“Women in rural areas must not be left behind,” said Saykham Inthavong. A local to the historically significant Houaphanh Province, Saykham lives in its main district of Viengxay. This North-eastern region of Laos is also where a hidden cave- a landmark to the country’s step towards independence can be found. Although Saykham was able to access education, health, and nutrition services while growing up, most of her friends weren’t as fortunate. “Most of my friends experienced malnutrition and were poor. Their parents couldn’t afford to pay school fees and my friends had no choice but to help their parents grow vegetables to earn a living” she added.
Rural women have many roles and responsibilities in supporting household work and agricultural production . They also play a significant role in improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of their communities. However, the gender gap between women and men makes it difficult for women in rural areas to fulfill their potentials. Due to cultural norms, where men migrate to search for work, women often find themselves with the heavy burden of the remaining responsibilities. They must look after their children, prepare meals, manage household chores, plant and harvest crops and tend livestock. Despite these multiple challenges, they are further affected by resource inequities, reduced access to services, lack of education, and unequal rights.
Saykham’s life wasn’t always easy either. Despite obtaining a Bachelor’s of Finance, she was unemployed for two years. Most women would often get married and sacrifice their time to be a primary caregiver. Saykham was also told to do so, but she decided to pursue her dreams instead. She wanted to be a role model to support empowerment and prosperity for all women in her community.
After all the struggles and hardships, Saykham finally saw an opportunity to challenge the cultural expectations of gender beliefs. “I remembered that my mother told to me to participate in the integrated nutrient management program that was organized by Houaphanh Lao Women’s Union. I was very keen and immediately said yes without any hesitation,” she smiled. The program focused on enhancing productivity, generating income, and improve nutritional status of the participating community. This program inspired Saykham to take part in the community development efforts afterwards.
Saykham first started by being a volunteer for the Houaphanh Lao Women’s Union in Xone District. She engaged with vulnerable women, ethnic minorities, and rural households to improve their health and nutritional practices and overall empowerment. With her enthusiasm and eagerness to help the community, she was soon recognized and promoted as an official technical officer. She was honored to be given a platform and opportunity to showcase her full potential to support rural women’s empowerment effectively.
For more than 6 years, Saykham has been working with rural women and mothers in the community every day since. Through the many places and households that she has visited in Xone District, Saykham has had the chance to meet with an elderly yet inspiring woman named Chanvone.
Chanvone used to also be one of Houaphanh Lao Women’s Union members. After her retirement, she spent most of her time supporting her husband in harvesting crops. But it wasn’t successful enough to support her children to attend school and for their own well-being. Chanvone decided to start a mulberry silk farm with full support from her husband. At first, it wasn’t easy because no one in the village had ever done it before. Chanvone was the first woman in the village to implement it.
After many failed attempts and obstacles, Chanvone’s business finally bloomed. Now a successful entrepreneur, she has helped and encouraged her village and benefitted her community through her mulberry silk farm alongside her husband.
As seen through both Chanvone’s and Saykham’s journey, rural women are significant drivers for community development. Through the elimination of negativecultural norms, gender-roles and expectations, women can overcome challenges and can fully engage in the transformation of their homes into a prosperous community. Thus, only when everyone is able to live up to their respective potential will economic and social development be achieved for all.
UNDP in partnership with the Lao Women’s Union, Lao Youth’s Union, and Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, is advocating for the engagement and economic empowerment of vulnerable rural youth through inclusive employment training. This activity, including the Training of Trainers program, are implemented under the Enhancing Social and Economic Opportunities for Youth in Lao PDR project, with the generous support of the Russian Federation Russian Federation (Russian Trust Fund).
By: Phetsalinh Mounivong, Programme Support Officer, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programm