At 23, Nokna Duangpanya seemed to have everything going for her. She was young, full of energy, and fresh out of college with an Economics and Financial Law degree. But she says, she was lost.
She was not sure about the career she wanted to pursue, she had no work experience, and she felt she had nothing to contribute to the community. Those were long days of soul searching. Then one day she heard about a community radio project and an opportunity to work as a UN Volunteer.
The position was with the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Nokna had no idea what the job would entail, but she decided to take a chance, and handed in her application. Even then she did not believe she had any skills worth offering.
In the early days, as she began to learn about the job, that lack of confidence lingered. But as she watched other volunteers at work, she soon began to realize how she too might be able to use her knowledge, to support the community radio network.
Unlike her, most of the volunteers had been working at community radio stations for years, and none of them had the opportunity to pursue a university degree. They were minimally compensated for daily travel to work, and although some of them had to pay out of their own pockets for transportation costs, they were eager to do their job.
Gradually, Nokna began to witness how her fellow volunteers, were overcoming barriers that would have held most people back. She watched them pour all their energy into work, to support their respective ethnic communities. Still, she was unsure about how her job as a radio host could make an impact on others.
Then one day at a conference in Kongtayoun Village, in Thateng District, she was struck by the fact that none of the participants were women. After talking with locals, she learned that like many other ethnic communities in Laos, people here still believed in superstitions and traditions against gender equality. Women are expected to stay at home and look after their children, cook, and do household chores. Only men are allowed to participate in gatherings or events, whether formal or informal. Women in the village continued to accept this way of life. They were terrified that something bad may happen if they went against the flow.
Curious, Nokna approached a local woman and asked whether she wanted to take part in the conference. She nodded, with a shy smile. It was then that Nokna knew she can no longer be complacent with the status quo. In Laos, there are laws and policies in place to protect women’s rights. But, due to limited access to information in remote areas and lack of education, Lao women often fail to understand and exercise their rights.
Nokna discussed the matter with her radio team. She learned that most ethnic people do not speak Lao. Even if they did speak it, they would trust information that was delivered in their own mother tongue. So the team designed a special radio program called Gender Equality Between Men and Women. It promotes gender equality and helps audiences understand women’s rights, as well as the importance of their participation in society. The programme was broadcasted by the two DJs - Mr. Seuth Mahninta and Ms. Khamla Phommalin, in three languages – Lao, Ta Oy, and Yrou.
Yet, Nokna was not sure if the program had made an impact. But a few weeks later she ran into the village woman who had inspired her to take act. “My husband and I listened to the community radio and heard about how gender-equality is important,” the women said. “I’m so happy that he takes me with him to gatherings now because of this radio program.”
Nokna never imagined her work could foster change within a community. It has been five years since she began her job as a UN volunteer, she says she has stayed on to try to continue to make change. Now, her chief concern is the sustainability of the stations. The connection and trust with the community and the relationship with fellow volunteers has built strong bonds. No host wants to leave the radio station, she says, but a few have had to because of family obligations.
The community radio is as a platform that can change lives, she says, it helps with learning and it connects people by overcoming language barriers and geography.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but Nokna knows that the obstacles are the reason why she stayed, and she is determined to be a voice for the unheard.