Vietnamese startup opens new window on sex education

By Thanh Hang   April 16, 2020 | 11:00 am GMT+7
WeGrow Edu, a sex education startup founded by four Vietnamese students, approaches the subject from a rights and development perspective.

After a tough start, their work has been recognized by, among other people and institutions, the U.S. State Department, which has chosen it among 25 projects to provide some funding.

Nguyen Phuong Tu, 23, came to work Monday instead of working from home.

The former Foreign Trade University (FTU) student wanted to finish packing the Rise and Shine ‘gift’ boxes to be sent to students of WeGrow Edu staying at home during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

WeGrow Edu is a sex education startup founded by Tu, Linh Hoang, Ha Thi Thu and Nguyen Bich Ngoc, which the group has been working for more than three years. While Tu, Thu and Ngoc are FTU graduates in economics, accounting, auditing, banking and finance, Hoang got her degree in International Business from a university in Finland.

All four graduates are also members of VOGE – the Vietnam Organization for Gender Equality – established by Linh Hoang.

Four years ago, during a summer camp organized by VOGE, Tu and Linh Hoang interacted with many elementary and junior high school students and realized that many had almost no knowledge of gender issues.

They also noticed some students did not feel confident about their sexuality and others were worried about overcoming gender stereotypes in pursuing their passion. For instance, they recalled there were boys who were passionate about fashion design and girls who liked to play football, but were unable to overcome the invisible wall built up by gender-based prejudices.

Nguyen Phuong Tu (second from left) and three co-foudnders of WeGrow Edu. Photo courtesy of Tu.

From left: Nguyen Bich Ngoc, Nguyen Phuong Tu, Linh Hoang and Ha Thi Thu, the co-founders of WeGrow Edu. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Phuong Tu.

This discovery led to more than two years of researching and the establishment of WeGrow Edu in 2019 with the goal of helping children and youth understand a difficult topic from an empowering perspective and creating long-term values.

Instead of contraception or sexual abuse prevention, which are often the main focus of most sex education programs, WeGrow Edu chooses the perspective of individual rights and human development.

"We want to help them know how to protect, love and become the best version of themselves," Tu said.

The group's main activities are setting up summer education courses and camps; and designing and carrying out extracurricular programs for school children aged between 4 and 18. The lesson plan follows America's SIECUS sex education framework, combining it with Vietnamese teaching values.

At the beginning, Tu introduced WeGrow Edu to private secondary schools in Hanoi. However, many schools turned them down because the content was "too sensitive." When they called parents to try and persuade them letting their kids attend the course, a response Tu's team received often was: "We can teach it by ourselves." 

In the first four months after its launch, the company was not approved by any school and couldn't hold any class. All four members were stressed out, although they were prepared for the fact that sex education was a topic people typically avoided mentioning in Vietnam and were not comfortable dealing with.

"Maybe our model and approach was wrong," Tu recalled thinking.

Despite the setbacks, the team was not prepared to give up. They had determined that this will be their career and not just a project that will run for a few years. Instead of quitting, they became even more active, attending their university's entrepreneur programs like FTU Innovation and Incubation Space and other workshops to meet with people, including parents, and better understand their mindsets. 

The break

The team got their first opportunity when a lecturer in their school asked the group to come and talk to students in his English class about their sex education course.

Later, another teacher who learned about the project encouraged parents to let their children try out WeGrow Edu's courses.

From then on, the startup began receiving invitations from different organizations, schools and parents. Today, the team is now connected with 14 schools and has organized more than 20 courses, reaching over 300 students.

Students attending a WeGrow Edus lesson. Photo courtesy of Tu.

Students are all smiles, attending a WeGrow Edu course. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Phuong Tu.

Tu said he has witnessed many touching moments between parents and children as a result of the courses. Before finishing a course, the group reserves a private time for parents to talk and open up with their children through a handwritten hand letter. They can even read the letter themselves, if they want to. 

One time, a mother talked about how miserable her pregnancy was and how happy she felt when her son was born. But later the mother and son grew distant, and she shared that she did not know how to talk to her children about gender issues.

"Our team is very touched and feel very fortunate when families trust and share their stories with us. This is the motivation for us to persist with WeGrow Edu, contributing to creating good values for children and helping them to connect better with parents," Tu said.

At the end of 2019, the team presented their project at the Social Business Creation international competition organized by HEC Montreal University in Canada and finished among top 10 social entrepreneur projects. 

Two months later, early this year, they became one of 25 firms in Southeast Asia to be sponsored by the U.S. State Department to develop a pilot project to promote gender equality among high school students in Vietnam.

Rise and Shine

The Rise and Shine gift boxes, part of the project and the WeGrow Edu courses, are designed for children to use during long break from school. 

The boxes are divided into four age groups - four to seven, eight to 11, 12 to 16 and 17 to 18, each containing four compartments of 30 items and messages for each group. The content for these boxes keeps evolving, Tu said.

A Rise and Shine gift box. Photo courtesy of Tu.

A Rise and Shine gift box. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Phuong Tu.

For example, the "Happiness" compartment of the box for 12 to 16-year-old children has changed a lot with the team including content related to puberty presented through many short stories. In addition, students can find body care items in the "Love Yourself" compartment and can learn about condoms, pregnancy tests and tampons in the "Secret" compartment.

Finally, in the Peace section, the group presents many souvenirs, as also several QR codes for the children to contact the team directly if they need to talk and receive advice.

Le Ha, Director of the FTU Innovation and Incubation Space, highly appreciated the idea of WeGrow Edu project when Tu introduced it in early 2019. 

Ha felt that the group's teaching method will help young people protect themselves from sexual abuse, school bullying and gender stereotyping while developing to their full potential.

WeGrow Edu is not only a startup project, it has become a go-between, connecting families and schools in providing sex education for children, Ha said.

Tu said the team plans to approach a group of public schools in Hanoi to introduce their project. In the next five years, they hope to develop a gender education program that can become a subject taught at all schools in Vietnam.

While acknowledging that this was a big and ambitious goal, he said the team was motivated by the results achieved so far and the positive feedback they have received. 

It "allows us to hope for a positive result."

 
 
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