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Special Report: How AWE Catalyzed Change in Vietnam Amidst Covid Restrictions

By Jennifer Lonergan, Kristina Babic, Juliana Blayney

January, 2024

AWE’s Impact in Vietnam During Covid Restrictions 

Although approaches to Covid throughout 2020, 2021, and part of 2022 greatly curtailed our work, AWE Global is proud to have continued supporting women during that time when it was most needed.  

As anticipated and then documented, women suffered disproportionately as a result of Covid restrictions, in part due to their precarious economic situation which was made worse by the Covid restrictions as they were unable to move to earn a living.  The increased poverty which resulted, combined with other factors, are believed to have led to a 30-40% increase in domestic violence. (Sources: UN Women; PAHO; OXFAM)

In the face of increasing demand, AWE remained committed to meeting the needs of women to the extent possible. In 2020, we delivered our planned training in Vietnam, though many participants had to drop out at the last minute due to travel restrictions.  Then, thanks to some nimble pivoting and innovation, AWE (then Artistri Sud) responded the following year by developing and implementing the new Hybrid Synchronous Learning Model (HSLM) in 5 locations around northern Vietnam, reaching over 75 women and training a dozen new trainers from our local partner, Action on Poverty. 

After these programs wrapped up, we were able to conduct a full assessment of the two years of programming which had been implemented during Covid.  Since the circumstances under which the programs were delivered were so unusual, and the impacts seemed likely to be out of the norm also, we decided to take this unique opportunity to test a new program evaluation approach.  We used the Gender Equality and Empowerment Measurement (GEM) Tool, which was developed by the Ministry of Global Affairs Canada specifically to collect data that reveals the gender equality and empowerment outcomes of development programming, in combination with our standard End-of-Program evaluation.  Over a period of several weeks, a small team, led by Country Director Kristina Babic, conducted focus group discussions and individual interviews in several regions in Vietnam.  The following is a summary of key results of their findings. 

Leveraging cultural heritage assets for increased revenue

Exploring opportunities for additional income streams is a key part of the training, as the diversification of revenue helps women build resilience. Leveraging heritage assets is a useful strategy because it both validates cultural identity and builds confidence in personal skills. “Before the training, I didn’t know that our traditions could be interesting to others," said Sung, a farmer living near the remote village of Nam Cang.  Sung, like 80% of respondents, reported that AWE’s training programs increased her knowledge and skills. She is currently exploring how traditional cultural practices can increase her income, in collaboration with several other members of her community. This shift in perspective opened doors to opportunities they had never considered, marking the beginning of their transformative journeys.

Linh, owner of a homestay in Nam Cang, now hosts gatherings of AWE graduates. Women gather in Linh’s homestay to do traditional White H’Mong embroidery together, working to recover an important cultural tradition with the end goal of creating a product that would interest tourists visiting the region. The program isn't just about businesses; it's about realizing the market value of tradition, opening avenues for income generation, and fostering a newfound pride in cultural heritage.

Breaking the confidence barrier

The women experienced a profound change in their self-esteem - 86% of respondents reported positive changes in their confidence following the program. Mary May used to lack confidence in her ideas and hesitated to spend money on her business; now, she boldly invests her profits into product development and improvement.  “The biggest change was the change of my mindset,” she says. “I realized that I am capable–I can work and do what I like. Before, I had ideas but hesitated. Since the training I feel more encouraged–I realized I can do it!”   

Some had the confidence to go even further, such as our empowered participant, La. She says:

“I took a bold decision last year to open my own shop in Sapa. I had that idea before, but not the confidence to do it. After [AWE’s Entrepreneurship] ASSET training in 2021 in Sapa I was determined to do it and the next year, I opened my shop. I found a small space, rented it and started making products to sell. I created a product line and started doing bookkeeping, which I had never done before–I learned all that in the training.” 

Luong, another participant who also felt similarly empowered by the training, ventured into business for the first time and opened a cafe.  Others, like Le, had more modest experiences which they credit to their new-found confidence.  She previously kept a low profile, working quietly in her family’s fish-raising business.  “Now,” says Le, “I take the initiative a lot and share my ideas about the business.  They listen to me and even sometimes take my suggestions!” 

The focus group discussions revealed many women echoed these sentiments, finally feeling comfortable speaking up and more confident in their businesses. 

Growing confidence and incomes

The growth is not only in the women’s belief in themselves, but also in their incomes–which in turn, further contributes to confidence and being respected by their families and communities. 

Mary May credits AWE’s training program with helping her dream bigger and giving her the tools to achieve her goals.  Since graduating, she has expanded her line of essential oils, soaps and herbal medicines based on Red Dao traditions and quadrupled her income.  Luong’s cafe in Da Bac enabled her to earn double her previous income. Sales at La’s shop have grown so much since opening in early 2022, she hired her aunt to assist her in the shop. 

The vast majority of graduates from the Covid restriction period–all but one–report significant improvements in their incomes, bucking the worldwide trend.  Several reported an increase in savings and many made significant household improvements, such as installing an indoor toilet or buying a washing machine.  The financial prowess gained through ASSET training has empowered these women to plan, invest, and secure their economic futures.

Women helping Women

Beyond growing individual businesses and improving conditions for women and their families, AWE’s objective is to catalyze women’s empowerment more generally, so that women eventually bring their important leadership and influence to arenas beyond their households.  When women form networks or groups, support and mentor other women, and participate in community governance, these steps are seen as indications of personal empowerment, and further, are channels through which their valuable influence is brought to a larger audience, and creates positive social change. 

Many women reported important developments in these areas. Several graduates reported actively sharing knowledge with others in their communities.   “I share my knowledge with the other women in the community,” says Xau, an elder from Nam Cang village. “As a member of the older generation, I know how to make herbal medicine, how to make Do paper, weave and do traditional embroidery. All these skills are disappearing.  After AWE’s training, a group of us started gathering once a month to share this traditional knowledge and plan how we can use it to earn income, too.”  Encouraged by her success in the AWE leadership program, Mai proactively sought to teach others her knowledge.  “After the training I took a cooking course for trainers so I could teach other women in the community to cook food that guests in their homestays would like.  I used to cook at village events, but I had never taught others how to cook. After the training I realized I can do it, and I did.” 

Others report joining groups and ensuring their voices are heard.  Ta May admits,  “I never used to come to Women’s Unions meetings. But the training changed my confidence a lot.  Now, not only do I go to the meetings, but I also speak up! I even became a leader of a small group.”  May’s experience is similar: “When I join regional Women’s Union’s meetings as a representative of my village, I speak openly about the difficulties in our region. I even dare to request support from the regional office to help us with the problems we have!” Le also broadened her horizons, and encourages others to do the same.: “After the training, I became a leader of my village's Women's Union.  I encourage other women to do more business, to get out of their homes and their villages, to meet other women and see how that will change their life.” 

For her part, Su May tries to support other women by bringing them business. “The village I come from is very remote and women don’t have jobs. So I started bringing tourists on my tours to have lunch at their houses, to help them have some income. I try to support local women, and to show them that if they find a job and have some income, they will have more control over their money and lives.” 

Since graduating, the women have become present to and confident in their capacity to have a positive impact on others.  They have already begun expanding their influence and expressing leadership by supporting other women in their communities. 

From adversity comes empowerment

AWE’s  2020 and 2021 programs were delivered amidst global challenges and uncertainties which provoked the organization to test new approaches.  Yet the outcomes have been surprisingly consistent with previous years.  Graduates managed to retain stability and even growth in their businesses despite a volatile economic climate, and also felt empowered to take positions of leadership in their homes and their communities.  

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