Redefining the way we support new mothers in Laos

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“Being pregnant and giving birth is a heavy chore,” says Khao, 35, pregnant with six children, as she sits outside a local health center in rural Laos. Khao belongs to the small ethnic group of the Bru people, who have their own language and customs. Khao traveled long distances with her husband in the jungle while having labor, to give birth to her first child.

This is a common story for women in the Khao region. The tradition spans generations and is enforced by the community to ensure no bad luck is brought to a family. Khao stayed in the jungle for a week, nursing her baby and waiting for her husband to bring food each day.

Khao had three children this way, until the local health center was built – transforming women’s lives by supporting safe deliveries in the community. Like most women in her village, Khao supports her family through farming. Their only source of food is from her small field and access to cash is limited. Her salaries are often insufficient to support her children. And giving birth means missing work.

Khao came to her local health center in Nong district, Laos, to enroll in the cash transfer programme.
© UNICEF Laos/2022/Helin

But Khao is determined to provide a better life for her children. Today, she is part of a UNICEF-supported cash transfer program led by the Lao PDR government and supported by UNICEF Lao PDR in partnership with the Australian government. Monthly cash transfers of around AUD$18 are enough to support mothers and babies during pregnancy and the first years of life.

For Khao, this cash support guarantees enough money to buy nutritious food for her children. “That’s a lot of money for me,” Khao says. “I will buy food for all my children. I get vegetables from my own garden, but I have to buy meat. I will buy beef.

When women like Khao have the resources to recover from birth without fear of surviving, they can heal physically and provide proper care for their babies. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical for development, with a baby’s brain making up to a million connections every second of its first years of life. With proper stimulation, bonding, and nutrition, a parent can set the stage for the child to reach their full potential.

Nurse Phoukham, who works at the local health centre, says the program is changing lives in the community. “People tend to have problems after birth because they can’t go to the farm straight away, but now they get money to support them during pregnancy and after birth.”

“Cash transfers give (mothers) the opportunity to make decisions themselves. Normally, many families often cannot even afford to buy rice… but this program gives them money to buy the things they need.

With your generous support, innovative programs like this can be delivered in real time and tailored to the unique needs of a family. Above all, it allows children and families to receive equitable support exactly where the need is greatest, affecting generations to come.

“Normally, many families often cannot afford to buy rice…but this program gives them money to buy the things they need.”

Nurse Phoukham

Nurse at the local health center in Laos.

Two children standing on a bamboo bridge.
Local children stand on a long bamboo bridge in Laos’ Nong district where Khao lives.
© UNICEF Laos/2022/Helin

What is social protection?

Social protection programs are designed to reduce the lifelong consequences of poverty and exclusion on children. Cash transfer programs help support families with what they need, when they need it, from health care to nutritious food and quality education. Flexible funding provides choices for parents and guardians to give all children a fair chance in life.

UNICEF provided over 2,000 new mothers with nine monthly cash transfers to improve maternal and newborn health in Laos.

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