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Sex education may not be a subject many students would choose as their favourite, but it is one of the most important. Here’s how teenagers and teachers in Vietnam are learning how to manage the ups and downs of puberty.

Mood swings, cracking voices, periods, and sex are just some of the natural but sometimes challenging aspects of growing up. Ask any young person, their parents or guardians and teachers, and they’ll tell you the same thing: puberty is a minefield!

Our brains and bodies change massively during adolescence. While the physical and emotional changes affect all young people differently, it’s a transition that every person goes through. They need the right tools, information and support to make informed decisions and develop and maintain healthy lifestyles and relationships.

In Tan Lac district, Hoa Binh province, Vietnam, secondary school students from Years 6-9 are learning how to manage their emotions and talk openly about sexual reproductive health. It’s all part of a ChildFund-supported initiative to improve education around health and wellbeing for teenagers in Vietnam.

According to a 2021 World Health Organisation report, more Vietnamese teenagers are having sex by the age of 14. Yet access to sexual and reproductive health information and services remains limited, especially for those who are ethnic minorities, migrants or living in rural areas. A lack of adequate, comprehensive sexual education and subsequent stigma around talking about sex and sharing reproductive health issues with caregivers and teachers is leading to unsafe behaviours (57.6% of adolescents are having sex without condoms), and health and social consequences.

Of course, creating a thorough and informative curriculum is only half the battle. Convincing already stressed-out teenagers to take on what they may see as ‘more homework? Not for the faint of heart. Thankfully, there are dedicated teachers like Ms. Lua and Ms. Sam who are helping young students see the value in learning about self-care and feel empowered to take control over their health and wellbeing.

Changing teens’ attitudes towards sex education—all in a day’s work

Dan, 14, a Year 9 secondary school student, had doubts when she first heard about the project. “The training will give me nothing, just more work”, was her initial thought. However, after Ms. Lua, her teacher, explained the roles, responsibilities and benefits of participation, Dan and her friends Nhu and Bich (both 14) decided to join the core group of students participating in the project.

It wasn’t long before she changed her mind about the health and wellbeing-focused classes. Dan says that she and her friends have since learnt a lot about themselves and how to protect their rights (topics included negotiation and refusal skills and how to ask for help). 

“The lectures the teachers gave helped us learn a lot about psychological changes during puberty to help us know how to take care of ourselves and keep ourselves safe. I learnt more about my period and can now maintain better menstrual hygiene,” says Dan.

“My friends and I also understand more clearly the harm and consequences of having sex at a young age without safety measures. We can determine our values, manage our emotions and cope with stress and anxiety.”

Dan (centre) leading a discussion about physiological and psychological changes during puberty.

My friends and I also understand more clearly the harm and consequences of having sex at a young age without safety measures. We can determine our values, manage our emotions and cope with stress and anxiety.

Dan, 14

Dan says the practical advice they received from these lectures has been particularly beneficial. Her friend, Bich, is prone to experiencing a lot of anger, which affects her friendships. Since participating in the project, Bich has been more in touch with her emotions. She has learnt to recognise when she is frustrated and now knows that talking to friends or teachers, practising breathing exercises or singing her favourite song can help her feel better.

Throughout the training, game-based activities and an emphasis on creating a safe and non-judgmental space to share experiences and feelings were vital to getting students to open up and learn more effectively. Dan says she and her friends have become closer and plan on sharing their newfound knowledge and skills with classmates.

“My friends and I feel lucky and happy to have participated in the training sessions and learn so many interesting things. What I have learnt can help more students understand themselves and their friends.”

Teachers and students are learning together

I had previously organised a few extracurricular sessions with students on reproductive health knowledge such as menstruation, signs of pregnancy, some sexually transmitted diseases, and contraceptive methods, but they weren’t that effective.

Ms. Sam, Year 9 Teacher

Providing secondary students with the knowledge, resources, and support to develop social skills and make informed decisions about their reproductive health is critical to tackling potential risky behaviours among young people in Vietnam. Yet, without a robust curriculum or tools to effectively convey important information, teachers in Tan Lac district, like Ms. Sam, struggled to engage students.  

