Tu Nguyen gave up a sought-after job in a mission to help young people in Vietnam better understand sex and sexuality.
While the coronavirus pandemic halted class activities amid the months-long school suspension in Vietnam, WE still managed to get to people’s homes through their Rise and Shine gift box. There are several different variations of the box, designed for different age groups, but all have five segments containing 30 items which provide a guided learning experience.
The secret corner is where students learn about things which parents and teachers might deem sensitive, Tu explains.
“For teens (12-15), they learn about contraceptive methods like condoms, pregnancy test sticks, menstruation pads, and a general explainer on LGBT issues. For kids (8-11), the secret corner teaches them about sexual violation, how to defend themselves, the boundary of intimacy, and the concept of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender),” he said.
Tu highlights the importance of children trusting in parents, enabling a sound understanding and application of their knowledge when it comes to sex, their sexualities, bodies and self-identities – so the box includes a separate activity for parents and children to complete together.
After almost a year and a half in operation, the startup has taught more than 400 students and connected with more than a dozen schools (with more than 4,000 students).
But gaining access to Vietnamese schools as crusaders for sex-ed was not easy especially since the group’s teaching philosophy contrasts starkly with the abstinence-based approach of traditional Vietnamese educators and parents. The four needed to find connections to score a meeting with school leaders, deliver a series of presentations about their curriculum, and then proceed to provide free demo classes to dozens of students before schools would make a decision.
“The challenge is to gain trust in teachers,” Tu said.
“Our team is too young and our background isn’t youth education. We didn’t have much startup experience, so we had to learn a lot of things, there were also many trials and errors.”
Lack of trained teachers
Linh, one of the cofounders, highlights a formidable foe to their business: The lack of trained sex-ed teachers in Vietnam.
“That’s because there is no one training people in this (sex-ed) in our country, so we have to train our staff and make sure they are qualified.”
One of their upcoming projects, which aims to engage 100 high school student leaders and incubate 15 gender equality initiatives around Hanoi to lead the gender equality movement, won funding from the US Department of State last month. Tu declined to reveal the amount of the award.
“The team members, although young, are already dedicated community leaders who have been working for years in the area of gender equality, so we knew they could successfully implement this project,” Rachael Chen, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Hanoi told Al Jazeera.
One of the team’s major successes was a contract with Vinschool, a K-12 private school owned by Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest conglomerate, to co-author a sex-ed curriculum. The programme has been in use in its 32 campuses since September.
While avoiding unwanted pregnancies is the government’s chief motivation in providing sex-ed, parents are more concerned about sexual abuse and violence.
Last year, many Vietnamese were enraged by reports of the sexual harassment of young women and underage students, which exposed Vietnam’s feeble legal enforcement for sexual assault and protection.
A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February said Vietnam’s sex-ed policies and practices did not meet international standards, and noted that it did not include mandatory discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, including LGBT issues.
Last November, the Ministry of Education and Training officially approved a guideline for teachers from kindergarten to grade 12 to adopt comprehensive sex and sexuality education in their curriculums.
But because there are so few teachers skilled in the subject the ministry has had to draft separate training materials too, according to Dr Tu Anh.
“To be able to teach sex-ed necessitates not just knowledge but also the right awareness and attitude. One can’t teach sex and sexual rights and still refer to them as bad, taboo, and harmful,” she said.
The founders of WeGrow Edu are under no illusions about the challenges ahead, which is why it favours an inclusive and system-wide approach to an often sensitive subject.
“There is no one single solution that can address a systematic problem. Schools can put all their energy in teaching the subject [sex-ed] but if parents still force girls to wash the dishes because they are girls when they come home then all efforts will be for nothing. That’s why WE tries to incorporate every actor in students’ life as much as we can, step by step,” Linh said.
Reporting by Sen Nguyen @ Aljazeera