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Women Lead Transformation of Urban Slums in Vietnam

March 15, 2010

  • Micro-credit for home improvement is a powerful way of transforming slums and low income housing in fast growing Asian cities
  • Over 66% of borrowers are women who feel the need for toilets and running water in homes more acutely
  • The Vietnam Women’s Union is a grassroots organization empowering women through education, vocational training, microcredit facilities and policy work

Haiphong, Vietnam, 15 March, 2010:  Thuong Ly ward in the bustling port city of Haiphong, Vietnam, is bordered by a sludgy grey canal that flows into the sea with the waste of those who live beside it. It’s a scene of urban degradation common in fast growing Asian metropolises. But for those living in this ward, daily ablutions beside the river are increasingly a thing of the past as toilets and water connections are added to their homes.   

For women, the need for privacy for daily hygiene routines are particularly acute and deliverance from this traumatic humiliation can be literally life-changing. 

This fact underlies the strong demand for the World Bank-supported Housing Micro Finance Revolving Fund which has disbursed US$10 million over ten years to 80,000 urban households in Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, Haiphong, Can Tho and Nam Dinh. The program is a sub-component of the IDA funded US$ 41 million Vietnam Urban Upgrading Project and “has proved to be very successful in integrating water and sanitation needs with income generation and development of tertiary infrastructure,” says Health & Development Specialist , Hoang Thi Hua, in Hanoi.

A better home, a better life

Micro credit for home improvement for low income families has enormous health, social and environmental benefits for rapidly urbanizing cities. The cumulative effect of improved housing in Thoung Ly ward, for instance, is transformational. The once shabby, temporary dwellings are becoming slowly gentrified with two and three story houses sprouting in their midst as tertiary infrastructure and cleanliness improved.

That so much can be achieved with so little in micro finance is not news to practitioners, but there is a human dimension of change that accompanies this transformation which is never fully captured in statistics.

Pham Thi Minh is one of 6,674 borrowers in Haiphong who is all praise for the US$ 3 million micro-credit program (World Bank support US$ 2,6 m). A retired garment factory worker in her mid 50s, she says: “Our house was in a very bad condition. There was no proper flooring or drainage, no kitchen or toilet. When it rained the roof leaked so badly, we would be completely flooded.” It’s hard to believe it’s the same house which now gleams with tiled flooring, a proper roof, a paved courtyard leading to a separate kitchen with a gas stove and bathroom with a flushing, seated toilet.

Minh borrowed VND10 million (a little over US$540) from the revolving housing fund with additional contributions from her extended family to rebuild her house. It’s as though the new surroundings have galvanized her spirit, goading her not only to repay her loan but work as a cleaner in a school  to add new comforts to her home. There’s a fridge, a TV and other furniture and decorations.

The credit savings group

Tran Huu Ich, 77, the leader of the credit saving group in this ward, is a retired factory worker who has been trained by the Haiphong Women’s Union to run three credit groups of 29 households each in this ward. “Our savings groups meet every month and we go through all the accounts. We tell the borrowers how much has been repaid in interest, how much principal has been returned and what is outstanding. We make sure that everyone is able to save and pay and so far we have not had any defaulters.”

“There is a great demand for the loans,” says Nguyen Thu Cuc, 54, the dynamic Chairwoman of the Haiphong Women’s Union, the agency which is implementing the project. A grass roots women’s development organization, the Vietnam Women’s Union has recently celebrated its 80th year by focusing on building awareness of two recent bills on domestic violence and women’s right to property. 

Secrets of Success

“We have a lot of experience with micro-credit and we have learnt some important lessons,” says  Ms Cuc, in response to a question on the secrets of success. 

  • “It’s important that the financial mechanism for the Fund is based on the actual conditions of the area where it is to operate, it should not be designed by donors,” says Mrs Cuc.  “The lending procedure of this Fund is simple and attractive and reaches everyone who earns more than VND 300,000.00 a month (US$ 19)".
  • A thorough dissemination of the micro-credit program, its objectives and how it will work is important. People need to understand properly the benefits and conditions for lending and we should use effective channels for communication to build demand for the program.
  • The heads of the credit groups need to be thoroughly trained because the effective running of the savings and credit group is critical to the success of the project.”  Indeed there is a Capacity Building Fund of US$187,900 mainly from PHRD and IDA to support training for Fund personnel, institution building and communications.

Asked why women outnumber men at 66% of borrowers, Mrs. Cuc smiles: “In Vietnam , women control the household budget so they can decide to take loans; in household matters a man’s opinion is less important! “ she says. In fact, women head a third of all households in Vietnam, half of them being widows and divorcees but 38% are married. 

Leaving Thuong Ly, the impression that lingers is of groups of energized women who are uplifted both by the improvement to their homes and surrounding but most of all, by the sense of self-respect that comes from personal privacy and the power to pay back for improving their lives.