“I had previously organised a few extracurricular sessions with students on reproductive health knowledge such as menstruation, signs of pregnancy, some sexually transmitted diseases, and contraceptive methods, but they weren’t that effective,” she says.

The curriculum was missing important information, and Ms. Sam had knowledge gaps.

“I would talk to students about preventing pregnancy using condoms or emergency contraceptive pills, but I did not share about the dosage of contraceptives. Since I’ve never used the pills before, I hadn’t researched their effects, and it wasn’t in the curriculum.”

As a Year 9 teacher, Ms. Sam has seen first-hand the impact unsafe sexual behaviours can have on students. She says the trend towards young people having sex at an early age is a growing concern for teachers in the region, with more and more students dropping out of school due to early and unintended pregnancies. In some cases, young girls are seeking to terminate their pregnancy in unlicensed abortion clinics, potentially putting their lives at risk. (According to a UN estimate, Vietnam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.) Both scenarios can have a considerable impact not only on girls’ physical and mental health but also on their future wellbeing.

Ms. Sam (centre) leading a group discussion in a training session on Sexual Reproductive Health for teachers in Tan Lac district, Hoa Binh province, Vietnam. She puts what she has learnt into practice, below.

So, when the opportunity to be part of the solution presented itself, Ms. Sam grabbed it and didn’t look back. Last year, she participated in a ChildFund-supported training for secondary school teachers on sexual reproductive health knowledge and how to deliver it effectively to students.

Before the training, Ms. Sam’s lessons were missing crucial topics and information. For instance, only two sexually transmitted diseases were taught (syphilis and gonorrhoea). But thanks to new, comprehensive, and more interactive teaching materials, she has been able to capture – and hold – their attention. Short videos and educational games like crosswords have been particularly effective in not only conveying reproductive health knowledge but in helping to strengthen communication and build trust between Ms. Sam and her students, as well as between students.

Son, 14, a student of Ms. Sam, spoke highly about the new teaching style and lessons. “Ms. Sam uses many different methods to teach, but in lessons on reproductive health, she uses videos and images to explain to us, which makes us more comfortable and feel less embarrassed than if she just asked us to answer directly.”

Ms. Sam uses many different methods to teach, but in lessons on reproductive health, she uses videos and images to explain to us, which makes us more comfortable and feel less embarrassed than if she just asked us to answer directly.

Son, 14, a student of Ms. Sam

An improved curriculum has helped both teachers and students learn more about sexual health and wellbeing, including how to have consensual relationships. Ms. Sam says she is eager to build upon what she has learnt from the training program to help her students navigate this tricky period safely.

“I will continue to research and apply knowledge of other topics to lessons and classroom activities. I will also include more group discussions to increase student involvement.”

For teens and teachers, knowledge is power

ChildFund-supported sexual reproductive health trainings for secondary school teachers in Vietnam, and a new health and wellbeing curriculum is helping teens navigate the ups and downs of puberty. Students are gaining vital knowledge and life skills to manage new experiences, feelings and situations. They even feel more comfortable asking ‘embarrassing’ questions—a small step for teens, a giant leap for teacher-kind!

Find out more about our work in Vietnam.

The opportunity to learn, grow and innovate is open to all – we just need to make the right investments by building a more inclusive world for women and girls. Offering equal employment opportunities and fair pay to women is a key step towards achieving this goal. These measures can help them lead successful and independent lives – just ask Ngoc and her mother, Ri.

When Ngoc (pictured below) was two years old, she got sick with a high fever that led to full-body seizures. Life changed in an instant; she was diagnosed with a severe mental and neurological disability. Suddenly, daily tasks, like putting on shoes and brushing teeth, required huge amounts of effort. Ngoc spoke hesitantly and unclearly, often needing to repeat words to make herself understood. She could not hold things firmly as her hands trembled frequently.

Ngoc spent most of her time at home in Cao Bang province, Vietnam, two hours from the nearest town and only reached by foot. Despite attending the local school, Ngoc struggled to maintain good grades due to a lack of specialised teacher support. Her mother, Ri, always by her side, wasn’t sure what the future held for her daughter.

