Women with disabilities in rural Vietnam

Invisible realities

Little is known about individuals with disabilities in the developing world. Yet today they represent 80% of the world’s disabled population (World Bank); mostly ignored by government, social services, and society.

In rural Vietnam, the story of the disabled is one of exclusion and invisibility, affecting women in poorer communities the most. Our training with the Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped to three of them, unveiling unforgettable stories.

“If we are able to show that women with disabilities can do valuable things, take good photographs, then we can show that they can contribute to society if we support them in the right way. We can show people that it is possible.”

Phan Quoc Bao of the Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped, Lensational’s partner in rural vietnam.

The multiply disadvantaged

“People with disabilities simply don’t count in developing countries” explained Sam Jones in a 2014 Guardian article. In 2016, over a billion individuals – 15% of the world’s population – are disabled, 80% of which reside in the Global South. But these numbers largely underestimate the world’s disabled population, because in the global South, it’s often invisible : hidden, marginalised, and therefore not accounted for by social care services, governments, and international organisations. Disability affects the most vulnerable, therefore it affects women more : every year, about 20 million women become disabled as a result of complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Women are considered “multiply disadvantaged” : they are excluded on two counts: their gender, and their disability.

In 2016, we partnered with the Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped to uncover the experiences of women with disabilities in Dong Xoai, situated in the rural Binh Phuoc province of Vietnam. Lensational volunteer and photographer Lilly Pugh ran the programme with the women, teaching them basic photography techniques, as well as the therapeutic elements of photography.

With disabled women there facing the double burden of disability and gender, convincing their families to participate in the photography training proved almost impossible. In total, of the eight women contacted to take part in the photography workshop, only three were allowed or chose to participate. Our partner, Marlee Quinn, recalls: “Although the patient has the ambition to become an artist, and is full of energy and excitement for the world, her family, who have her sleeping in a shed outside of the house, refused to let her participate in Lensational’s workshop. They said that they had given up on her, and were waiting for her to die.” But this was another reason for us to embark in what would become a life-changing workshop with three women – Le Thi Hoi, Le Thi Bich Lieu, and Ho Vu Van Thy – in the town of Dong Xaoi in the Binh Phuoc Province of Vietnam.

In the five days of training, all three women developed a nuanced relationship with photography — a way of exploring their own experiences and perspectives. It became clear that, on a more individual level, photography was a valuable therapy for the women to explore and express their struggles as well as their joys in life.

Hoi selected this picture from our second day together, and articulated that it was an analogy for the future of her family. She saw her husband guiding her daughter to the bright future ahead after she has gone. Hoi is only 30 years old and has rheumatoid arthritis, but almost no access to treatment. Whilst this does not change her life expectancy, her way of seeing the picture shows how she perceives her future. She is a little shaky and shy, but vivid with imagination, and has a natural skill for drawing out the stories in photographs.

Lieu chose to share this picture with the group one day. She discussed her passion for natural beauty, and how it evokes her family’s home in the North. She also explained how it reminds her of her father, who is soft and kind like the picture and who ‘has never once hit her.’ She was keen to share this photograph with her family to show them that she can take pictures.

The owner of the bicycle takes a break from collecting plastic bottles at a small café. Le Thi Bich Lieu, 2016,Dong Xaoi, Vietnam.

Thy who selected this picture by Lieu, describes how she sees the owner of the bike living a free life, able to move around and go wherever they want. The bike, she explains, conveys a slow pace of life, and even though the owner might be poor, they will have a peaceful and happy life. Thy is 22 and has epilepsy. She runs a shop set up by her mother, and gets around with the help of her father. To be unable to care for her family but to be a recipient of care by her mother, mother-in-law, sister or daughter, makes it very difficult for a woman to find her own sense of identity. Furthermore, caring for people with disabilities is always the role of the woman, making disability an even broader woman’s issue.

Beyond the programme

Changing attitudes towards disability is, of course, a slow process. But with a public exhibition of the workshop’s photographs, we hope that, by showing the work of the women to the community and to their families, we might have six women instead of three in the next workshop. Read our programme manager Lily’s blog about the programme and visit the programme gallery below:

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