The Effects of Poverty on the Children of Vietnam


Despite Vietnam’s vast economic improvements in the past two decades, studies by the Vietnamese Ministry of Labor – Invalids and Social Affairs, and UNICEF (2008)[1] show that almost seven million Vietnamese children under the age of 16 still struggle due to poverty. While extreme poverty rates for the Kinh majority ethnic group decreased 85 percent from 1993 to 2006, extreme poverty for ethnic minorities only decreased by only 48 percent[2] with children accounting for a large portion of the population that remain severely impacted by poverty. This data reveals an unfortunate reality. What these studies show is that a child living in poverty in Vietnam today is more than likely a child belonging to one of the nation’s unique ethnic minorities.


On average, ethnic minorities reside in rural areas far from Vietnam’s cities. Seventy one percent of ethnic minority groups live in Vietnam’s mountainous border regions in the North and Central Highlands.[3] These communities are often made up of families who tend to the land.  They live much as their ancestors did 100 years ago, humble villages of people, who carry and pass down ethnic languages and customs,  preserving pieces of Vietnam’s vast cultural fabric. However, low incomes, due to a shift from an agricultural-based economy to a wage-based economy, paired with remote geographical location place limitations on access to a variety of resources. As a result, parents not only pass down traditional customs and language, but the heavy burden of generational poverty.

Under healthy circumstances, a child is encouraged and pushed forward by the limitless force of endless possibilities that life offers a young person. However, for children of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, it is more common that they will experience various disadvantages that leave them lagging far behind children living in urban areas. The distance between the remote areas they live in and Vietnam’s developing urban areas will limit their access to opportunities and resources that are available to their peers who are learning and growing kilometers away. This lack of access leads to major disparity, and in unfortunate cases, even claims the lives of these innocent children.

In the following paragraphs, I will walk you through the impact poverty and the lack of access has on the life of a child living in Vietnam’s northern regions. The purpose is to paint a vivid picture of the lives these children lead on a daily basis, and spread awareness as to why they need our help.


Poverty’s biggest threat is to the health of a poor child living in the north. UNICEF reports that poor children in Vietnam under the age of five are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday, and a large portion of this has to do with access to a healthy diet.4 One in three boys & girls in Vietnam suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. For 40 percent of ethnic children living in rural areas, malnutrition is often an issue.[4] Babies who are born in northern-rural regions battle with malnutrition, and complications relating to malnutrition, immediately after birth and throughout life.

Low-birth weight is a health issue that is common among newborns in northern regions as a result of years of malnourishment and low body weight that follow girls from childhood into motherhood. A newborn in the north that is able to survive a low birth weight, in many cases is weaned off breast milk prior to the first 6 – 24 months of its life.[5] This is largely because their mother must return to work to earn money. The National Nutrition Surveillance report (2003) states that mothers who have to return to work are 14 times more likely to stop exclusively breastfeeding early on in a child’s life. Interrupting breastfeeding during this period, without the proper complementary foods, can cause this new born to face developmental delays, vitamin deficiencies, reduced infection resistance, and can set in motion the cycle of malnutrition.

From infancy and throughout childhood, a proper diet is never truly guaranteed for a little one growing up in Vietnam’s northern rural regions. The National Nutrition Surveillance reported that on average, only 17% of Vietnamese children eat the equivalent of the suggested three meals a day, this number was even lower for children living in northern rural regions. Children in rural areas also often lack the proper weekly consumption of meals with meat and dairy. Insufficient diets are directly linked to low amounts of energy, impaired cognitive development, and weakened muscles & immune systems.[6] With this being a reality for many boys and girls living in the north, it comes as no surprise that they are often smaller in size and at a higher risk of facing developmental disadvantages when compared to their peers from more prosperous regions.

Malnutrition is not the only health concern that threatens the well-being of a child in the north. Access to clean and healthy sanitation facilities is more than likely not an option in their homes. Children often play, bathe, and drink out of polluted bodies of water – leaving them susceptible to life threatening infections and diseases. UNICEF reports unsafe water as the leading spread of communicable disease in Vietnam,[7] and only 57 percent of ethnic minorities have access to safe drinking water.[8]

A child from a northern ethnic minority group battles the odds associated with health complications on a daily basis, living with serious health problems  because complications have the potential to not only cost their family money it may not have, but their lives.


Sage.4Access to Health Care Resources

A health complication can be compounded by a child’s lack of access to a health care facility, and in many cases, transportation to these facilities. According to previous studies done by the Vietnam Household Living Standards Survey (VHLSS 2006) average distance an ethnic family lives from a district hospital was around 21.6 km, and around 86.0 km from a provincial hospital.[9] Many children living with illness, whose parents cannot afford to take off from work to travel the distance to the hospital, often spend their childhoods bed ridden, watching other children play and grow, and hoping their condition does not worsen.  In emergency situations, traveling far distances could be a matter of life and death if a child is severely ill or injured. VHLSS (2006) also reports that only 47.2% of ethnic minority households have access to a motorbike, Vietnam’s most popular form of transportation.10 Sick or injured children belonging to families who do not have access to transportation are often carried into emergency rooms by family members who have managed to travel miles, by foot and public transport, to the nearest healthcare facility.

After a child from a rural region receives medical attention from a provincial or district hospital traveling to fill prescriptions and purchase medications that manage their illness or injury is the next serious obstacle. The average distance for an ethnic child from a state pharmacy is 17.4 km.10 Care, medication, and travel are expenses that are burdensome for ethnic children living in northern rural regions, whose families are struggle day to day just to make ends meet. A child with a sickness or injury from a northern rural region may go years without proper medical treatment, simply because their family cannot afford what it would cost them to seek out help.