Inclusivity has the power to remove barriers and transform lives

When Ngoc was only six years old, her father passed away, leaving her mother and older brother, Vuong, to support the family. Ngoc remembers feeling lonely as she didn’t have many friends and rarely went outside. She understood how hard it was for her mother to raise two children, as she watched her work in the fields, selling vegetables to make ends meet.

But all that changed five years ago, when Ngoc, then 22, attended a monthly Self-Help Group of People with Disability meeting in Quang Hoa district, accompanied by her mother. The meeting, supported by ChildFund helps young people with disabilities and their carers as they gain the necessary skills and resources to become active members of the community. They also help establish a good support network.

During these meetings, Ngoc was able to share her experiences and difficulties with people who faced similar challenges. Meanwhile, Ri attended training sessions focused on disability rights, which helped her understand her daughter’s needs better and improve her caregiving skills.

Ri soon noticed a positive change in her once-shy daughter. She observed that the more Ngoc engaged in activities and interacted with others, the more confident and bolder she became in expressing her opinions and tackling various tasks. Her communication and organisational skills had improved.  With her newfound confidence, Ngoc took a more proactive approach to her life, determined not to be defined by her disabilities or circumstances. This included taking greater control of her financial wellbeing.

Empowered to dream big and think outside the box

Ngoc’s disability meant she faced barriers to employment opportunities after she left school. She was often judged as unfit for work, particularly without her mother’s support. However, thanks to ChildFund’s income-generating activities for people with disabilities in her community, Ngoc was taught how to raise and sell chickens (she bought 50, excited by the prospect of earning her own money).

This income-generating model was created to assist rural communities in using available resources and maximising the potential of their land. This is particularly significant for rural women, who make up a crucial workforce in agricultural production, accounting for 67.7 per cent of the workforce in Vietnam.

Although only half of the chickens were sold and consumed, Ngoc says she valued the opportunity to learn and share with others like her and was inspired to start her own entrepreneurial journey. She had discovered a natural talent and passion for business (after the chickens she saw a gap in the market and convinced her mother to let her look after one of the family’s buffalos and quickly turned a profit.) But her ambitions didn’t stop there.

Ngoc was determined to live independently as possible. Being a farmer living in a rural area, she knew it was necessary to have her own vehicle. Ngoc had always dreamt of owning a three-wheeled electric scooter, which would not only help her sell coffee by herself (the next business venture) but also provide her with the freedom to travel into the commune centre independently. Ngoc’s family was worried about her safety and didn’t want her to go outside alone. Despite this, she used the money she had saved from selling and raising animals to buy a scooter. She was determined to succeed and told her mother, “I have to try harder. If I fail, I need to try again.” Ngoc practiced riding the scooter on her own and, after a few days, surprised her family and neighbours by successfully controlling the vehicle.

Ngoc rides her three-wheeled electric scooter around her rural village in Cao Bang province. She purchased the scooter with money raised from raising and selling animals.

Try and try again!

Last year, Ngoc bought 100 chickens and 20 ducks to raise and sell before Tet (Lunar New Year). Today, she has successfully sold almost all her chickens and already has new business ventures lined up.

Ngoc says her life has improved significantly over the years, “We have another worker to help with farming and household chores such as washing dishes and doing laundry. I raised 10 more pigs, chickens, and ducks with my mum. Recently, we also began to grow sugarcane to sell to Phuc Hoa sugar factory. Our living conditions have much improved.”

Ngoc hopes to help other people with disabilities in her community. With her scooter, she can easily travel and participate in Self-Help Group of People with Disability activities, which includes training sessions on organising meetings and planning. She is now one of four disability volunteer representatives in Tu Do commune. Her duties include communicating and advocating for disability rights, informing households with disabled members about related policies, laws, and rights, and promoting project activities that they can participate in.

Ri says she is proud to see how much her daughter has grown and financial independence, which she hopes more people with disabilities will be able to achieve.

“Ngoc is now eager to do many things, such as raising rabbits, growing plants, and selling teddy bears and coffee. I hope other people with disability like Ngoc can have jobs to support themselves.”

The My Right to Education project is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and implemented in Bac Kạn Province and Cao Bang Province by ChildFund Vietnam and local partners.

Find out more about our work in Vietnam.