BANGKOK—Parents in rural Laos are still keeping their children out of school so they can work to support their families, according to a senior education official in the tiny Southeast Asian country—one of the world’s poorest.
Vice Minister for Education Lytou Buapao said the country’s economic future depends on higher school enrollment for Lao youths, especially in the remote and mountainous northern and southern Lao provinces.
“We need to get parents to understand that education is a right for every child—because if poor people don’t go to school, they won’t have any knowledge or career training or income,” he said. “The way out of poverty nowadays is for children to go to school.”
“This is common for developing countries—parents believe their children are part of the household labor force,” he said in an interview.
“But it is important that we get them to understand so that they will encourage their children to study. If they don’t understand, even if they have money” they won’t send their children to school, he added.
Most children not in school live in the mountainous regions of the northern and southern provinces, where people live scattered in remote areas that have received little development.
Laos—with just under 7 million people—claims a literacy rate of 69 percent. Roughly 78 percent of the population works in agriculture, and its annual per capita earning are just U.S. $765.
Aid workers in Laos say convincing Lao parents to educate their daughters is especially difficult, and some areas have found that providing lunch at school helps draw in students.
Child hunger also a problem
"Although the government has made children's education and health care a priority in its economic planning, funding for children's basic health and educational needs remained inadequate, and the country had a very high rate of infant and child mortality," the U.S. State Department said in its 2009 report on human rights worldwide.
"Education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fifth grade; however, high fees for books and supplies and a general shortage of teachers in rural areas prevented many children from attending school," it said, citing "significant differences among the various ethnic groups in the educational opportunities offered to boys and girls."
Lao officials and international sources say malnutrition also remains a major problem among children in Laos, with those in rural areas suffering most.
In December, Laos adopted its first national nutrition policy in a bid to address chronic hunger, with involvement from 15 government ministries and institutions.
In the remote southern province of Attapeu, the problem is especially acute, one provincial health official said recently.
A Lao doctor and member of the National Assembly recently raised the issue in Parliament.
In 1993, he said, malnutrition affected 47.3 percent of Lao children under age five, dropping only to 40.7 percent in 2000 and 40.4 percent in 2006.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) regards the food situation in Laos as “alarming.”
Benchmark indices of human development such as health and literacy are significantly lower among people in rural areas. Chronic malnutrition causes mental as well as physical impairment.
The WFP works with the Lao Education Ministry to provide free snacks and lunches to rural schoolchildren, and girls are given rations of canned fish and rice to take home as an incentive for parents to send their daughters to school.
Original reporting by Krongkran for RFA's Lao service. Service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.