As we recently celebrated the International Day of the Girl Child, we celebrated Kanna Sunivong, an inspiring young student in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) who received a scholarship to continue her primary school education and who now has big dreams for her future. 

In BeangLuang village, a small, rural village surrounded by expansive green rice fields in Lao PDR’s northwestern Oudomxay province, 11-year old student Kanna walks 1.5km on her own to get to school each morning.  Despite her young age, Kanna bears many responsibilities in addition to getting herself to and from school. 

At just five years old, Kanna lost her mother, leaving her to step up to tasks at home. Currently, she lives with her elderly father, stepmother and 13-year-old sister in a small house without electricity. Kanna’s father and stepmother are unemployed, and her sister is living with mental health problems, which has left Kanna to bear the burden of being the sole breadwinner for the family. In between classes, Kanna works to support her family and until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she washed dishes in a restaurant after school and on weekends, leaving her with little to no time to play with her friends outside of school. 

Covid-19 school closures

When BeangLuang Primary School was closed due to the pandemic, Kanna studied alone at home with no one to support her with her homework as both her father and stepmother are illiterate. Both of them dropped out of school in 2nd grade, nevertheless, they still encourage Kanna to study, and know the importance of sending their children to school. “Sending my children to school is important because I want them to have the opportunity to find a good job,” says Xai, Kanna’s father. Sadly, Kanna’s experience is not unique. According to Aide et Action’s 2020 report on the impact of COVID-19 on education in Lao PDR, almost one-third of primary school students indicated that they had no one to teach them at home during school closures. 

Poverty is one of the main reasons for school dropouts in Laos. According to a recent report from UNICEF, based on data from the Lao Social Indicator Survey II (2017), children from the poorest households have a 58% school completion rate only compared to 98% for children from the richest households, and the ones from ethnic minority groups such as Kanna, living in poor, rural, and economically disadvantaged communities are the most vulnerable and at risk of dropping out of school early.

The current pandemic led to school closures that put vulnerable children at an even greater risk of early dropout. In addition to having no academic support, Kanna also had no access to digital devices such as a smartphone or the internet which excluded her from participating in online distance learning and her lack of electricity at home meant the hours she could read her books and learn were limited.  

Fortunately, Kanna’s school was able to reopen quickly as the Covid-19 infection rate remains low in her province, much to her delight. “If my school closes again I would be sad not to be able to meet friends or to study together” adds Kanna, hopeful that her school will remain open.

A pathway to equal opportunities

To support students like Kanna from poor, rural, and economically disadvantaged communities to stay in school, Aide et Action is offering scholarships. For the 2020-2021 school year, 64 students, of whom 50 per cent were girls, received a scholarship to go to school. This support is aligned with the 8th Education Sector Development Plan of the Lao PDR (2016-2020) and Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

For Xia, education for his children means everything and the scholarship is helping to alleviate his concerns for their future. “I worry about my daughters very much due to the fact they are still so young and I am too old now”, he explains. “I’m afraid that I will die and leave them alone and if I die, who will take care of them? Only education will help my daughters’ future to be better.”  

Aide’s et Action’s scholarship provision allows Kanna’s family to buy all her school material, including her school uniform, books, a school bag, shoes, and money to buy food. Relieved that his daughter can pursue education, Kanna’s father now has big dreams for her future. “I dream that my children will graduate from university and that they will work with the government as civil servants, with a good salary. I don’t want them to be poor and to work hard like we did,” says Xai.  

Every child has the right to education

Aide et Action in Lao PDR works in collaboration with the Lao education authorities to provide support to children from marginalised communities at high risk of dropping out of school. The project aims to improve the school environment and student learning outcomes in 30 target schools.

The scholarship ensures that Kanna can continue her education and enjoy equal opportunities. “In the future, I want to be a doctor or a teacher,” says Kanna excitedly. “I want to be a doctor because doctors can treat people and it will be easy to find a job and have a good salary, and I want to be a teacher because I love to teach students and help them to have education”. Already, her passion for education can be seen in how she teaches her sister at home. 

In addition to giving Kanna an opportunity to learn, regular school attendance means she also has the opportunity to socialise and play with her school friends and enjoy her childhood, an opportunity every child should have, not just today on International Day of The Girl Child, but every day.

By Victoria Creux

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