A Healthy Start in Vietnam


Semi-boarding schools in the remote Vietnamese province of Dien Bien are at the heart of a UNICEF-supported primary education policy for ethnic minority children.

Ten-year-old Xi, a member of the Vietnamese Mong ethnic minority, wants to be a police officer when she grows up. “I’d like to protect the ethnic minorities, and to be able to spot the drug dealers and stop them,” she says.

Such confidence and social responsibility in someone so young is startling. Her mature attitude represents an encouraging victory for UNICEF’s new country programme geared towards supporting ethnic minority children as well as disabled and other disadvantaged young people.

Xi’s family home is located on a distant upland ridge in Dien Bien province, in the country’s northwest corner. Because of the distance, and because of an affirmative action educational policy introduced by local authorities and supported by UNICEF, Xi’s parents qualify to allow their daughter to stay overnight during the school week at the semi-boarding school. 

Reducing educational gaps

UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has drawn up a country programme for 2012−2016 that includes a special emphasis on tackling educational disparities between different ethnic groups in Vietnam. UNICEF contributes expert advice as well as financial and policy support to the educational authorities.

The benefits of UNICEF-supported semi-boarding schools are a key element of the strategy. Funds collected from Finnair passengers in its Change for Good campaign go to support this component of the programme.

Across Vietnam, only 60 per cent of ethnic minority children finish the first five years of their primary education. Infant mortality in Dien Bien is one of the country’s highest. Many also suffer from stunted growth as a result of a diet low in protein.
Children of pre-school and primary school age are vulnerable to diarrhea and pneumonia, as only 30 per cent of Dien Bien’s total population have access to safe drinking water. Hygienic toilets are in short supply. HIV prevalence in Dien Bien is also well above the national average. Malaria is another common health hazard.
The Phi Nhu primary school attended by Xi belongs to a national network of more than 400 government-approved semi-boarding schools across Vietnam, with more on the way. Set up in remote villages, the schools help to combat challenges of health and hygiene and confront the problem of low school-attendance among ethnic minority children.
Xi and her fellow boarders – there are 139 of them at Phi Nhu out of a total of 426 students − get balanced meals every day, and are taught hygienic and healthy habits as well as information about AIDS prevention. 

Young pioneers

When Mikko Aaltonen of UNICEF Finland and Phan To Mai of UNICEF Vietnam arrive for a visit, the autumn term has just started. The children are assembled outside the classrooms of Phi Nhu, wearing their young pioneer uniforms for a morning ceremony. 
The school’s staff comprises mainly of Kinh teachers – Kinh is the majority ethnic group in Vietnam. The children’s minority language thrives in their communities, but should they have any prospects beyond their local environment, they need to become competent in the national Vietnamese language.
The children lead visitors to their herb and vegetable garden, a neatly watered patch at a comfortable distance from the lavatories.
In the canteen, children help to set the tables and form two orderly queues. The focus is on food for the next half an hour: the kids eat bowlfuls of fish, rice and vegetables with wordless appetites. Compared with what these children might consume in their village homes, the lunch constitutes a hearty banquet. 
After lunch the children wash the dishes, brush their teeth and head for their dormitories for a two-hour nap. 

Taking lessons home

“The children learn things like teeth-brushing at school and take these skills home,” says Mai. “Parents really are influenced by their children’s behavior when it comes to hygiene.” 
“My father listens to me when I tell him he shouldn’t drink and smoke so much,” says ten-year-old Dua during a visit to her home the following day. 
“I am happy that Dua can go to boarding school during the week,” says her father Lau, and he points at his daughter’s school certificates on the otherwise bare wall. “But I am concerned that we might not have enough money to continue boarding when she reaches secondary school.”
Back at the school, Mikko Aaltonen gives his impressions of how the education programme is working in Dien Bien. “UNICEF works with local partners, and I think it’s clear that the relationship is good between the local education committee and UNICEF,” he says, adding that there seems to be trust between UNICEF in its supportive, monitoring and advisory roles and the educational managers that implement the policies. 
“I’m glad we can support such dedicated teachers to do their jobs better,” he continues. “I didn’t expect to see UNICEF books and materials everywhere – that’s not the point. It’s more a matter of influencing policy. And it’s good to hear that the kids and their parents appreciate what’s happening – in the end, it’s all for the benefit of the children.”
Text by Tim Bird
Photo by UNICEF/Vietnam/2013/Tim Bird
A longer version of this article was published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (December 2013).


Published December 9, 2013

Category: Collaboration, Corporate Responsibility