Creating safe spaces for children to speak out

Today we went to visit two secondary schools that are part of the second phase of Save the Children’s programme “Improved Protection and Quality Education for Migrant and other Marginalised and Vulnerable Children in Ho Chi Minh City”.

In the heat of a sunny day in Vietnam we had a fantastic time with the children and the supporters of the programme.

The first school we went to was Binh Chieu, a big school with 2,492 students and 76 teachers. The school has support from the government but, with the number of migrants rising, they have seen their class numbers increase from 39 to 53 in just five years. They focus on improving their teachers’ skills, to increase the capacity of the school without losing in the quality of education.

We spent our morning playing games outdoors with the children, taking part in tug of war and other traditional games. It felt like a success; the children were very happy to see us participate side by side with them. We also went to a Children’s Rights awareness session with the students. There they showed us how they have a personal and deep knowledge of what abuse means and how pro-active they are.

The school has child-led initiatives funded by the IKEA Foundation, which means the children choose how they want to improve their school and themselves. In this school they chose self-defence classes. We had a demonstration by the students and we got to see how they face their challenges with humour and grace, while taking them very seriously.

We sang songs and played games and they shared their own stories of abuse, demonstrating immense strength when speaking up. The school has a big challenge to make the children comfortable with calling out the abuse and it was beyond words to see them take ownership of themselves when telling us what they had been through. By creating a safe space, where they can share this, they can feel comforted and help each other to find ways to learn about their rights and to fight for them. You could see how important it is to make sure children know it’s not their fault and remove those feelings guilt from them. It definitely helps them to fight back.

After that we went to help decorate their new Counselling Room, a space made by the children for the children. There we collaborated by making paper decorations to hang on the walls, distributed books on the shelves and created frames for pictures of the school and students. It was overwhelming to see them so eager to learn and so pro-active about looking after each other and sharing the information they were given by the programme.

Our afternoon was spent in Tran Quoc Toan, an even bigger secondary school, with 2,547 students and 112 teachers divided into 61 classes. This school is located in an overpopulated community with the highest numbers of migrants in Vietnam. There are a lot of factories in the area and that attracts many families, who come looking for work.

The school has a goal to make education accessible to all children. They are very happy to be included in the programme, seeing it as a chance to improve on their inclusion of vulnerable children. They see each student as an individual and make sure they have a chance to demonstrate how they can contribute.

We spent some time with the students learning about their rights and about vulnerability with a teacher trained by the programme in the subject. The students learn about the different types of abuse, how to identify them and how they can affect people’s lives. They also learn to speak up and to call out when those things happen.

We went to visit their counselling room, a lovely space with Vietnamese landscapes (chosen by the pupils) painted on the walls. They hope to have air-conditioning fitted soon, to make it more comfortable and attract more students in the heat.

After that we went to see their current child-led initiative. The students in this school decided they wanted a green library. This is a space where they can study surrounded by nature, where it’s cooler than in the classroom. The space already had tables and the areas for planting were ready and we got down to business with them, making their space greener and planting what will become bushes and trees as they grow. It was sweaty work, but very gratifying that all the ambassadors got involved and spent quality time with the children helping them to improve their space. I can say with all honesty that I’d love a green library or, in the case of the UK, maybe a greenhouse library would be better.

After today, I am overwhelmed with the positivity of the children. They are inspiring and I have learned so many lessons since the start of the trip. My heart has been touched by their kindness and strength. I have never experienced such hope for a better future. They can see how education is teaching them not only everyday school subjects, but also life skills and their rights—and they understand how important those rights are.