Vietnam: UNICEF's Big Strides in Education and Child Survival

Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF's Country Representative for Vietnam, visited UNICEF USA headquarters in New York on Friday and spoke about the successes her office has achieved on behalf of Vietnam's children. Landmark breastfeeding legislation and a groundbreaking bilingual education program were highlights of a presentation by Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF's Country Rep for Vietnam, at the U.S. Fund's headquarters on Friday. Both achievements reflected efforts by UNICEF to ameliorate the huge disparities that have accompanied Vietnam's leap from a position as one of the world's 10 poorest countries into lower middle-income status.
Lotta in Vietnam with UNICEF Next Generation Lotta Sylwander (back row, center) with UNICEF Next Gen members and the children in a UNICEF-supported swimming class in Dong Thap, Vietnam. © 2013 US Fund for UNICEF/C. Rotter.

While Vietnam's overall poverty rate has fallen from 58% to 21% in two decades, 66% of people who belong to Vietnam's 54 minority groups remain impoverished. This inequity is reflected in education, health and an under five mortality rate among minorities that is nearly 2.5 times higher than the nation's as a whole. The breastfeeding legislation — which bans the marketing of all breast milk substitutes for children younger than 24 months — is one key to addressing under five mortality. Breastfeeding is the world’s most effective and least costly lifesaver, and Vietnam's low breastfeeding rates are a major contributor to early childhood death.  "The problem is educational," Sylwander said. "Breast milk substitute companies have marketed extremely successfully. Mothers believe powder is better. Doctors and nurses believe powder is better. Now, that is going to change." The legislation, passed in May, was accompanied by a second law granting new mothers the right to six months of maternity leave so that they can exclusively breastfeed for the recommended time. Both resulted from an intense UNICEF lobbying effort. "I met with 240 of 500 parliamentarians," explained Sylwander. " I told them if they want a healthy labor force to fuel the economy, they need healthy children." The UNICEF-supported education project is called Mother Tongue / Bilingual (MTB), and Sylwander described the need behind the effort. "School happens in Vietnamese," said Sylwander, "but many ethnic minority children do not speak the language. They encounter it only through one person, their teacher, and aren't able to learn. They leave school with little or no understanding, or simply drop out." MTB teaches students in their mother tongue first and then gradually phases in Vietnamese. "The first groups of students started six years ago and are finishing fifth grade. They are fluent in both reading and writing," said Sylwander.  "Hundreds of students just took the national test, and not only did they do well, they did better than the Vietnamese average. These children aren't dropping out, they are excelling." UNICEF is lobbying to get the program expanded, and Sylwander believes the organization will once again succeed. "Last year I was talking to politicians about breastfeeding, this year I'm talking about MTB."