In a move to reduce maternal death and ensure thorough prenatal care, Laos’ northern province of Xieng Khouang, traditionally distant from technological advancements, is now at the forefront of empowering its residents with vital knowledge on reproductive health, family planning, contraceptive utilization, and birth control, signaling a pivotal shift towards healthier family dynamics in its rural landscapes.
While many residents of Xieng Khouang show a substantial grasp of reproductive health, a large part of the local population encounters various challenges. These include obstacles in accessing healthcare facilities due to travel difficulties and a notable prevalence of early marriages; currently, 25.5 percent of women between 15-19 years old are already married in Xieng Khouang, according to the Lao Social Indicator Survey II.
Touk Thammavong, 25, a pregnant woman in Hai village, Phaxay district, who was carrying her first child, learned about family planning just after she got pregnant through her parents and a local hospital for prenatal care.
“I later found out about it [prenatal care] myself through social media,” said Touk.
Residing in a village devoid of schools and minimal exposure to basic education, many villagers, including Touk, face challenges in accessing basic knowledge on reproductive health. They would often rely on information from their elders, peers, and social media.
Prior to her pregnancy, Touk never used any form of contraception. However, she committed to exploring various preventive methods, such as condoms and acupuncture, in the future.
“I had never tried any of them [contraception] simply because I had no idea they existed,” she added.
Villagers like Touk and her younger fellow villagers are now more engaged in reproductive health advocacy due to a growing demand for health and reproductive education. The Xieng Khouang College of Health Science has quickly become a key institution for high school graduates who wish to learn and contribute to the health sector to reduce maternal death and raise awareness about basic family planning.
Supported by the Ministry of Health and UNFPA, the college, predominantly attended by female students, addresses the provincial demand for midwifery nurses, driven by prevalent child marriages, as explained by Phout Sidala, the midwifery course instructor.
“We are instructing our students to providing consultations and advice on family planning, with a primary focus on midwifery,” said Phout “After soaking up the theory, we get our students hands-on with the manikin. Then, we throw them into action, sending them out to work in district and provincial hospitals.”
Despite having a college established by the province to educate children, its greatest obstacles have long been a lack of funding and equipment.
“Should we be able to solicit more assistance from the UNFPA, we would request additional modern equipment, particularly manikins and other birth support tools,” Phout said. “They are essential for establishing a conducive environment for medical stimulation.”
Reflecting on their reproductive health knowledge, residents from Hai village in Phaxay district, a suburb known for its widely early marriage, also took part in sharing their experiences on family planning and the use of contraceptives.
Yeng Mua, the Head of the Health Office for the district, noticed a heightened interest in reproductive health, particularly in family planning, prenatal care, and pregnancy consultation, among the residents of Xieng Khouang. He noted the presence of four small hospitals in the district offering these services. However, he acknowledged a significant challenge faced by the residents in reaching these hospitals.
Yeng Mua also highlighted the proactive approach adopted by their mobile medical teams.
“We’d prioritize houses with pregnant women that face difficulties in traveling and those that lack understanding of reproductive health,” he said.
The health expert detailed a range of services provided to the residents, including immunization for female children, prenatal check-ups, birth control planning, and health education counseling on family planning and nutrition. Additionally, services encompass child health check-ups, with each family assigned a dedicated nurse for close care and regular medical visits.
Echoing the benefit of the growing trend of interest in reproductive health, Phommy Sidavong, the Director of Noy Hospital in the Phaxay district, emphasized that the active participation of residents availing themselves of hospital services significantly contributes to the reduction of maternal mortality during pregnancy.
She further urged the villagers to seek the hospital’s expertise for assistance with pregnancies and family planning.
“We extend our comprehensive support for all aspects of pregnancy assistance. Should you require any consultations, we encourage you to avail yourselves of our services. Additionally, for those approaching childbirth, we earnestly invite you to seek our support,” Phommy said.
As Xieng Khouang pioneers a transformative initiative in technology-infused education for reproductive health, the province stands as a beacon of progress. The collaboration between local institutions, UNFPA, and the proactive efforts of health experts have empowered residents with vital knowledge and reshaped the conversation around family planning.
From the classrooms of Xieng Khouang College of Health Science to the doorstep services provided by mobile medical teams, the province is forging a path towards healthier family dynamics, promising a brighter future for its communities and setting an inspiring example for neighboring provinces.