Early child marriage - Lao PDR

A bright spark in the dark: the story of Ning, teenage mother

Ning, 18 years old, is sitting on the wooden floor of the traditional house on stilts, remembering all the events she’s been through over the last two years. While the cook stove is red-hot and full of boiling water, her two-month old baby Eva starts cooing. Ning knows she will soon have to breastfeed her daughter. A new routine she was not expecting to perform that young.

Ning lives with her parents in one of the ten communities of Lao Ngarm district supported by World Vision through the Accelerating Healthy Agriculture and Nutrition (AHAN) Project, in Saravane Province. While she was still a teenage girl completing her education in secondary school, her life turned upside-down a couple of years ago with COVID-19: “we didn’t have regular studies for a while, and then the school permanently closed during the COVID outbreak in 2020” she says. This was the turning point in Ning’s life, representing well the stories of children in her community: over the last three years, one in three children[1] dropped out from school in Ning’s village, including 49 girls. COVID-19 has indeed added on an already precarious situation for girls’ education in rural areas of Lao PDR, where the gross enrolment rate of boys and girls in secondary school was 83% before the pandemic.

Go Baby Go activity - home visit

Ning is part of a seven-member family that includes her parents and four siblings - one older brother and sister and two younger brothers. The precarious balance of the stilts supporting the house reminds the household that life can change with a snap. COVID-19 stroke in Lao PDR and the family struggled to make hands meet. When neighbours were starting to employ their children to generate more incomes in the cassava fields, Ning’s parents were not encouraged to keep her studying. The teenage girl had little the choice, but didn’t worry at that time: “I didn’t think much about my future, my mother also works hard to support our family, so I agreed to help my parents” she says. This was the first step that led Ning into a gridlock. Few months after, at age 17, Ning got married to Mr. Teng, 21 years old. Though the teenager engaged in major responsibilities, her family received a compensation for letting go their daughter, also seen as a source of support they were parting ways with. And a new event came along, adding an additional concern on top of Ning’s burden: “I was very worried about my life after I married, especially when I got pregnant a few months after the wedding. I didn’t have any knowledge of how to raise and take care of a baby” she says. This concern is shared among the community, as Mr. Xay, vice-chief of the village, says: “a child that get married early is a worry in our community, most of the time when they are married for a while, they divorce because they are still not mature as an adult”.

Education is a key determinant of building a brighter future for children, and while Ning’s learning opportunities were sacrificed in the midst of COVID-19, World Vision is supporting her to face the consequences of the pandemic’s impacts on her life. Thanks the support of the European Union and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), World Vision teams have contextualised the Go Baby Go model into Lao context to support young parents like Ning and Teng in becoming positive caregivers through the AHAN Project. The Go Baby Go approach focuses on the first 1,000 days of the children, to help them grow strong and healthy and blossom in a positive family environment. Through a variety of materials used by the home visit facilitator, a community member trained by the project and the Lao Women’s Union staff, the caregivers understand what are the impacts of their behaviours on the life of their children, especially during their young age. The home visitor holds a key role in ensuring the promotion of behaviour change, also helping the parents to identify the signs of growth and counselling them to practice stimulating activities for the child.

Implemented hands-in-hands with the Lao Women’s Union for a sustainable impact, Go Baby Go groups were established in 65 communities of Saravane Province, including in Ning’s village. Ning is one of the 869 parents who attend the new activity that focuses on child development and monitoring the signs of a healthy growth. Ning and Teng received toys for Eva and are regularly visited by the Go Baby Go facilitator in the village.  “I am pleased to see Go Baby Go activities are focused on vulnerable families and is supporting the parents to enable their child to learn and grow strong in the future” says Mr. Vadsanaphone, Coordinator of the AHAN Project in Lao Ngarm district.

In all the chaos and changes she’s been through at a young age, Ning finds joy in joining the project’s activities, especially with Go Baby Go: “I’m very happy that I joined the Go Baby Go activities during my pregnancy, it allowed me to have more knowledge on raising my kid” she says, to continue “my hope is to be a good mother for my child, helping her have a brighter future”. With Teng, who became a supportive husband by attending various project’s activities, she feels determinate to avoid repeating the same scheme for their daughter’s future: “I will strongly support my daughter’s education, so she can do what she wants to do and be who she wants to be”.

Ning, teenage mother and her child Eva

Baby Eva is waking up. Teng is maintaining the firewood of the cookstove, so Ning can breastfeed their daughter. With the support received by World Vision, Eva will have better chances to enjoy life in all its fullness, a life that will certainly make her parents proud, and bring a bright spark in the darkness faced by her young mother.

[1] 96 out of 277 children registered in Ning’s village from 2019 to 2022 have dropped out of school – source: school teacher