It's 8 p.m., and 18 women have gathered outside of their boarding house under a bright street lamp. All are street vendors in the hectic, commerce-filled streets of Hanoi, and they have spent a grueling day in constant motion peddling an array of goods—potatoes, brooms, cakes, and flowers.
The women are vulnerable on almost every front—poor, socially isolated, and too often subjected to harassment and violence. Though exhausted after their long day, the women are on time, ready for the self-help meeting they have been anticipating for weeks. It has been more than a month since they last convened. Their excitement is palpable.
An improbable leader calls out to assemble the group. Phạm Thị Hậu has endured long years of poverty, domestic violence, widowhood, and a constant struggle to earn enough to support her school-age daughter. Hậu’s near-constant smile and cherubic face belie her age and hard life. Just two years ago, she was shy, ashamed of her appearance, and too embarrassed to speak in public. Tonight, Hậu steps easily into her role as facilitator, thanks in part to her experience in the STONES project—an Oxfam project funded by the Belgian government. She leads one of 17 self-help groups launched through the project, which works with street vendors and scrap collectors to give them the knowledge and skills to enjoy a healthy, secure life. Managed locally by the non-profit Institute for Development & Community Health—LIGHT, the project has reached about 4,000 people—with the women in particular now safer, more independent, and closer to being a legitimized asset of the economy.