Until recently, 26-year-old Luong Thi Tham was living under the poverty line on about 400,000 VND (20 USD) a month.

Today, the young woman, who is from the Tay ethnic group, earns a stable income of about 2.5 million VND (125 USD) a month from raising free-range chickens for the market.

The turnaround in Tham's life began after she joined a cooperative group raising free-range chickens using biologically safe techniques and care.

Known as the Thai Nguyen Women's Economic Collaboration Group, it is part of a development project set up by Care International, in May, 2008. It will run until next year.

Until about a year ago, in Tham's group of 13 women, eight were living under the poverty line. Then in January last year, they became part-time poultry farmers after being given 50 one-day-old chickens each.

"We all attended training courses and become trainee trainers," said Tham.

The average profit for each member from their small flocks amounted to 2.5 million VND (125 USD) within three months.

"This was beyond my expectations. I had never dreamt about being so successful," said Tham.

Before the programme started, Tham found irregular work as a hired farm worker earning about 400,000 VND (20 USD) a month.

"With my new money, I can afford some necessary furniture for my house and put a little aside in savings," she said.

In pre-Care days, people usually let their chickens wander around without any care. Now, under biologically safe techniques, the chickens wander freely for much of the day
and are then caged and fed - and given vaccinations when necessary.

"Raising chickens under the model, I need only three or four months before they are ready for market," said Tham. "Before it took six months to have them ready."

Tham is among 12,000 poor residents in eight communes in Dinh Hoa district in the northern province of Thai Nguyen who have received practical assistance from Care International to improve their incomes.

The project has been backed with more than 20 billion VND (1 million USD) from Care Denmark and the European Union and managed by Care International in Vietnam .

Chairman of the Dinh Hoa People's Committee, Hoang Van Son, said that early next year, the committee will join hands with the project management board to make a detailed survey of poverty reduction in the district.

"The pressing concern of these women, most of whom are ethnic women, is not only poverty but gender inequality," said Phan Thu Hien, director of the project.

Women who can contribute to a family's income are highly thought of by their husbands and families.

In the targeted communes, women are encouraged to form production or business groups depending on their interest.

And chicken are not the only source of income, Care International has taught the women to branch out into growing cassava, tea, coffee, sugarcane, maize, organic vegetables, fruit, small agro-forestry plots and silk production.

"The women support and learn from each other, which increases their confidence and strengthens membership ties," said Hien.

By the end of this year, more than 100 cooperation groups comprising a total of about 2,000 members are planned to be in operation.

New cultivation methods for cash crops, updated methods for livestock rearing and crop and livestock restructuring are the main skills being transferred to the groups.

While they are setting up their small operations, group members receive day-to-day advice and coaching from project consultants from Hanoi.

"The women are also taught about marketing, production planning, business start-up and development of capital for business," said Hien.

Groups that have successfully started up and require credit for expansion can now access loans from sources such as the Bank for Social Policies or a fund managed by the Vietnam Women's Union.

Social issues such as gender equality, life skills and household management have also been mainstreamed into the groups' operations.

"This will help poor ethnic women not only generate more income but also improve their position in the household and society at large," said Hien./.