When Agnes Lam Man-ching started flying around the world, meeting people of various nationalities and cultures as a flight attendant seven years ago, the large income gap between the rich and the poor in many societies shocked her.
It was then that a seed of helping others was sown in her heart.
"I flew to India once at the very beginning of my career and saw a family without a home. Their children had to walk barefoot and they obviously would not have a chance to go to school. It was then that I started to think about what I could do to help them," Lam says.
Fresh out of college and 23 at the time, she did not have much savings. Still, she searched online and signed up for the "Sponsor a Girl" programme by British-based Plan International, an NGO that works for children in developing countries.
Now 30, Lam has sponsored the education of some eight girls over the last seven years.
"I spend less on unnecessary items to save up for them," she says. "The money needed to sponsor a child is not much after all."
I spend less on unnecessary items to save up for themAgnes Lam, sponsor
By donating HK$8 (US$1) a day, she can save a young girl from child marriage and give her a chance to grow up safe and happy in a secure community.
In Vietnam, 24 per cent girls get married before they are 15, while 10 per cent get married between the ages of 15 and 19, according to a survey conducted in 2017 by Plan International. Complications caused by teenage pregnancy and childbirth, at a time when their reproductive systems have not yet fully developed, also often contribute to rising maternal mortality.
As many needy families cannot afford tuition fees for their daughters, they prefer to "get rid" of the girls sooner - by marrying them off at an early age.
Child marriage is most prevalent in the central highlands, northern midlands and mountainous areas of Vietnam. There is also a tradition of bride kidnapping among members of the Hmong community, who live in Vietnam's high mountainous region - an area that Plan International's projects cover.
The NGO is conducting various projects in Vietnam to spread knowledge about reproductive health and offer children a platform to develop personal interests - in an attempt to change the culture of suppression of girls and set up a safety net for them. To this end, it has also launched various clubs - for children in general, girls and parents.
In the girls' club, the organisation invites married women to share their experience of an early marriage, to fill the gap of sexual education. It also aims to create an atmosphere of equality for girls by giving them a platform to share their ordeals and seek advice from teachers, who are usually either volunteers or locals.
"These children are in no way mature enough to get married or have kids, when they are still kids themselves. I have had a very happy childhood and I just want to give them the same opportunity," Lam says.
Though she has never met the children she sponsors, they communicate through letters. She was most delighted when she received some drawings and photos from them recently.
"I do not have a child yet, but I get the joy of being a mother. Reading their letters and seeing how they are growing up fill me with joy."
Plan International claims to have witnessed a significant improvement in the social conditions of the girls in areas where it started the "eliminating child marriage" project in 2016. In two years, reports of child marriage in those areas plunged by 65 per cent - from 656 to 230 cases. The average marriage age has also increased to 15.9 in 2018, compared with 15.3 in 2016.
"We cannot underestimate the power of our involvement, though we are trying to do it all from far away," a representative of the organisation says.
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