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Malnutrition on the frontline: a teacher’s story

One of the biggest challenges Grade 1 teachers in Australia face is keep up with the energy levels of their young students.

At Nammen Primary School in northern Laos, Grade 1 teacher Pim has the opposite problem.

Her students often come to school lethargic. Their young minds aren’t buzzing with enthusiasm. Instead, they are distracted by stomach pains and headaches.

Laos has some of the highest rates of child malnutrition in Asia. In many remote villages like Pim’s over half of all children are chronically malnourished and over a third are underweight.

Pim, who has been teaching at the government school for 13 years, sees firsthand the effect this has on children.

“My students often come to school hungry and when they are hungry they cannot concentrate, it is very hard to teach them,” she says.

Malnutrition locks children into a cycle of poverty.

When a child doesn’t get the food they need, their growth can become stunted, making them more vulnerable to disease.

Without proper nutrition, a child’s brain may not develop to its full cognitive ability. When children are repeatedly ill, their body can struggle to retain the nutrients of an already meager daily diet.

Repeated illnesses can affect their families, who may have to miss work or school to look after the child and spend more of their limited resources and income on medical care.

The majority of children who are stunted come from families living in poverty and who already under considerable financial stress.

Nutrition-related factors accounted for about 45% of all deaths of children under five in 2016. In Laos, every year more than 6,000 children die due to illnesses related to malnutrition.

For every undernourished child who survives, countless more are permanently affected. When stunted children become adults they can expect to earn 20% less than adults who were not stunted as children.

Thaimoua Yongvang, ChildFund Laos’ provincial area manager for the region that covers Nammen village, says this is one of the region’s biggest problems.

Grade 1 teacher Pim sees the effects of malnutrition every day

“The big problem is that they drop out of the school,” he says.

“We are seeing this problem here. Children drop out of school, or they start school late. According to the education regulations, children need to start school at six years old but that does not happen here in the rural villages.

“So they don’t go to school at the right time and they are not in the grade they should be.”

Pim says it is upsetting to see her students come to school with empty bellies. When possible, she goes home and returns with rice for the children who haven’t eaten, but she cannot always do that. She has three children of her own to care for.

ChildFund is tackling this widespread problem by providing vital equipment and training to help identify malnourished children at the earliest age. This project is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).

The parents of these children receive training on food and nutrition, as well as agriculture classes to help them establish home gardens and improve their farms and crops.

Parents are also given seeds to grow new food varieties that will supplement the family diet and which can also lead to small business opportunities.

Thaimoua, who grow up in the local area, said these steps are vital to the long-term development of some of Laos’ most disadvantaged communities.

“It is very important for children to have good health and good nutritious food because they will grow very fast and they will have a good life.

“Because they can go to school, they can go for higher education and they can live a good life.”

No child should suffer from hunger

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