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Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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Before joining ChildFund in Laos activities, 16-year-old Xaykham from Khoun District, Xiengkhouang Province had never heard of a children’s forum.

“I never knew there were activities where children could share their thoughts and opinions,” he said.

Traditionally, children’s voices in Laos have not been given serious attention, particularly in the public sphere of decision-making. That’s what makes opportunities such as the National Children’s Forum, an annual event co-hosted by ChildFund in Laos and the National Commission for the Advancement of Women and Mothers-Children (NCAWMC), so vital. 

Xaykham has been lucky enough to participate in two such events in recent years. In addition to this year’s Children’s Forum, he was also able to join a 2019 event commemorating 30 years since the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the event child representatives from all the Lao provinces had an opportunity to meet and bring their concerns on issues affecting them to stakeholders at the national level.

But Xaykham (pictured above at the 2020 Lao Children’s Forum) is in the minority.

Xaykham said it was particularly important for children in places like his home province of Xiengkhouang to be able to participate in activities such as the Children’s Forum. In his area, he said, there were few opportunities where children could demonstrate their abilities. There might be some chances for children to show their talents in sports or singing, but as for providing their thoughts and opinions, or speaking out, there were not really any platforms.

When he heard about the Children’s Forum, which is now in its third year in Laos, Xaykham was enthusiastic to participate. “I wanted to have the chance to speak as a youth representative,” he said. “In my community, most children still lack opportunities. I wanted to speak out to represent youth in my district and to tell adult leaders and authorities about the problems children in my community are facing.”

Stepping out of comfort zones

Xaykham was not the only one making the most of his time at the forum. Sixteen-year-old Namfonh, who is from Vientiane Capital and was the MC at the forum, was attending the event for the first time after hearing about it through a peer at her school who was part of ChildFund’s Ready for Life project.

“Since the forum, I have wanted to have new experiences and open opportunities for myself, to do things I’ve never done before,” Namfonh said.

Namfonh and Xaykham are both taking part in ChildFund’s Ready for Life project, which aims to empower young people through developing their decision-making, critical thinking and life skills, and increasing their opportunities to participate in change, and voice their opinions, in their communities.

“Before joining the Ready for Life project, I was shy and didn’t dare to speak out,” Xaykham said. “It was something I never had the chance to do. There were some times that I did have the chance, but I didn’t dare to take it.

Namfonh had a similar experience. “When my teachers used to ask questions, I would know the answer, but I wouldn’t dare to say it.” She smiled as she thought of how shy and fearful she had been in the past. “Even if it was just my friends inviting me to go out with them, I wouldn’t dare to go!”

Becoming a new mother can be accompanied by many exciting and important new tasks, from holding and feeding the new baby to making sure she is safe and clean, and getting her medical attention if she gets sick. It can be a stressful time for many women and their families as they try to navigate motherhood and the best way to care for their babies and themselves.  

In remote villages in Huaphanh Province in Laos, volunteers from ChildFund’s maternal and child health and nutrition project are helping to reduce the stress that mothers can face, and ensure they and their babies are safe and healthy.

Mother-of-four Souk is one of these volunteers. Since 2018, Souk has been helping dozens of mothers in her village care for themselves and their babies for 1,000 days, the time from when a woman becomes pregnant to her child’s second birthday. This period of 1,000 days is critical to a child’s healthy development. Good nutrition for both mother and baby, for example, is necessary for proper brain development and laying the foundations for good health throughout a child’s life.

In remote villages in Laos, says Souk, women and their families have traditionally relied on outdated and potentially unsafe practices because of the lack of access to professional health care, information and advice.

“Before ChildFund’s ‘1,000 days’ activities, most mothers and their families were not fully taking care of their own health,” Souk says. “Mothers worked too hard, did not eat a variety of food groups, and did not pay attention to prenatal health needs like taking iron pills.

“After giving birth they followed traditional practices like restricting what foods new mothers could eat.  They also lacked some of the skills to take care of newborn infants, and sometimes they did not follow doctors’ instructions on breastfeeding, because they believed they had to give their baby food and water so they would not be hungry and thirsty. This led to many babies becoming unhealthy and malnourished, which sometimes caused stunting and underweight infants.”