Journey Through Laos: Ethnic Minorities are Suffering

Journey Through Laos: Ethnic Minorities are Suffering

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Rosa Ellis

Communications Manager at Health Poverty Action

Posted: 06/03/2014 12:40

Bon Hiang is a family man. He and his wife were happy for a while, when they had five healthy children.

I meet him in rural Pin Dong village, southern Laos, where he is standing in the middle of a hot and noisy crowd weighing and measuring other people’s children.

This area is home to the Sou people, an ethnic minority in Laos. Today Bon Hiang is assessing children under five in his village for malnourishment.

This village is a long bumpy drive from the nearest town. Houses here are small, flimsy, and made of wood. One communal tap – currently broken – serves the whole village, and people have little more than the food they are able to produce. Children are hungry.

Across Laos, 40% of children are malnourished, and in the poorest areas that figure is as high as 60%. Bon Hiang worked hard to support his family, but it wasn’t enough. Three of his children died because he couldn’t keep them healthy. And also, in a way, because of the ethnic group they were born into.

Travelling through Laos, meeting people from ethnic minority groups, it is clear that they have more health problems than the rest of the population. Geographical isolation, language barriers and plain old prejudice mean that certain communities are experiencing higher rates of disease and death.

Bon Hiang is working to change this. His aim is to prevent his neighbours going through what he did. Health Poverty Action provided him with the training and resources he needs to makes sure other children in his village are not malnourished, so he checks under-fives for malnutrition and teaches families about the nutritious value of the food that is available. “I want the children of our village to be healthy”, he tells me.

The marginalization of ethnic minorities is not unique to Laos. Through working with the poorest communities in 13 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, Health Poverty Action knows that it is frequently ethnic minorities that experience more poverty and worse health.

One part of the solution is working to strengthen those communities. Strengthen them by providing them with the information on health and the resources they have so far been denied. But we also need to go further, much further, and address the root cause of this problem.

Information, it seems, is the first step. Currently, most national health surveys do not break down health data by ethnicity. This means we do not have a clear picture of exactly what is leading to more disease and more deaths for ethnic minority groups. There are a variety of reasons ethnic minority groups have it worse – from local health staff not speaking their language, to living in hard to access areas – but unless the specific barriers to health are known, it is very hard to address them.

Dis aggregating health data is not without its challenges, of course. But the alternative is the continuation of the marginalization of ethnic minorities. This is not acceptable.

If health data was broken down by ethnicity, it would be clear which communities had the worst health outcomes, and why. If health data was broken down by ethnicity governments could better plan how to strengthen the health systems that support those people, and the root causes of their poor health could be tackled. And if health data was broken down by ethnicity, people like Bon Hiang would not have to fight against the odds to keep his family healthy.

Watch this interview with Bangyuan Wang, Health Poverty Action’s former country director in Laos, talking about ethnic minorities:

Health Poverty Action works in 13 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. In these countries it is often ethnic minority groups that experience the worst health. Find out about this in Laos from Bangyuan Wang, our country director.

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