Sexual temptation results in hundreds of unwanted babies being abandoned by young female factory workers every year, but things are finally moving in the right direction in Vietnam
By Marianne Brown
Patrolling the backstreets on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Huynh Tieu Huong made another heart-breaking discovery. Partially concealed in a pile of rubbish and wrapped in newspapers was a tiny baby.
“I heard her crying. She was very small, only about a day old,” Tieu Huong said. “We took her home and nursed her for a while. Then when she was strong enough we took her to hospital.”
It was just another night’s work for Tieu Huong, who runs an orphanage for abandoned children in Binh Duong province.
Thousands of infants have passed through her doors over the years, most of them offspring of workers in nearby garment factories. Each year she finds dozens of newborns left out with the rubbish.
“Sometimes the babies have been partially eaten by rats, some are crawling in ants,” Tieu Huong said. But things are changing. “The peak was in 2010, when I found 80 babies. Last year, I found 40 and this year only 13 so far, so I am sure there will be a lot fewer this year.”
The reason, she said, is better health services for workers. Around 80% of factory workers in the garment industry are unmarried women aged between 18 and 25, according to Marie Stopes International (MSI), which works with 24 international brands and their suppliers in Vietnam. It offers mobile services to factories and programmes to improve sexual health care for the employees.
“Being far away from their families and alone, they are more likely to have sex,” said Nguyen Thi Le, director of an MSI clinic in Binh Duong. “At home, their families prevent them from getting too close to members of the opposite sex but at the factories there is no one to do that, so many have sex before marriage.”
Huong, 28, does inventory for a Taiwanese shoe factory. She said contraception is considered a woman’s responsibility, but most are too shy to talk about sex if they are not married, let alone go to the shop and buy condoms.
“Many unmarried people at work have sex,” she said. “I know many people who live together as man and wife but aren’t married. After they have sex they use the emergency pill. If the woman is under 18 years old, she doesn’t know how to protect herself.”
Last year, MSI served nearly three million women with check-ups, contraceptives and safe abortions. However, companies that supply to big brands have been resistant because they believe the services take up too much time, said Nguyen Thi Bich Hang, MSI’s country representative.
“We tried to quantify the economic losses and consequences to them as a factory if they have more and more women leaving their work for unwanted pregnancy and unwanted births. If you factor in the economic costs to the factory and society of unwanted pregnancies, it’s huge,” she said.
When the programme began in 2005, a factory with 80,000 employees would average 500 births every quarter, one-third to unmarried mothers, Hang said.
“Over time, the number is much lower,” she said.
The message may be heard by international suppliers, but local companies are a different matter, said Vietnam-based economist Jonathan Pincus.
“The large companies do not want to damage their brands after some bad experiences in the past, so they invite in international NGOs and the like to get the word out about working conditions,” he said.
“The smaller companies have no interest in doing so because they have no brand name to protect and their buyers pretend that they do not know what is going on.”
The National Assembly has also voted in favour of increasing maternity leave from four to six months beginning May 2013 and Lotta Sylwander, country representative for UNICEF, said while that will not necessarily affect the number of abandoned babies, it is part of a larger effort to improve working conditions for women. According to her, pressure should be applied from the demand side.
“If people know that this is now the law, then there will be demand and it will be very difficult for companies to get away with not complying with it,” she said.
Tieu Huong said she dreams of being able to build a maternity clinic that could offer post-natal care, so mothers would be able to breastfeed babies and bond with them for two months.
“The baby would be stronger and the mother would be less likely to abandon it,” she said. “No one loves a child like its mother.”