We sat down with the CEO and founder of Coins For Change, a charity seeking to empower women in Vietnam, to find out how her own experiences as a single mother on the fringes of society propelled her to help others.
“It’s actually my daughter’s birthday today,” says Tang Duyen Hong as she sits down to discuss a decade’s worth of work in Vietnam’s charity sector. In fact, those two facets of her life are inextricably linked, because it also marks the day ten years ago that Hong found herself in the precarious position of being a single mother in Vietnam. Alone and depressed, she sought solace the only way she felt she could, via a personal blog. Much to her surprise, she struck a chord with many young Vietnamese women in similar situations. Seeing that so many of her community were struggling, she felt a responsibility to make a difference and so Coins For Change, an organisation focusing on women’s empowerment, was brought into existence. On a mission to end the stigma surrounding single motherhood in her country and determined to uplift women and give them real chances, she sat down to tell us her story.
Hong believes that the issues surrounding women’s rights Vietnam are unique, in the sense that they remain relatively hidden. Thanks to a high visibility of women in the workplace and an education system well open to them, it’s easy to see a supportive community. “I think if you come here as a tourist, you’re not going to see any problems. We have women working in the office, women have good positions in companies and even in the government. It seems that we have equal rights with men,” explains Hong.
“However, if you stay longer, you will see that women have many burdens. Firstly, we need to be good workers, secondly good housekeepers, and then you also need to be a good daughter in law.” There is also a huge cultural taboo attached to single motherhood. “The most important thing for women is to be a virgin before marriage. So, if you become a mother without marriage, you are dirty,” says the campaigner. “You will be kicked out of the community and stigmatised. I think it is the same for any vulnerable group in Vietnam. The community is very important, and you need to fit the standards to be a member. You only need to have a different opinion and then you also become stigmatised.”
Coins For Change primarily focuses on uplifting single mothers but also helps other disadvantaged female demographics through their two programmes: The Empowerment Plan and Teach for Change. The Empowerment Plan seeks to teach useful skills that can help women establish independence and stability. One of their initiatives is Her Craft, a programme teaching handicraft skills.
“We are trying to build a brand for handmade toys and accessories, working with single mothers and the Katu ethnic minority from the centre of Vietnam near Da Nang. I hope we can build up the production and distribution, and it can be an individual brand. The products can then be sold to make money to fund vocational training, for development and research etc.” Another programme run under the same banner is Her Kitchen, which teaches women cooking skills so they can provide F&B services in their own homes, helping to give them earning power.
The Teach For Change arm of the charity focuses on learning English in the context of cultural exchange, pairing English-speaking volunteers with schools and language centres. It is an international, volunteer-based scheme particularly popular with young adults from Europe and America who wish to teach English to Vietnamese children and women. Although learning English is a much-coveted skill in Vietnam, and one known to increase job prospects, lessons can be expensive, and in harder to reach areas, there isn’t always access to teaching via schools. Coins for Change are seeking to redress the balance, giving their women lessons for free in exchange for a wonderful volunteer experience for their teachers.
“Our programme is totally different,” says Hong. “We organise many cultural exchanges so that Vietnamese kids can open their minds and see that there are many ways to live. Not just to become doctors or engineers to make a lot of money. Vietnamese kids can also do something like this in the future.” At the moment, Teach for Change has 11 learning centres in eight different provinces based mainly in rural areas in the North of the country. The long-term plan is to establish a network across the North, Centre and South. Hong hopes that, in ten years time, Teach for Change will become the go-to organisation for anyone seeking to volunteer to teach English abroad. If you’d like to donate or learn more about Coins For Change please follow the links below.