Việt Nam should focus on addressing malnutrition, violence against children: UNICEF Việt Nam

February 02, 2023 - 09:34
Lesley Miller, deputy representative of UNICEF Việt Nam, spoke with the media regarding child protection in Việt Nam in 2022 and what more needs to be done in the new year.
Orphaned children and children from difficult backgrounds at the Birla Children's Village in Hà Nội learn how to make chưng cakes in the Lunar New Year festival. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoàng Hiếu

Lesley Miller, deputy representative of UNICEF Việt Nam, spoke with the media regarding child protection in Việt Nam in 2022 and what more needs to be done in the new year.

What is your assessment of Việt Nam’s work on child care and protection in 2022?

I must say 2022 was another challenging year due to the COVID-19 crisis. The country had to fight the coronavirus outbreak in early 2022 and then struggle with the recovery from COVID for the rest of the year. Despite these challenges, Việt Nam managed to achieve some good results in terms of child care and protection.

Việt Nam did a great job in vaccinating its population against COVID. As of December 2022, almost everyone above 12 years old and over 90 per cent of those from 5-11 years old completed primary doses.

In 2022, the child protection regulatory framework in Việt Nam has been strengthened. Social work development, inter-agency cooperation on violence against children (VAC) and child justice are further supported with the development of various legal documents. An inter-sectoral protocol has also been created to provide the framework for the provision of integrated care and support to victims of VAC.

In addition, mental health promotion, prevention and programming in school have been improved through training for core school health workers and teachers, along with a ground-breaking, comprehensive national study of school-related mental health risk factors by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education and Training. In addition, consultations, workshops and conferences with adolescents and young people were conducted to increase their participation in promoting good mental health.

What are the challenges in care and protection of children and what does Việt Nam need to do to overcome them?

Like all countries, Việt Nam is still grappling with the far-reaching socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are particularly devastating for the most vulnerable – children with disabilities, children of ethnic minorities, and children affected by migration, climate change or conflict.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of children’s lives: physical and mental health, nutrition, learning, protection from violence, and access to water and sanitation. Progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals has slowed down on many fronts, notably routine immunisation coverage for children under one year of age, which has dropped from over 80 per cent to 67 per cent as of October 2022. Likewise, progress in reducing violence against children has stalled, with over 72 per cent of children aged 1-14 experiencing violent discipline at home. This is a pivotal moment. The need to get childhood back on track has never been more evident.

Việt Nam is not alone in struggling with these issues, but what sets Việt Nam apart is its impressive commitment, capacity and resources to tackle these challenges as a matter of urgent priority. Concrete solutions should be found to address poor nutrition, the lost learning from closed schools, the missed routine vaccinations and health checks, and the silent suffering from increased stress, loneliness and all too often, domestic violence.

Deputy Representative of UNICEF Việt Nam Lesley Miller. — Photo courtesy of UNICEF

What should Việt Nam focus on in the years to come to ensure the best care and protection of children?

First, Việt Nam can reduce the impacts of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) on child mortality and development if life-saving therapeutic products are covered by health insurance for children up to 6 years. Currently, it is estimated that 90 per cent of 200,000 children who annually suffer from SAM do not get treatment.

UNICEF is convinced the most efficient and eff­ective path to achieve this is through the revision of Việt Nam’s legislation, which will help the Government get these products to the most vulnerable children and enable health workers to provide the products as soon as they determine a child is wasted. As the process of revising laws may take a long time, the Government should introduce interim solutions like allocation of resources (around US$13 million per year) specifically for procurement of therapeutic products.

Second, it is essential that routine vaccinations for children are up to date, and there is more investment in the primary health care system at the local level. With global evidence of disease outbreaks, children are at increased risk of exposure to deadly diseases. Furthermore, stronger investment in the local healthcare system will enable less dependency on expensive medicines and tertiary care.

Third, social assistance programmes should be strengthened, along with increased smart investments. The international evidence is compelling: social protection reduces income inequality, keeps children in schools, ensures better health, lifts people out of poverty, and generates positive returns in terms of overall economic growth.

Fourth, recent efforts to prevent violence against children and strengthen the current child protection system should continue. A study on the economic burden of VAC in East Asia and the Pacific calculates a loss totalling $194 billion, up to 2 per cent of the region’s GDP. The prevention of VAC begins with establishing a network of professional trained social workers at sub-national levels. The current system will also be strengthened with better coordination, training and oversight of the different involved ministries and stakeholders.

Fifth, with an evolving future of work, children and adolescents need to be better equipped to enter the workforce. Both the curriculum and pedagogy should be transformed, with an emphasis on transferable skills and strong digital literacy and STEM – especially for girls. Additionally, the education system must continue to promote inclusion of all children and invest in trained mental health professionals so that children can learn and thrive in safe, nurturing, violence-free learning environments.

Sixth, Việt Nam remains among the top 10 countries most affected by the climate crisis, with disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable children. Investment in climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene, climate-smart schools and curricula, and disaster preparedness and risk reduction are crucial.

What are UNICEF’s priorities for 2023?

UNICEF supports the acceleration of the realisation of child rights to ensure that no child is left behind. With equity at our core, UNICEF advances the inclusion of the most disadvantaged and marginalised populations, especially ethnic minorities.

In 2023, UNICEF will continue to partner with the Government of Việt Nam and other stakeholders in addressing children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, access to clean water and sanitation, education, protection, and social assistance. We are fully committed to providing technical assistance for strengthening laws, policies and plans; building capacity of partners; demonstrating innovative solutions – with a focus on digital transformation; promoting awareness and social norm change; and mobilising supporters in order to advance children’s rights.

With climate-related impacts and disasters on the rise, we will also strengthen child-sensitive, climate-resilient social services and capacity for effective disaster-risk reduction and humanitarian responses.

Partnerships are key to achieving these aims. In addition to cooperation with the Government, mass organisations, NGOs, key influencers and development partners, we will leverage the potential of the private sector to advance children’s rights through public-private and shared-value partnerships that promote family-friendly business policies and the protection of young workers.

What would be your messages for the New Year?

I would like to thank everyone for partnering with UNICEF Việt Nam, for bringing wonderful collaboration, trust and support to promote children’s rights in Việt Nam.

As you have seen seen from the information, we have shared on the situation of many children in Việt Nam – the hope and promise of the new year are out of reach for too many. In this past year, I saw first-hand the real and pressing challenges faced by vulnerable children and their families, and this has left me determined to do even more to ensure children’s access to good nutrition, clean water and sanitation, education, health care and adequate protection from violence, exploitation, and abuse.

Looking ahead, UNICEF needs strong support from all partners to work for the rights of all children, especially the most vulnerable. UNICEF will continue to work with the Government and other partners to ensure that every child is safe, healthy, and happy!

May the New Year of Cat be the year of hope, love, and success for you and every child! — VNS