Friday, January 24, 2014

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.

A healthy start in Viet Nam

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, especially bearing in mind that her home is in one of the most disadvantaged and remote parts of Viet Nam, where making ends meet is the main priority. Her mature attitude also 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.
Students at Dien Bien’s semiboarding schools take health and hygiene lessons back to their homes.

Xi’s family home, a one-room wooden shelter with a corrugated roof and hard mud floor, is located on a distant upland ridge in Dien Bien province, in the country’s northwest corner. Their village is located some ten kilometres and a series of very steep and rugged slopes from the nearest school.

Because of this distance, and because of the 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. Boarding saves her an exhausting daily trudge for lessons – in some cases, a long commute can deter kids from attending school altogether. A network of satellite pre-school classes operates in the actual villages, attended by children who are too young to make the longer trek to the main school.

Xi’s school is located a half-day drive from Dien Bien Phu, the provincial capital, through a broad valley of rice paddies where farmers sway on the backs of buffaloes. The road into the northern hills is lined with houses of the Thai minority, built on wooden stilts and partly shrouded in smoke from smouldering maize husks. Women sort the yellow corn and spread it in the sun to dry. The road winds up to patchwork vistas of cultivated hillsides, like giant quilts draped across the mountains.

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 Viet Nam. UNICEF’s remit is to contribute 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.

Statistics verify the need for measures that support the Mong children in Dien Bien, one of eight UNICEF target provinces in Viet Nam. The Mong, who primarily occupy an inaccessible terrain with poorly developed infrastructure, are one of the most populous of 21 ethnic minorities in this province. Across Viet Nam, only 60 per cent of ethnic minority children finish the first five years of their primary education compared with 86 per cent of the Kinh ethnic majority. Infant mortality in Dien Bien, at 37 per 1,000 live births, is one of the country’s highest. Many also suffer from stunted growth as a result of a diet of maize, rice and vegetables but very little protein.

Children of pre-school and primary school age are vulnerable to diarrhoea 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, and children who either have AIDS or are orphaned or neglected as a result of the disease lack a safety network of effective social services. 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 Viet Nam up to 2013, with more on the way. Set up in remote villages, the schools help to combat challenges of health and hygiene, directly and indirectly, 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. These are lessons that they can take back to their families. Their guaranteed attendance during the school week also ensures that they get a primary education which they might otherwise find reasons to skip.

Children at the Phi Nhu primary school put on a performance for UNICEF visitors.
 Young pioneers

When Mikko Aaltonen of UNICEF Finland and Phan To Mai of UNICEF Viet Nam 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 children perform some coordinated routines before returning to their classrooms for lessons. When a journalist tries to enter a reading class discreetly and undetected, the children sound out in unison: “Good morning, teacher!”

School director Lé Van Ngoan leads a staff of mainly Kinh teachers – Kinh is the majority ethnic group in Viet Nam - recruited from the Red River lowlands around Hanoi. 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. There are separate facilities for boys and girls, a feature that is unknown in many villages.

In the canteen, children help to lay the tables and form two orderly but clearly hungry queues – boys in one, girls in the other. The polite but wide-eyed bemusement that greeted their foreign visitors has now been forgotten, and the focus is on food for the next half an hour: the kids devour bowlfuls of fish, rice and vegetables with wordless appetite. Compared with what these children might consume in their village homes, the lunch constitutes a hearty banquet.

After lunch the children wash the dishes, clean their teeth and head for their dormitories for a two-hour nap. Sixty-eight boys huddle in one of these, pulling blankets across a single wooden platform. It’s cramped, but combined body warmth provides effective central heating.

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’ve been showing my brothers and sister how to brush their teeth and wash their hands properly too.”

Dua’s mother sieves corn, and a litter of weaning puppies tumble around their flustered mother in the doorway. “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.”

Dua’s classmate Va lives in a neighbouring village. His father expresses similar worries: “I want to send all my three boys to school for as long as possible,” he says. “I am happy that my sons learn to read and write,” he says, adding that he never had time for that.

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, personally and professionally,” 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.

“It’s not always easy to see how we influence policy, but I saw it demonstrated here on a practical level. 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
Photos by ©UNICEF/Viet Nam/2013/Tim Bird

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