Hmong: New Schools in Native Language
As part of her morning routine, Thao Thi Mao dropped off her young son at the Ban Pho Pre-school, set against the dramatic backdrop of the northern hills of Viet Nam's Lao Cai Province. On this day, she also brought with her a heavy bundle of firewood, to cook the children's lunch.
The pre-school is fully supported by the local community it serves, due in no small part to the fact that lessons are taught in the local Hmong dialect as well as Vietnamese.
Made up of 54 distinct ethnic groups, Viet Nam is a diverse society where UNICEF and its partners in the Ministry of Education and Training have been actively developing a programme to encourage greater school enrolment and reduce drop-out rates. Nurturing mother tongue-based bilingual education is seen as a key part of this effort.
And it's clear that the project, involving thousands of primary and pre-primary schools, is working. As classes get under way in the Ban Pho school, Hmong children in their elaborately decorated traditional dress all vie to answer questions posed by the teacher.
IKEA funds child-friendly initiatives
"If they only learn in Vietnamese," said teacher, Ly Mui Xuan, "school is foreign to them and they often drop out. But learning in their own language from pre-school is a good foundation." At 24 years of age, and recently graduated from teacher training, Xuan beams with pride when she talks about taking on this, her first job.
It is only a short walk from here to the Ban Pho Primary School, which is also benefiting from initiatives supported by UNICEF to make it more child-friendly. These initiatives are funded by UNICEF's corporate partner IKEA, the global retailer of home furnishings.
The school has, for example, newly constructed separate latrines for girls, along with education on hygiene. In a large playground, children play freely, while in class they can enjoy bilingual learning programmes with plentiful resources and training for their teachers.
Keeping girls in school
It's all part of an effort supported by UNICEF and funded by IKEA to make education more enjoyable and to keep ethnic minority children – particularly girls – in school.
"For the girl students, we pay particular attention to hygiene education," said school Principal Pham Anh Tuan. "We want them to become more self-confident and assert themselves when they come to school."
It is designed to tackle the problem of low enrolment by girls from ethnic minority groups at primary and lower secondary schools.
At the end of class, Lu Thi Dung, 10, made her way home from the school, with her brother and cousin, to their simple wooden home a short distance away. School has become an integral part of her life. Indeed, one day she wants to become a teacher.
"If I couldn't go to school," she said, "I would certainly be very sad, because I would miss my friends and my teachers."
'Confident and ready for our future'
For older children in this part of Viet Nam, UNICEF and its local partners have been working to prepare teenagers for adulthood by providing them with healthy living and life-skills education. One recent day, in a classroom at Kim Dong Lower Secondary School, teenage students were busy drawing and painting vivid posters to warn of the risks posed by alcohol and tobacco, as well as the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
Nguyen Dieu Hong, 13, was leading her group's efforts. "The objective of the life-skills programme is to make us more aware of social problems, and to make us self-confident and ready for our future lives," she said.
Amidst the hills of northern Viet Nam, UNICEF, its partners and its donors are doing their part to nurture a rich tradition of ethnic diversity by working on behalf of these and other children from many ethnic groups.