Did you know Vietnam is estimated to have one of the top five highest abortion rates in the world?
As eastern traditions meet western media, premarital sex has become less taboo, but talking about it remains just as uncomfortable. Sex education has been written into the national curriculum, but without the proper training or comfort with the subject, most teachers ignore the unit, leaving Vietnamese youth with rumors and the internet to guide their coming-of-age. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, this has led to a significant rise in unwanted pregnancies and subsequent abortions. The latest numbers suggest an average of 2.5 abortions per female within the 91-million-strong nation.
My summer in South Africa with ThinkImpact in 2011 taught me to “be a fly on the wall” and find solutions that are culturally relevant, self-sustaining, and that feature strong local engagement. So when my friends Amy Cowan and Annika Scharbert launched a social enterprise called The intiMate Initiative® in Hanoi last year, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. We are passionate about expanding access to sexual health information for youth in Vietnam, grounded in the belief that education plays a key role in empowering people to make informed and smart decisions about their bodies and sexual relationships.
We saw that most people in Vietnam are aware of the need for sex education; they are just not comfortable talking about it themselves. The government is a similar story – they fully promote sex education and have created a supportive policy environment, but have not been able to allocate a budget to shift the status quo. Seeing the need for someone to pay for and teach the classes, we stepped in.
How it works: two local organizations, Craft Link and Hope Center (both of who provide employment opportunities and training for ethnic minority women and people with disabilities), manufacture our products, the ‘Mates’. Your miniMate is a fabric bracelet with fold over pockets that can store sexual health products like tampons or condoms on a night out, or keys during a run. Its slightly larger counterpart, Your intiMate, is a notebook-sized zippered bag with a series of pockets and compartments to store condoms, sanitary pads, tampons, birth control, underwear, and more. Your intiMate offers a discreet and fashionable way to keep sexual health products on hand and easily accessible when they are needed. These are sold both online and on the German market –Amy and Annika are based in Germany, so the organization is registered there.
The profits from the sale of the ‘Mates’ are used to fund local sex education workshops, run by Wilhelm Pham and myself, that use a comprehensive, scientifically based, and locally relevant curriculum. Together with other partner organizations we also facilitate events such as discussion groups and information evenings, and offer a range of judgment-free services. We create a safe space in which young Vietnamese adults can learn and discuss sex and sexuality.
It has been a terrific experience thus far, and we have been blown away by the support we have received in the past 14 months. The timing is perfect in Vietnam to be bringing these sorts of issues to light, and we are very excited to see what will come next. Looking forward, we will be bringing the workshops to new audiences, including schools, language centers, and representatives of the national Women’s Union on how to address adolescent reproductive health.