to save, borrow, and contribute to a reserved fund for emergencies in addition to having topical discussions.

H’Mong women are often shy in public spaces and have very few chances to get together. I could sense some hesitation in the first minutes of the meeting. But they quickly became more natural and comfortable. Because they have visitors, all women put on their most beautiful dresses. 

Because they have visitors, all women put on their most beautiful dresses. Photo: Ha Thi Quynh Nga/CARE

Improved financial management skills for more independence

We had a chance to observe a VSLA meeting. In spite of not understanding H’Mong language, I could clearly sense the confidence of these women when they took turns to put their hard earned cash to the common pool, contribute to the reserve fund and lend money to other members. All 19 members strictly followed the group’s charter. For more than a year, women in Son Tra group have saved over 45,000,000 VND (over 1,900 USD). A number of members borrowed from the pooled fund to invest in their crop or animals, send their kids to school or buy household necessities. 

The group members took turns to save in the common pool, contribute to the reserve fund and lend money to members. Photos: Le Xuan Hieu/CARE

“I got a loan of 2 million dong [86 USD] at the beginning of the school year to buy new clothes and books for my kids,” ” I borrowed 10 million dong [430 USD] to buy garments and invest in my tailor shop.” These were just some of the answers when I asked the group members why they would borrow. They also said they tried to save between 40,000-200,000 dong per month, or roughly 1.8-8.6 USD.

Challenging social norms on the role of women

CARE in Vietnam has supported different communities in the north of Vietnam to set up hundreds of VSLAs . However, Son Tra is one of the few VSLAs of H’Mong women. H’Mong people have an old saying that goes, “Nine girls are not equal to one boy”. A young H’Mong girl living with her parents is just considered “temporary”, as she is expected to get married and move out soon. They also go around less than women from other ethnic groups. This is because they either don’t speak Vietnamese or can’t ride a motorbike and, thus, have to depend on their husbands. Men also make decision on most major household issues.

After the VSLA meeting, we saw the women play a game that copied the TV game show “The Price is Right”. It turned out that the women correctly guessed the prices of most small and daily consumption products but failed to do so for high-value products such as TV set or motorbike. When asked who made the final decision in terms of buying expensive and precious items, many said it was their husband. However, some women did not share the same answer, which then led to a debate on who should decide. The game ended with strong encouragement from the group leader that women should be more confident, and that they should be proactive in discussing various issues with their husbands, thus building a happy family and setting an example for their children. 

Since I joined this group, I have started to discuss more with my husband. He has listened more. Now I don’t have to ask for his permission to do things.

Mrs. Hang Thi Manh, Son Tra VSLA member

The meeting concluded with laughter in the air as the women received presents from P&G. I left feeling hopeful for change in the roles and voice of H’Mong women in their families and community. 

Reach to Excel – Enhanced Financial Inclusion for Ethnic Minority Women is a project funded by P&G. It promotes the economic empowerment of ethnic minority women in four northern mountainous provinces of Vietnam: Dien Bien, Son La, Hoa Binh and Bac Kan. Implemented from January 2018 to December 2019, the project benefited over 5,000 ethnic minority women directly and 20,000 community members indirectly through the establishment of village saving and loan associations (VSLAs), coaching on VSLA operations, gender dialogues and financial literacy training.