BANGKOK—Malnutrition remains a major problem among children in Laos, with those in rural areas suffering most and less likely to attend school as a result, Lao officials and international sources say.
In December, Laos adopted its first national nutrition policy in a bid to address chronic hunger, with involvement from 15 government ministries and institutions. Officials held a four-day workshop on nutrition and hunger earlier this month, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad.
In the remote southern province of Attapeu, the problem is especially acute, one provincial health official said recently.
“Especially in rural areas, there is simply no food to eat,” Attapeu health department director Bountem Sangsomsack said.
“People have nothing to eat, so they eat whatever they have,” the official said, adding that the little available food lacks nutrition. “Children in rural areas are old in age, but physically they’re not strong.”
International aid that provides free lunches to children in rural areas is helping, he said.
“I think this program is productive in many ways,” the second official said. “Having no food at lunch is a problem especially for the ethnic [minority] children. If they have foods for the day they may be more willing to go to school.”
A Lao doctor and member of the National Assembly recently raised the issue in parliament. In 1993, he said, malnutrition affected 47.3 percent of Lao children under age five, dropping only to 40.7 percent in 2000 and 40.4 percent in 2006.
“It’s unchanged,” he said. “By international standards, this problem is critical. They aren’t getting enough calories in their food. If this continues, it means that our economic development isn’t reaching outside the cities. There are still big problems in rural areas.”
‘Alarming’ levels of hunger
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) regards the food situation in Laos—one of the world’s poorest, least developed countries—as “alarming,” and it notes that some 85 percent of Laos’s 5.6 million people live in remote rural areas.
Benchmark indices of human development such as health and literacy are significantly lower among people in rural areas. Chronic malnutrition causes mental as well as physical impairment.
“Food insecurity is widespread throughout the country, and it is estimated that 30 percent of the population has insufficient food for more than six months of the year,” the WFP says. “Chronic malnutrition is high, affecting more than 40 percent of children under five years of age.”
The WFP works with the Lao Education Ministry to provide free snacks and lunches to rural schoolchildren, and girls are given rations of canned fish and rice to take home as an incentive for parents to send their daughters to school.
U.N. chief’s visit
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently became the first U.N. chief in decades to pay an official visit to Laos, saying he hoped Laos would meet its target of emerging from the ranks of least developed countries by 2020.
Ban cited “constant improvements in health, education, standards of living," but he also cited prevalent poverty, growing economic disparities, and chronic malnutrition as major problems.
Ban was visiting Laos ahead of publication of a U.N. Millennium Goals report, which monitors a country's progress in overcoming poverty.
Laos has seen poverty fall from 46 percent to 33 percent from 1992-2002, well on its way to reducing poverty by half, as foreseen by the Millennium Goals. But 40 percent of children under five still suffer from chronic malnutrition, the report said.
UNICEF warned last year that infant death rates remain critical in Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, citing malnutrition and contaminated drinking water as major causes.
According to UNICEF figures, 9.7 million children around the world died last year before their fifth birthday, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for about half of them.
In its most recent report on human rights around the world, the U.S State Department said that while Laos "has made children's education and health care a priority in its economic planning, funding for children's basic health and educational needs remained inadequate, and the country had a very high rate of infant and child mortality."
School is free and compulsory through the fifth grade, it said, but high fees for books and a shortage of teachers in rural areas prevent many children from attending school, while trafficking in girls for prostitution and forced labor remains a problem.
Original reporting by Manichan Phimphachanh for RFA's Lao service. Service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.