Exhibit Allows Single Mothers to Speak Out

Truong Thi Minh secured a legal separation after four years of marriage. She’d withstood pity and shame from a coarse, conservative husband, whose family scorned Minh because her family was poor. Her husband’s family falsely accused Minh of stealing rice, forcing her to leave.

Deeply resentful, Minh took her youngest, a baby of 2 months, to her parents’ house. There, she met more opposition. She had no place to live. “I threw myself on the earth, begging for bamboo to frame a thatch house on neighbouring land and to build a narrow bed on the dirt floor for me and my son.”

Life for Truong Thi Minh was desperately hard during 11 years of wandering, including six moves. Then, one day, she witnessed a two-month-old baby sold and then saw her sold again. Minh could never reconcile herself to that image. She searched for a way to ransom the baby and raise her. “I never had enough to eat, I never slept peacefully. Although I had endless hardships, I was determined to raise that baby. I searched for her throughout six villages. I spent 36,000 dong for ferries, with each ferry-ride costing 200 dong I paid 3 million dong [US$250 at that time] in ransom for the baby.”

Truong Thi Minh’s life has gradually become economically secure. Now, Thýng is 13. She’s diligent and well-behaved and loves her mother. Minh says, “I’ve always looked at Thuong as my birth child, I always give her the larger share of any snack. I’m proud that my children prize each other and that both are industrious about making a living. We shop together for lots of consumer items.”

A new photography exhibit at the Women’s Museum in the capital utilises the power of photos to provide single mothers with a voice.
Lady Borton reports.

Sometimes a translation task gives me a sneak preview into an event I might otherwise miss. Such is the case with the exhibit, “Single Mothers’ Voices,” which opens in Ha Noi on Monday, 7 March. The Women’s Museum of Viet Nam has mounted the exhibit with financial support from the Embassy of the Republic of Finland to honour International Women’s Day (8 March).

“Single Mothers’ Voices” displays 100 photographs chosen from over 1,000 images taken by impoverished single mothers living in Tan Minh Commune Soc Son District, Ha Noi. This was the first time these photographers had ever held cameras in their hands. The exhibit also includes portraits and personal stories recounted by 20 of the women.

Museum director Nguyen Thi Bich Van says, “This exhibit is the Museum’s gift to honour single mothers for their courage amidst loneliness, loss, and hardship. And it is a call from the National Women’s Union of Viet Nam to affirm the need for gender equality.”

During several decades working in Viet Nam, I’ve had the chance to visit many rural communities and listen to stories of young widows with children, single mothers who chose not to marry, trafficked women who have returned with children, and single mothers pushed out of their husbands’ houses. This exhibit individualises single mothers’ stories in a social context that appears in some way in every society.

The Women’s Museum is well known for introducing the lives of those struggling on the fringes of society. However, for the first time, the “subjects” – the women themselves – held the cameras. As Dam Thi Hat, a participating photographer, says in one of her captions, “I’m so happy because I’m up in years but can take photos about whatever I want.”

Now, we have single mothers’ stories as the women themselves chose to tell them in captions and show them in photographs.

These particular single mothers have been participants in a development project, “Tan Minh Single Women’s Group,” funded by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Devaid, a Finnish INGO that co-operates with the Finland- Vietnam Friendship Association (FVFA) based in Finland. The project began in 1996. Some of the exhibit’s images reflect project loans for animal husbandry, small-wares businesses, a brick kiln, etc.

Ms. Nguyen Cao Minh Tam has been the Vietnamese project manager since 1999. She points out that the exhibit also shows how one community has changed from ostracising single mothers to greater acceptance and sometimes even validation. “I hope,” Ms. Minh Tam says, “that this exhibit will lead to greater acceptance of single mothers by the wider community of Viet Nam.”

Mr Pekka Hyvonen, Ambassador of Finland to Viet Nam notes, “Thanks to the project activities, many single women in Tan Minh are now in the position to build their own houses, to pay for their children’s studies and, more than that, to have their lives improve as the prejudices fixed against single mothers decrease.” I believe the exhibit showcases the individual and collective efforts of the Single Women’s Group as well as the value of the long-term commitment to capacity builing from the two Finnish NGOs. I hope that new network and market opportunities for this women’s group may arise through this exhibit.”

Project manager Minh Tam adds that the Finnish Tan Minh project can be a model for single mothers in other communities. Indeed, this is true. Although there are many equally successful credit-and-savings loan projects in Viet Nam, the Finnish project is unique because of the co-operation with the Women’s Museum. Through training by museum staff and access to cameras, the Tan Minh single mothers have recorded their lives and struggles. They have stood up bravely. Without bitterness, through their images and captions, they have depicted the prejudice they endured. With dignity, they have claimed and defended their own lives and those of their children.
We who stand on the outside of their experience cannot help but be moved.

A museum exhibit is by its nature static and limited to its site. Of course, the writer in me thought immediately of a book and a web page. Surely, communities across Viet Nam (and internationally, too) should experience the Tan Minh single mothers’ lives. Not surprisingly, it turned out that the Women’s Museum is way ahead of me. Staff members are already at work on an exhibit catalogue and website. Both supplementary projects will enable this exhibit to travel.



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