Viet Nam has made considerable progress towards improving girls' access to education, with almost half of the students in both primary and secondary education being female. However, disparities in the quality and accessibility of schooling persist in rural and mountainous areas, especially among ethnic minority girls and women.

Some of the key factors that limit access to education opportunities are physical distance to schools, language and cultural barriers, financial constraints, unsuitability of the curriculum to local needs, and the low value placed on education because of a perceived lack of relevance, especially for girls, who in some areas are expected to marry at a young age.

The Lower Secondary Education for the Most Disadvantaged Regions Project, approved in 2007, aimed at improving the net enrollment rate in lower secondary education, particularly for ethnic minorities and girls, in 103 of the most disadvantaged districts in 17 target provinces – Ca Mau, Cao Bang, Dac Lac, Dac Nong, Dien Bien, Gia Lai, Ha Giang, Kien Giang, Kon Tum, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Ninh Thuan, Son La, Tra Vinh, Yen Bai, Bac Kan, and Soc Trang.

The key outputs of the project are: i) building schools, classrooms, semi-boarding facilities, and teacher housing in remote and disadvantaged areas to increase physical access and proximity to schools; (ii) providing in-service and pre-service teacher training to enhance the quality and relevance of lower secondary education; (iii) developing instructional materials including bilingual materials in the Vietnamese and ethnic minority languages; (iv) providing targeted scholarships; and (v) pilot-testing innovative initiatives including school feeding and awareness-raising programs to promote secondary education especially for girls and ethnic minorities.

The Gender and Ethnic Minority Action Plan (GEMAP) included targets to ensure: separate male/female sanitation facilities in the infrastructure constructed; 50% allocation of semi-boarding spaces to girls and prioritization of female and ethnic minority teachers in allocation of housing; 50% female participation in teacher training; and 50% female beneficiaries in scholarships and school feeding.

New schools and boarding facilities increase girls' access to lower secondary schools

The construction of schools and classrooms in remote areas provided opportunities for girls to enroll in secondary schools closer to their homes, without having to travel far and worry about their safety. In areas where students still have to travel far to reach their schools, one of the strategies for improving girls' and minorities' access to education was the establishment of boarding schools. Separate toilets for girls and boys were constructed. The safe school environment encouraged parents to send their daughters to school, even if it is away from home.

To date, 656 girls (45.5% out of a total of 1442 students) are staying in newly-built. semi-boarding facilities, which demonstrates a significant achievement in meeting the overall project target of 50% of semi-boarding spaces for girls by project completion in June 2014. Lao Cai province has exceeded the target, with 200 girls (62.5%) out of 320 students staying in newly-built dormitories.

Schools are also demonstrating self-initiated gender-responsive management practices, such as allocation to girls of new boarding spaces and toilets that are near teachers’ rooms, so as to enhance their safety.

Pilot innovations encourage enrollment and retention of girls and ethnic minorities

The GEMAP includes 50% female targets for Lower Secondary Education (LSE) scholarships under the Smallest Ethnic Minority Groups Pilot Scheme. Four hundred girls (50%) out of 800 LSE students were awarded scholarships.

The pilot school feeding program is also providing an important incentive for parents to send their children to school. All students – girls and boys alike – repeatedly referred to the quality and quantity of meals as well as the range of nutrition as 'better at school than at home' and were able to cite examples of meals which illustrate balanced nutrition. Hence this program significantly contributes to students' nutritional status and well-being, and in turn helps them to learn more effectively.

The project has prepared public awareness-raising materials (e.g. booklets, posters) targeting parents and key local community leaders, aimed at increasing demand for lower secondary education amongst girls and ethnic minority students of lower secondary school age. The GEMAP specified involvement of community women and mothers in awareness initiatives. Majority of participants in awareness raising campaigns are mothers, and female teachers and students are also actively involved.

Training of teachers and administrators to enhance quality and relevance of LSE

Overall, the project has trained 1,028 core teacher trainers on subjects such as: student-centered methodologies; continuing professional development; effective use of new materials for disadvantaged students; use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the classroom; support for the teaching of Vietnamese to ethnic minority students and in a multicultural environment; and gender and cultural awareness programs. Four hundred and seventy five (46.2%) of the core trainers are women, which is a strong performance against the 50% target considering that participants were largely from teacher training colleges which are male dominated.

The project provided scholarships to support the development of ethnic minority students in upper secondary school to become lower secondary teachers in their own communities, and 56.8% of the transitional teacher training scholarships were awarded to females, exceeding the 50% target.

Management training for headmasters benefitted 1,415 headmasters in 2010/11, out of whom 303 (21.4%) were females and 164 (11.6%) were ethnic minority. Overall, 3,021 school principals and administrators received training, out of whom 681 (22.5%) were females.

Housing facilities as incentive for teachers in remote areas

As an incentive to retain teachers in remote areas, the project has constructed 418 (out of a planned 445) teacher rooms at schools and the remaining 27 are under construction. The GEMAP requires priority to be given to female and ethnic minority teachers in the provision of teacher housing with separate sanitation facilities for women and men. In four schools - San Chai School and Ta Van Chu School in Lao Cai province; and Huong Son School and Du Gia School in Ha Giang province, all women teachers who did not come from, or did not have a home, in the locality, were allocated project accommodation. In Lao Cai province, 28 teachers are residing in project built housing, 16 of whom are female (57.1%) and 8 of whom are ethnic minority. In Ha Giang, out of 132 teachers using project housing, 43 are women (32%) and 50 are ethnic minority (37.8%).

Strong support provided to female and ethnic minority students and teachers enhance their status

The increased community and institutional support for girls' and ethnic minority education is transforming the traditional perception of low value of girls' education. Girls are now gaining more access to enroll in and complete lower secondary education, and the educational environment is increasingly becoming more gender-fair. For example, the pilot school feeding program involved girl and boy students on a daily basis in food preparation, cooking and washing up in school kitchens, without differentiating tasks, hence, breaking down gender stereotypes of roles and responsibilities.

Girl students also articulated high and uninhibited dreams for further study and careers, including in non-traditional areas such as engineering and sciences.

Conversations with parents indicated positive attitudinal change towards secondary education for daughters, and increasing acceptance of semi-boarding for girls. Mothers explained that educated women who speak Vietnamese are less dominated by men in families, and viewed education as important for their daughters. Some parent-teacher associations (PTAs) are proactively mobilizing community support to families with daughters at risk of drop-out.

Teachers expressed appreciation for the provision of safe and secure housing in close proximity to their workplace, which provided them with the personal stability to be able to focus on their work. Prioritization of female teachers and staff in the allocation of project resources (e.g. training, teacher housing) also enhanced their status relative to their male peers. Training enhanced their career development. Female teachers also provide more positive female role models for girls from poor, disadvantaged and ethnic minority areas.

Overall, the project has delivered significant benefits to girls and ethnic minorities in terms of improving access to and quality of lower secondary education in the most disadvantaged regions. To strengthen these gains, challenges that need to be addressed for the remaining period of implementation include paying greater attention to districts/schools which are facing difficulties in meeting the targets, and improving the collection, reporting and analysis of sex-disaggregated data. In addition, aside from providing semi-boarding spaces for girls, providing guidance to improve their psychological/emotional well-being could help them adjust to their new environment away from their family.