Poor access to a proper education is also a detrimental factor in a child’s ability to escape poverty. For ethnic minority children living in Northern remote regions and Western Highlands, the ability to receive an education comparable to the education Kinh children receive in urban areas remains difficult. According to findings in a 2009 World Bank study, connections can be made between the near 78 percent child poverty rate in North Western remote regions, and the region having the nation’s lowest net enrollment rates for all levels of education.[10]


Sage.6The most common reason Vietnamese youth drop out of school is because of the economic hardship various school fees take on the family as a whole. A study by UNICEF found that 41 percent of the dropouts surveyed dropped out because they couldn’t afford the school fees.[11] However, The World Bank also reports that one third of ethnic minority families have a child who will drop out of school, in comparison to only 16 percent of Kinh families.[12] Reasons for this vary, but all have roots in a family’s financial standing. One of the major reasons is the distance between a child’s home and their school. In a recent journal published by UNICEF, titled “The Transition of Ethnic Minority Girls in Vietnam from Primary to Secondary Education”, UNICEF finds that transportation to school is still an issue for children living in rural parts of Vietnam.[13] As an ethnic child excels in their education, it becomes more likely that the distance a child lives from their school increases. VHLSS found that on average minority children live around 14.8 km away from upper secondary schools.10 In many occasions, if the child does not have access to transportation which is common if the parent doesn’t own a motorbike, or the motorbike is being used for something the family believes to be more important, a child is left to travel far distances on their own. For many children living in rural areas, not only does this become burdensome, it is not safe, especially for young girls. A study released by UNICEF also revealed discomfort experienced by ethnic girls attending schools in rural areas due to the lack of clean and private restroom facilities as a reason girl stop attending. Once a girl reaches age where she begins menstruating, it is crucial she has appropriate facilities to address such a private matter. [14]

If an ethnic child is enrolled and attending school, in many cases, the education they are being offered is not sufficient. It is common that ethnic children sit in classrooms and struggle to learn for years on end. Reasons range from language barriers, to poor quality learning material and teachers. Discouraged and uninterested, a child who believes it is impossible to learn is more likely to drop out, especially if they have a family who needs an additional income. Reports reveal that 36 percent of ethnic minorities do not remain in school long enough to see the sixth grade, in comparison to only 16.3 percent of Kinh.[15] This makes the child poverty gap, 62-78 percent for ethnic children compared to 24-28 percent of Kinh children imminently clear. If a child is not educated and given the skills needed to compete with those who are excelling already then they will remain at the bottom. And when these poor uneducated young people have children, they will struggle to provide their children with the resources they need to excel.


The disproportionate prevalence of child poverty amongst Vietnam’s ethnic youth is an issue that needs to be addressed if the nation hopes to continue to improve in years to come. This essay identifies three of the major issues that burden the lives of these children living this reality, and offers insight into ‘why’ poverty is a perpetual dilemma in the rural areas of the North and Western Highlands. Children in the Northern rural region will continue to stagger behind their urban Kinh peers if each successive generation is fighting for basic needs and increasing the inequality gap that exists in present day Vietnam. It is time to acknowledge this disproportion and make opportunities available to those left in the grip of debilitating poverty.

VinaCapital Foundation (VCF) is changing its focus geographically to reach out to many of these poor rural communities with mobile medical outreach clinics and medical education and equipment to build capacity for children health and emergency care. Since 2009 VCF has operated the Brighter Path, a 7 year scholarship and mentoring program for bright ethnic minority girls. Forty-Seven of the original 50 girl cohort are in their third year of university which includes extensive mentoring, empowerment workshops, life skills training along with a comprehensive scholarship. VCF’s Brighter Path beneficiaries are assured well paying jobs that will lift their families out of poverty. Their communities will change because each of the girls is committed to giving back to their home communities with a sustainable project that will encourage girls to excel. These efforts by VCF, targeted to meet the specific needs of the rural poor, will be an important part of the changing landscape in Vietnam.

[1] A Survey Assessment of Vietnamese Youth, 2003, UNICEF, (pg. 28)

[2] Issues In Education For Vietnamese Children, 2014,Vinacapital Foundation (pg. 7)

[3] The Transition of Ethnic Minority Girls in Vietnam From Primary to Secondary Education, UNICEF (pg 41)

[4] The Transition of Ethnic Minority Girls in Vietnam From Primary to Secondary Education, UNICEF (pg. 44)

[5] Issues In Education For Vietnamese Children, 2014,Vinacapital Foundation (pg. 7)

[6] Issues In Education For Vietnamese Children, 2014,Vinacapital Foundation (pg.4)

[7] A Widening Poverty Gap for Ethnic Minorities, 2010,Hai-Anh Dang/World Bank (pg. 32)

[8] The Children of Vietnam, UNICEF (pg. 1)

[9] Introducing infant and young child feeding indicators into national nutrition surveillance systems:

lessons from Vietnam, Nemat Hajeebhoy, Phuong Hong Nguyen, Do Thanh Tran and Mercedes de Onis (pg. 2)

[10] National Nutrition Surveillance – NIN 2003

[11] The Children of Vietnam, UNICEF (pg. 1)

[12] A Widening Poverty Gap for Ethnic Minorities, 2010,Hai-Anh Dang/World Bank (pg. 31)

[13] A Widening Poverty Gap for Ethnic Minorities, 2010,Hai-Anh Dang/World Bank (pg. 4)

[14] Issues In Education For Vietnamese Children, 2014, Giao Vu (pg. 4)

[15] A Widening Poverty Gap for Ethnic Minorities, 2010,Hai-Anh Dang/World Bank (pg.5)

By Sage Howard