With no prior expectations beyond my mission’s agenda, we arrived safely in La District, Oudomxay province in February 2021. But to my pleasant surprise, I met a young woman village leader, Ms. Sakhone Sengmany. Her innate ability to multi-task, appeared to come so naturally to her. I couldn’t avoid being immediately drawn to learn more about Sakhone, as her confidence shone through while garnering women for a group discussion.
The 32 year-old is 1 of the only 3 women village leaders in the District, while the remaining 43 are all male leaders. Despite 43 of the 45 villages being identified as ‘poor villages’ in the District, these 3 women had managed to get elected as head of poverty ridden villages and managing the responsibilities that are generally out of bound for women citizens.
Before I was led to the Village Office to speak to Sakhone, I saw her obtaining her group’s feedback on basic services that were provided by the local authorities. She was able to complete her interview with the survey team and also take them around to identify families representing ethnic population and persons with disabilities.
Sakhone quickly gave me a snapshot of the challenges she faces in ensuring access to basic services in the area of health, education, public works, transport, civil registration and agricultural extension services. Exhibiting her instinctive agility to surmount problems and look for solutions was something that impressed me most and made me believe in women’s excellence over men in driving new initiatives and to think out of the box.
Women in Lao PDR, constitute just 2 percent of the village leaders in the country and I am glad to know that perceptions about women leadership is changing. More women are expected to be agents of socio-economic change in the community.
When asked about her political career, Sakhone mentioned with humility that she was the Deputy Village Leader from 2014 -18 before being elected as the Village Leader in 2018. She has also served as the Village women’s unit prior to her role as the deputy to the village leader. Her husband is a teacher in the neighboring village school and is very supportive in her professional role. She has 9-year-old son and maintains a healthy balance between her family and profession.
Responding to my question about her key contribution to the village as a leader, Sengmany said that she was instrumental in ensuring harmony in the village and managing the village affairs in the absence of village committees which in my opinion was a formidable achievement. I was keen on knowing how she could manage her two male deputies and whether they had any prejudices of supporting a women leader.
Sakhone confidently replied that she has no problem managing and garnering support from her male deputies and to seek their fullest copperation in managing the village affiars.
Improving health services and access to medicines, supply of textbooks along with provision to have mid-day meals for students, having a public address system in her office and constitution of village committees are some of the top priorities on her agenda.
Despite achievements of women like Sakhone, women in remote villages of the country still have to overcome perceptual blatant discrimination and male chauvinism to get elected as leaders at the village level. while waiting for a formal tool such as Temporary Special Measures to facilitate gender parity in leadership in Lao PDR, the entire society, and not just the women themselves, can strive to create positive changes in support of gender equality.
A mission to monitor the Service Users Feedback Survey conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs and UNDP where a visit was made to Ban Nokhoy Village to test the questionnaire of the survey in February 2021. This blog was written out of curiosity to know how 145 women village leaders out of the total 8651 village heads in Lao PDR have overcome generation biases, patriachal discrimination and social inhibition and went on to get elected as the Village Leaders. The project is supported by the Swiss Development Cooperation.
Mr. Bagival Pradeep Kumar, Chief Technical Advisor, National Governance and Public Administration Reform Programme, Governance Unit, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.