Improving Education: Mekong Plus’ key to improving lives in the Mekong Delta
From co-funding infrastructure projects in Cambodia and Vietnam to starting South-east Asia’s first quilting-based social enterprises that changed the lives of more than 4,000 under-privileged women, Mekong Plus’ founder Bernard Kervyn isn’t a stranger to the often unquoted irony of social work.
“Giving away money is not always the solution, [but] creating a sense of solidarity is,” Bernard explained rather simplistically.
His first project in the Mekong Delta with Mekong Plus was also an eye-opener for the team. Co-funding a concrete bridge changed the lives of school-going children in two villages, who otherwise had to travel more than 5-km daily around a river to reach school.
“We realised the importance of education, [and since then] most of our efforts have been focused on that!”
Education in the Mekong Delta often a luxury
Contrary to popular belief, education in Vietnam can be prohibitive to many families. Beyond impractical travel time, the average monthly income of a family in the Mekong Delta of approximately VND2,000,000 is often less than the budget required to send a child to high school.
“[The child] may need to rent lodging near to a school far away from home. Sometimes the only way to send children to school is to borrow money or sell assets,” Bernard elaborated. As a result, more than 30% of Vietnamese children drop out of school before completing high school education in Vietnam, with statistics in Cambodia a shocking 65%.
A few classmates in a school in Cambodia.
Although the 2020 pandemic may have been a chance to revolutionise online education, the lack of access to reliable internet connection meant that village children began to lag behind city-dwelling peers.
“The problem was even greater in Cambodia. [Because of the virus] they only enjoyed three weeks of school in 12 months in 2020.”
Ultimately, Bernard believes that Mekong Plus’ approach to improving access to education strikes a chord with the organisation’s beneficiaries.
“We have asked for many years. Most villagers agree that education is the top priority!” Bernard exclaimed.
Education efforts futile without health
One of the most memorable programmes helmed by Mekong Plus as part of its education-focused efforts in Vietnam is an on-going campaign that promotes healthy habits amongst school children.
A little girl brushing her teeth in the Mekong Delta region.
“The [students’] curriculum covers these issues, but they don’t teach them in school,” Bernard explained, as he emphasised that many topics such as personal hygiene are often discouraged from being taught during school hours. Children are often made to study these chapters at home on their own.
In 1997, Mekong Plus launched an oral health education programme that had teachers instruct children to brush their teeth three times a day. Tooth decay in village children saw a sharp decline only 4 months into the programme. With better health, school attendance improved. At the time of this article’s writing, the programme has benefitted 45,000 children every year from a total of 9 rural districts who realise the importance of oral hygiene.
Mekong Plus’ oral health education programme
“We constantly monitor the situation with international plaque index standards. [We do a] sample annually to see whether the children’s health is improving [or not].”
Upgrading facilities as an incentive for clean teeth
As a reward, the schools with the best scores receive co-funding of facility upgrades. From new water pumps, water tanks and sparkling new toilets, Mekong Plus has improved the sanitation standards of more than a hundred schools. At the same time, Bernard emphasises that the carrot should only be offered after knowledge has been acquired.
A team of volunteers from Mekong Plus teaching kids how to brush their teeth properly.
“If you don’t teach, the facilities are not maintained,” he warned.
Perhaps the reverse is true too; the teaching of sanitary practices is impossible without clean facilities.
“We want teachers and students to work together on projects. Change of attitude is important!”
Student well-being an important prerequisite
Since the success of the dental hygiene programme, Mekong Plus has amassed a portfolio of different efforts to improve the well-being of underprivileged schoolchildren. Most controversially, Bernard and his team has fought constantly to change the local attitude towards sex education in public schools.
“It is estimated that almost 20% of high school girls in Vietnam have had an abortion,” Bernard warned. The number, which seems shocking, is derived from a 2015 survey by the United Nations. He notes that although parents were initially not happy about ‘explicit’ sexual education during school grounds, they now understand that it’s a better choice than other ‘channels of exposure’.
“You’d rather have school teach them [about sex] than Facebook!”
On a lighter note, Mekong Plus has also piloted mass vision tests for school children to ensure that their education isn’t jeopardized by bad eyesight.
A little boy standing next to a eyesight test in a school of rural Vietnam
“Everytime we screen [childrens’] eyesight, we find that 1000 more [children] need glasses,” Bernard recalled. Other disabilities are rare, and often expensive, but short-sightedness is one that is easily rectified by testing and affordable eyewear. Since the inauguration of the programme, 50,000 village children have been screened biannually.
“You may not believe it, but many children have been mistaken as unintelligent because of bad eyesight!”