Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

With a population of under 7 million people, much of Laos is sparsely populated, and visiting our project locations in the remote north east involved a local flight to the provincial capital, followed by a 3-hour drive to the northeast border.

The roads vary in quality, but even on the main highway, you can’t drive more than 40 – 50km/hr. It takes time to get to the communities as ChildFund works in the most remote, marginalised and in-need populations.

I’m here to review our nutrition programing in the province.

Despite suffering incredibly high levels of stunting (a chronic form of malnutrition that affects both physical and mental development), Laos possesses very few nutrition experts – in fact, there are no tertiary level courses for people to even be trained – that’s why I have been called in to advise on the current strategy.

This project works in two districts about 50km apart, and covers over 20 villages.

We are focusing on rural and remote areas where access to services and health education is particularly challenging. In these areas, over half of the children are stunted; a product of poverty, lack of health and nutrition knowledge, and culturally ingrained food habits. A number of local food taboos mean that women often eat only sticky rice in late pregnancy and early post-partum.

It’s a diet that starts depriving the developing foetus from necessary vitamins and minerals for growth even before birth. In some cases, mothers feed masticated sticky rice to newborns, in the tragic misbelief that it is better than breastmilk.

We are combating these habits by training local people to become health volunteers. We teach them how to monitor children’s growth, and to lead nutrition education sessions for mothers and children.

On the afternoon of 20 July 2018, Aiva turned up at Waima Health Sub-Centre with birth pains. Later that night she delivered twin healthy baby boys.

This was Aiva’s fourth pregnancy and second delivery at a health centre with a trained health professional.

“Although I was surprised to have two babies, I’m glad it was here at the clinic and not at home as I know they will be ok,” Aiva said.

Aiva hails from Waima village in a remote part of Central Province in Papua New Guinea.

Women in her village often walk for hours to the nearest health facility to give birth and endure the 180km ride to Port Moresby if they have complications during childbirth.

Papua New Guinea has some of the world’s highest rate of deaths in childbirth. Many mothers have no choice but to give birth at home, with the help of untrained relatives or traditional birth attendants.

Women living in Aiva’s village, where ChildFund works, often have to walk several kilometres to the closest health clinic, which has two trained health workers and limited facilities.

If the clinic is closed, they must travel 24km to the closest district health centre. Women usually have to hire costly taxis, which are few and far between in remote communities, to make this journey. This can end in tragedy.

This year, thousands of generous Australians donated a combined almost $250,000 to ChildFund’s appeal to help mothers like Aiva and her babies in Papua New Guinea.

Australians also sent cards of support to women in PNG, a kind gesture that brought tears to the eyes of many expectant mothers in remote villages in PNG.

“Thank you to all our neighbours in Australia who are supporting us and have sent us these cards,” expectant mother Aiba said.

“It’s so nice to know that someone I’ve never meant is thinking of me and my baby. Thank you.”