In rural areas of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), the role of community leaders is mostly reserved to men. Despite the national gender strategy calling for women to hold at least 20% of decision-making positions by 2020, Lao PDR women often feel that their potential is stifled, voices kept silent, and capacities curtailed.
How can the growing global movement to empower women reach the villages and communities of Lao PDR, and other countries in developing Asia? How can we help lift women’s status and break traditional norms, according to the equal recognition of women and the role they deserve?
One way is by giving women more opportunities to enhance their social status by growing their income.
During its design phase, the ADB-supported Nam Ngum River Basin Development Sector Project developed a gender action plan that identified few women working in decision-making positions as one of several major roadblocks for women’s empowerment in the country’s rural areas. The other were low returns for women’s labor, lack of opportunities to engage in alternative income-earning opportunities, and poor knowledge of animal health.
To address these concerns, the project’s architects decided to form a pig raising group for women, and provide them with training in this regard as well as credits for a development fund in Phonthongneua, a small village in Hinheup district, Vientiane province.
The goal was for women to improve their family’s living status and increase her income. By acquiring knowledge on feed preparation, feeding techniques, vaccination and hygiene management for livestock, they were able to make their pigs grow up faster and healthier. Women would gain more income and thus more power and influence within their communities.
We can see how all this played out in practice through the story of Thong Phanthavong, a housewife and mother of two. She and her husband used to practice slash-and-burn farming, as it was the only income-earning opportunity available to them, although raising pigs was barely enough to support her family.
Ms. Thong and the other women in the community wished they could stop the inefficient burning for cultivation practice, and instead have some support for a more productive livelihood. But expanding their piggery business would require access to funding and expertise on pig raising on a larger scale.
Ms. Thong was trained on the advantages of forming a group to negotiate better terms with the middle person that comes to the village to buy pigs from individual raisers. Enhanced negotiating power, she learned, was key to success.
By forming a livelihood group within the community, women can also exchange knowledge about their pigs. And with the extra income they bought modern conveniences like washing machines or rice cookers that sharply reduced their housework burden. The women no longer needed to go wash in the river or collect firewood in the forest, so they had time to attend group meetings.
Recognizing and assessing the specific and individual needs of these beneficiaries, the ADB-financed project was able to turn these women’s aspirations into reality. It provided the village with a development fund of LAK5 million (about $590) per family, along with various technical trainings on raising pigs commercially.
Since 2011, Ms. Thong’s pig-raising group has been able to raise 150 pigs per year at an average selling price of LAK2 million each, compared to 30 pigs at LAK1 million per animal before she started receiving support. This is major positive impact from improved feeding techniques and vaccination, as healthier pigs command a higher market price.
The group is also now coordinating their efforts with local government officials, including the District Industry and Commerce Office which offers advice on marketing.
Due to her experience and success, Ms. Thong has been sharing her knowledge and techniques on pig farming with her neighbors. In 2017, she was acknowledged both by her husband and her community as an outstanding pig farmer, and elected head of the pig-raising group.
Ms. Thong says the project helped improve women’s livelihoods in the village as well as uplift her own role, not just in her family but also in the community. She is now one of many women in the village that make decisions and handle money on their own.
Her experience shows that similar projects can likewise benefit from gender action plans that assess women’s needs. Such assessments are essential to continue promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, so Ms. Thong’s story from housewife to community leader becomes the norm.