As she prepares to return to work after six months’ maternity leave, Nhung, 31, faces a difficult and common problem: she can’t find a daycare center for her child.
Public preschools do not accept children that young, and private ones are too expensive.
At noon on March 8, International Women’s Day, Vu Thi Nhung was giving her five-month-old daughter, little Bo (Avocado), milk from a bottle in a small, cheap boarding room in Nhue village in Hanoi.
Little Bo eats and sleeps without fuss, which somewhat eases Nhung’s concerns about having to put her in a preschool, but she does have other fears.
As an assistant to a cook in a nearby industrial zone, she earns VND4.2 million a month (US$177) while her husband, a chief cook, earns another VND6 million.
They have another child, who is in first grade and living with their relatives in their hometown.
With rent alone costing VND500,000 and other living expenses to take care of, the couple cannot afford a private nursery for their child.
There are two public preschools near their house, but they only accept children aged two or more, which means most working families in the area struggle to find care for young kids.
The average household income there is VND7.4 million a month, according to the Institute of Workers and Trade Union, and so it is common for families to run around to find affordable childcare.
But with few options, some are forced to quit their jobs and stay at home while others send their newborns to random private childcare places, some of which are unlicensed. So child abuse is a clear and present danger.
Nhung plans to pay an older neighbor she trusts VND2 million a month to take care of her daughter, but she knows it is not the best option.
In big cities like Hanoi, demand for affordable childcare services far exceed supply. Public schools are so much in demand that they have to organize lucky draws to take in children.
Last August Nguyen Thi Nga, 38, took part in one such lucky draw at Hoang Liet Preschool in Hoang Mai District to get admission for her three-year-old child.
But she did not get lucky and so her child had to stay at home for another year. This year Nga plans to take part again, and will have to resort to a private preschool if she is again unlucky.
Indeed, according to the 2021 Almanac of the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, Hanoi had 526,000 preschool-aged kids in the 2020-21 school year and only 70% of them were in public preschools.
The 11,955 public schools averaged around 32 children per class, higher than the maximum 30 permitted by the Ministry of Education and Training.
In Nga’s Hoang Liet Ward in Hoang Mai District, as of last July there was only one public preschool and its four campuses could only accommodate a fifth of kids of that in the ward, leaving the rest struggling to find a solution.
But parents like Nga with older kids are fortunate enough to take part in lucky draws whereas those like Nhung, whose babies are just months old, are turned away out of hand.
Since 2008 the government has required public preschools to lower age requirements and take in children from the age of three months. But with schools lacking capacity, this regulation is only followed in some places likes Da Nang and HCMC.
In the rest of the country most public preschools only accept children aged one year or more, with some places like Hanoi setting the bar even higher and only accepting kids aged two or even three.
Though Vietnam prioritizes education and training, with the government earmarking VND276 trillion or 15% of its spending on it last year, its investment in education was inadequate to meet the demands of a growing population.
According to Assoc Prof Bui Thi An, chairwoman of the Hanoi Woman Intellectuals’ Society and a National Assembly representative in 2011-16, Vietnam urgently needs to invest in education, especially public preschools to accommodate children aged from six months onwards from low-income families to prevent “painful” cases of child abuse.
The most recent case and one that caused a public uproar and spurred authorities to tighten oversight was reported on March 3, when police in Hanoi’s Thanh Tri District arrested two private preschool teachers suspected of repeatedly beating and killing a 17-month-old boy after just 10 days in school.
Even prior to that the childcare center had been fined and ordered by local authorities to close down twice for failing to meet requirements.
In January a babysitter in HCMC’s Binh Tan District who ran a childcare center at home was arrested after a six-month-old baby died in her care.
Last year two baby-sitters in Da Lat City abused a two-year-old child, causing brain and lung damage.
According to Dr Nguyen Thi Hong Van, dean of the preschool education faculty at the National College for Education, qualified preschool teachers are trained to take comprehensive care of children from birth until six years of age.
Until there are enough affordable preschools with qualified teachers, working-class parents have to cope in whatever fashion they can.
Unlike the majority of workers’ families in Nhue village in Kim Chung Commune who try to find childcare services or else create a preschool class or group among themselves to take care of their children, Tran Do, 33, has decided to stay at home to take care of his twin children.
Tran Do with his eight-year-old daughter in front of his house in Hanoi’s Dong Anh District, March 8, 2023. Photo by Phan Duong
The construction worker has in fact been staying at home for some time so that his wife, who is employed in the Thang Long industrial zone, can go to work because she has 14 years of experience and needs to work to maintain her insurance and seniority benefits.
Do and his wife have been married for five years, and spent a great deal of money on IVF before their children were born. So now they cannot afford a babysitter and the only other option is to send the two to the countryside so that their parents can take care of them.
They plan to the latter alternative when the babies get a little older.
“If there is a public preschool for workers’ children, we won’t have to live away from our kids,” Do, who hails from Cam Khe District in the northern Phu Tho Province, said.
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