Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, the current headlines regarding allegations against Judge Kavanaugh and the ascension of Vietnam’s first female president, HopeBox have launched into action at a time where their message will doubtless strike a raw nerve. Dang Thi Huong spends her days as the Director of Marketing and Partnerships at KOTO – the famed social enterprise and culinary school, often represented by Vietnamese Cultural and Culinary Ambassador, Luke Nguyen. A graduate of the KOTO programme, Dang (who requested not to be photographed) has fulfilled her dream of working with her mentors, but outside of the KOTO office, she seeks to tackle what has been described as a silent epidemic in Vietnam: domestic violence.
“Long story short, I have someone very close to my heart who’s been the victim of domestic violence for six years, so I’ve always wanted to do something for them,” explains an earnest Dang as we sip coffees at the KOTO restaurant in Hanoi. “HopeBox was born in Melbourne, Australia back in 2015 while I was a student there, when I told people about the idea of using the food industry to solve social problems. They all warned me it would be very difficult – I’m only seeing now how hard it really is.”
There are three issues that HopeBox aims to address, Dang tells me. “Firstly, it’s about creating jobs for women who’ve been affected by domestic violence – that’s crucial – secondly, we want to create natural, organic, healthy food and thirdly, we want to do all of this in the most environmentally sustainable way possible.”
Established, aptly enough, on March 8th 2018 – International Women’s Day – HopeBox is a sanctuary for women who’ve been abused and offers them gainful employment cooking and preparing lunchboxes to be sent out to office workers around the Vietnamese capital.
“For HopeBox it’s not just about business or money, we need to raise awareness – people don’t realise the scale of the issue and money just isn’t enough.” Establishing financial independence and social autonomy is crucial to escaping domestically violent relationships – an issue that affects a sobering 58.3% of married women here, according to a 2015 report from Thanh Nien News. Put into the regional and global context respectively, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2017 estimates demonstrated that 37.7% of women in Southeast Asia and 35% of women worldwide have experienced domestic violence in one form or another.
According to Dang, it’s the cultural elements inherent to Vietnamese society that prevent women from seeking help. “The social pressures of families, communities and society is too strong, it’s not as simple as just getting a divorce.” This is a notion reinforced by the 2010 Vietnam National Study conducted by Vietnam’s General Statistics Office and the WHO that found a mere 13% of abused women approached the justice system for assistance. Broken bones and bloodied noses are considered family matters and, perhaps more disturbingly, considered par for the course by many women here.
This is where HopeBox plans to play on the skills born out of the rigidity of Vietnam’s gender roles – cooking may be the domain of many married Vietnamese women, but for those who’re suffering in a violent relationship, cooking might be the way out. “The food that we’re doing just now is family food, a box will typically contain soup, rice, some vegetables and some slow-cooked or braised meat,” Dang tells me. “It’s very Vietnamese, which means it’s very familiar to the women we work with – they already know how to cook these meals most of the time.”
Of course, ensuring economic freedom for abused women is the focus of HopeBox, but as Dang mentioned, healthy eating is also a core value, as such she’s invested a lot of time and effort to cultivate relationships with farmers who can provide ingredients that meet her standards. “What we do is source the ingredients from local farmers back in my hometown, these are people we know, people we can trust – we then bring the ingredients back to Hanoi on the weekends and receive more via bus throughout the week so that the women can prepare them in the mornings and have them ready for lunch.”
HopeBox has made it this far through the dogged determination of Dang and the relentless encouragement from her team, but it’s been far from easy establishing her social project. “Most of the landlords we spoke to didn’t want to make a commercial kitchen for us – if it’d been a pho shop, it would’ve been easy, instead, it’s a sensitive issue…” she trails off before regaining her composure. “I couldn’t believe how difficult it’s been, but we need to protect the privacy and security of the women we care for.”
It’s for this reason that the location of HopeBox is known only to a handful of trusted individuals, as Dang explains, the danger posed by her staff’s husbands is too great. It was an issue that made most landlords too nervous to support her when she was looking for a kitchen to operate from.
Beyond that, her attempt to alter the Vietnamese habits have been met with some resistance. “It’s hard here to ask people to put their orders in the day before, but if they want good, healthy, organic food, we can’t just get it from the market – we need to be prepared.” All customers must order a minimum of three boxes by 4pm the day before they want their lunchboxes delivered, but Dang smiles as she explains, “It’s going to take some time before we can change behaviours and habits, but because we use glass boxes instead of plastic, we have to collect the containers and some people find it inconvenient with cleaning their boxes after they’ve used them, I can understand it, but the disposable lifestyle needs to change.”
Currently, HopeBox is seeking to expand their capacity and Dang and her team is working with social workers and Hagar International in order to offer women who’ve been the victims of domestic or sexual abuse an opportunity to live independently, without fear. Beyond lunchboxes, Dang tells me that she wants to branch out into baking – utilising some of the talented chefs and alumni of KOTO to train the staff at HopeBox so they can expand their range. “Cookies, cakes – anything delicious that we can put in a box!” Dang and the other co-founder of HopeBox, Anh Lien Tong – Australian Award Scholar, receive no pay from this, but are able to keep it running through their philanthropy and supporters. HopeBox is a way out a situation that befalls far too many women.
For more information on how you can help, please visit HopeBox’s Facebook.