Despite a recent report by an NGO promoting children’s rights that indicated Laos performed poorly last year in dealing with childhood malnutrition and stunted growth, Lao officials have painted a rosier picture of the situation.
U.S.-based Save the Children’s report titled “The Many Faces of Exclusion” ranks 175 countries based on a range of indicators related to childhood, including chronic malnutrition, stunted physical growth, child marriage, and adolescent pregnancy.
In the report released at the end of May, Laos fell two places to 132nd beneath regional neighbors Thailand (85), Vietnam (96), and the Philippines (104).
According to the most recent available data cited in the report, Laos had an under-five mortality rate of nearly 64 deaths per 1,000 live births and a roughly 44 percent rate of stunting among children less than five years old.
About 19 percent of Lao’s children of primary and secondary school ages did not attend classes, and just over 10 percent of youths aged five to 17 engaged in child labor, the report said. It also noted that about a quarter of Lao girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married, and the country has about 64 births per 1,000 girls of the same age range.
Out-of-school girls are held back by barriers related to cultural norms, as well as poverty, early and forced marriage, teen pregnancy, rural residence, refugee conditions, and gender-based violence, the report said.
An estimated two-thirds of girls who are out of school worldwide are from ethnic minority groups in their countries, it said, noting that in Laos, ethnic Hmong girls are three times as likely to be out of primary school as girls belonging to the majority Lao ethnic group.
“Stunting and child mortality remain big challenges for Laos," said Deborah Leaver, Lao country director for Save the Children, in an article on the Laotian Times website.
"Save the Children works with the government of Laos and with the support of donors such as USAID, the European Union, and the Australian government to reduce these numbers,” she was quoted as saying.
“Save the Children has been working in Laos for more than 30 years, and we’ve seen a lot of improvements in this time,” she said. “But there is a lot more work to do, and we will continue working to improve the situation for children in Laos.”
One of the report’s findings differed though from a figure indicated in a survey conducted by the Nutrition Department under Lao’s Ministry of Health and published by state-run media in June,
The department said that the rate of stunting from malnutrition among children under 5 had dropped to 33 percent in 2017 from 44 percent in 2011.
An employee from the Nutrition Department, who declined to give her name, repeated this figure when contacted by RFA’s Lao Service in July.
“The rate of malnutrition is still high at the present time, but it has been reduced from occurring in nine provinces to eight provinces,” she added.
Phongsaly, Sekong, Xieng Khouang, Xaysomboun, Saravane, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, and Hua Phanh are the provinces in which nutrition officials are most concerned about child malnutrition occurring, she said.
The causes of malnutrition and stunting in the country can be attributed not only to a lack of food, but also to a lack of knowledge about proper nutrition in daily meals, she said, adding that government is addressing these shortcomings through education programs for villagers and schoolchildren.
Between 2016 and 2020, the government has been implementing a program in which the country’s education ministry provides school lunches, and the agriculture ministry teaches children and villagers gardening skills, she said.
She also told RFA that the agriculture ministry will teach villagers and schoolchildren how to raise chickens, ducks, and other livestock for food, while the health ministry will teach them about nutrition.
Tackling child malnutrition
This isn’t the first time that the Lao government has addressed the issue of malnutrition among children.
The health ministry and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) teamed up to conduct a seminar on the topic in September 2017, under the chairmanship of Lao Health Minister Bounkong Syhavong.
Representatives from the WFP and World Health Organization, related international organizations in Laos, and health officials from provinces including Savannakhet, Phongsaly, Sekong, Oudomxay, and Phongsaly attended.
“Malnutrition obstructs the development of the country so that all related departments should cooperate with development partners to develop strategy and a national plan to tackle malnutrition in Laos from this year to 2025,” Bounkong Syhavong said at the time.
He also said that with the help of development partners in the past, the rate of malnutrition in Laos among children under five had declined to 36 percent in 2015 from 40 percent in 2012, and that the country planned to further reduce it to 25 percent between 2016 and 2025.
More recently on July 12, the Lao government organized a conference on malnutrition under the chairmanship of Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, which included representatives from many international organizations and relevant departments.
Bounkong Syhavong told conference attendees that the country’s efforts had reduced malnutrition and stunting among children aged five and under to 33 percent, but that more work needs to be done to reach the ministry’s goal.
A March 2018 assessment by the World Bank said that Laos’ gross domestic product grew by an average of 7.8 percent over the last decade, and that the country has halved poverty, reduced hunger, and improved education and health outcomes in recent years.
But the institution also said it continues to lag in other key areas — most notably on child nutrition — citing the same 44 percent of children under five years of age with stunted growth, as does the Save the Children report.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya, Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.