Vietnam will create more opportunities for children to access information, voice their opinions, join social activities and be part of decision making processes.

These are part of the goals laid out in the National Programme of Action for Children (NPAC) 2011-20 draft, compiled by the Ministry of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs that was submitted to the Prime Minister for approval last December.

The programme, the third of its kind in Vietnam, is aimed at creating equal opportunities for development for children and ensure basic children's rights, such as the right to participation, said Nguyen Hai Huu, head of the ministry's Child Care and Protection Department.

It will cost an estimated 1.25 trillion VND (62.5 million USD) to implement the plan.

Disadvantaged localities, including Tra Vinh, Quang Nam, Dak Nong, Ha Giang, Lai Chau and Dien Bien, will be given priority with a fund allocation of 10 billion VND (50,000 USD) per year, showing the Government's committment to eliminating inequality.

The right to participation was mentioned in the two last programmes but was vaguely described and had little practical impact due to a lack of legal regulation, Huu said.

"Organisation of forums for children will, for the first time, be legally formalised. A national forum will be held once every two years, with provincial and municipal events held annually. Children will be given the opportunity to access discussions with leaders at all levels," Huu said.

An official from the Central Office of Ho Chi Minh Young Pioneer Organisation, Tran Van Tuan, said children would benefit from greater understanding, skills, and experiences gained through participation in activities at school, at home, or through other social events.

"Children will play an increasingly active role and could potentially help their parents, teachers and policy makers make better policy decisions in areas that directly affect them. This has been proved through a number of activities conducted by the organisation in primary and secondary schools," he said.

Despite evidence that honouring this right is beneficial to children, exercising it has faced many challenges in Vietnam, said Le Hong Loan, chief of UNICEF Vietnam's Child Protection Section.

Children's voices often have been ignored, adhering to traditional Confucian teaching methods meant children were given little opportunity to express their opinions, she said.

"Vietnam still lacks skilled staff and a mechanism to ensure implementation of the right. Additionally, it needs to make clear which agencies are responsible for listening to the opinions of children and taking them into account in decision making processes," she said.

Head of the Vietnam Association for Protection of Children's Rights' Communication Department Nguyen Thi Lan Minh said the "Junior Reporters' Clubs," initiated by UNICEF and the Youth Association in 1998, was an effective channel for children to voice concerns.

However, the club was unable to sustain operations in a systematical scale or expand, and the reporters had difficulties accessing information because many organisations failed to cooperate.

In addition, parents were reluctant to allow their children to participate in such activities and instead wanted them to spend time just studying, Minh said.

Moreover, poor computer and foreign language skills were also barriers for Vietnamese children to share opinions particularly in international forums.

Some children, however, have reaped the benefits of more opportunities for social participation. Eighth grader Ngo Thu Thuy of Hanoi's Chu Van An Secondary School said that she has been involved in and enjoyed many activities at school and in her district.

"I know that I'm luckier than many other children who don't have enough food to eat or enough money for school or who have to work from an early age," she said.

In addition to ensuring the right to participation, the national programme for the next ten years will also focus on raising the quality of education, healthcare and recreational services for children. It is also expected to address unresolved problems, such as the high rate of malnutrition among children under the age of eight, and the complex issues of maltreatment, abuse, exploitation and neglect of children.

UNICEF official Loan said the organisation appreciated Vietnam's efforts regarding children in the last ten years, including increasing the rate of access to healthcare and education services, reducing the fatality rate and reforming child protection models.

The population's development gap has created inequalities among children, especially for minority children and those with disabilities. The country's socio-economic development has also created new issues, including child labour violations, the prevalence of child trafficking and the increased HIV/AIDS rate.

Huu said the programme has mobilised the cooperation of relevant ministries.

"Each ministry will design detailed programmes on certain issues to realise the objectives set in the NPAC 2011-20," he said.

As of 2009, Vietnam had a total of 23,600 children, accounting for 27.5 per cent of its population. Research by UNICEF and MoLISA revealed that in 2007, about 28 per cent of Vietnamese children were living in poverty as defined by a range of factors, such as proper nutrition and access to healthcare, education, housing and clean water./.