Saly Sorsaksit and Noud Sivanxay have a golden rule: be ready.
“We decided before getting married that we would be fully ready as parents before even having kids. It is a big step; we must know when it’s best [to have children] and how to care for them and each other as parents,” said Saly, who married her sweetheart last month after a two-year relationship.
This meant the Lao couple, both 27-year-old and agriculture salespeople, was also united in their quest to seek sexual and reproductive health and family planning support before tying the knot.
Speaking from Keo-Oudom Hospital, the couple recounted their story and expressed profound gratitude for the UNFPA-supported and Grand Duchy of Luxembourg-funded “Couple’s Counseling” project.
“We feel grateful to have had this opportunity; more couples must experience it,” said Noud.
The hospital recently welcomed Xavier Bettel, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, along with a delegation of parliamentarians on an official visit to Laos. The visit aimed to witness firsthand how projects like “Couples’ Counseling” are revolutionizing women’s and young people’s health outcomes in the Southeast Asian nation.
Launched in early 2023, the project, a collaborative effort between the ministries of Health and Home Affairs, has been making significant strides in Vientiane Province and Vientiane Capital. It aims to equip couples with essential knowledge and support to make informed decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health, family planning, contraception, and the legal aspects of civil registration.
Already, the initiative has reached over 500 couples like Saly and Noud.
“The best investment a country can make is in its people, including in the well-being, health, and empowerment of women and girls. Ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights is fundamental to achieving gender equality and laying the foundation for sustainable development. This is why Luxembourg has been a long-time supporter of strengthening health systems in Laos together with UNFPA,” said Bettel.
The couples’ counseling project is unique in Laos as health providers take friendly, non-discriminatory, and confidential approaches to provide full spectrum support to ensure each couple’s wellbeing.
“This holistic and cross-sectoral approach is expected to contribute to enhancing sexual and reproductive health, realizing reproductive rights, advancing harmony, gender equity, and equality, as well as increasing birth registration to leave no one behind,” said Bakhtiyor Kadyrov, UNFPA Representative to Laos.
The project not only empowered couples to make informed choices about when to have children, spacing between births, and contraception in step with antenatal and mother care, but it also focused on relationship wellness through conflict resolution, mutual support between wife and husband, and embedded values such as respect and non-violence, explained Lavanh Rattana, a 10-year health professional who helps deliver counseling sessions.
Rattana, who received UNFPA and Luxembourg-supported training on couple’s counseling, contraception, and mother and child health, said the project had great potential to be a game-changer in helping meet the country’s sexual and reproductive health, family planning, and maternal health needs.
She said further boosting mobile outreach, telehealth, and training local health providers at the village level was essential to reaching remote communities and ensuring no one was left behind.
In 2023, the Lao Social Indicator Survey revealed that the adolescent birth rate in Laos (number of births to women aged 15-19 years per 1,000 women in that age group) reached 89 per 1000, while women aged 20-24 who have had a live birth before the age of 18 represent 17.4 percent.
The percentage of adolescent girls aged 15-19 currently married or in union is 26.5 percent.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and UNFPA have already made substantial progress in addressing these challenges, with the “Couple’s Counseling” project being one of three initiatives in the third phase (2022-2025) of a United Nations Joint Program that started in 2011 with UNICEF and WHO.
The Adolescent and Youth Friendly Services model ensures the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents and young people are met with empathy, confidentiality, and without judgment.
The model, being implemented in six provinces across the country, including Vientiane Capital, trains health providers in outreach to schools, factories, and communities and delivers mental health and psycho-social support through hotlines and a mobile application to provide information and referrals to services.
Another initiative focuses on maternal health care, with the strengthening of health staff capacity to provide quality care to women during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-delivery, through a specific training program. Meanwhile, the Lao Association of Midwives has been strengthened to function as a professional body for the licensing and regulation of midwives.
To further improve maternal health care services, a maternal and perinatal death surveillance and response initiative was launched in 2023 to avert maternal death and disability by supporting the health system to conduct maternal death reviews and develop recommendations.
But knowing the rate of maternal deaths is not enough to prevent the deaths.
Better insight into women’s conditions and effective preventive measures are needed to effectively lower maternal mortality rates.
This partnership between the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, UNFPA, local partners, and other UN agencies is crucial. Full coverage targets for family planning and nutrition, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health interventions in Laos by 2030 are affordable and can generate USD 6 in economic returns for every dollar invested.
This information is sourced from UNFPA Laos