A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Oxfam supports the Gender Development Association to involve women in income generation activities and the management of savings groups in one of the poorest areas of Laos, hoping that this will increase their situation within the village and that they will have increased confidence in speaking out at village meetings.
Indeed, women and girls living in rural and remote areas of Laos are often the most disadvantaged. Men are usually described as the heads of the households, representing their families at official meetings. Many women are illiterate and do not speak the national language used for education. Prevailing social and cultural norms mean women are not confident to give their opinions, and do not demonstrate simple meeting skills such as taking turns to speak out. Therefore, often women cannot participate fully in village development activity processes.
How to use resources in a sustainable way
The Gender Development Association supports equally women and men of the villages to produce products from banana fiber, natural bamboo or other agricultural products. They are trained to improve the quality of the products and in marketing in order to increase their income. “When we joined the project, the trainer taught us how to make banana fiber clothes and weaving techniques. I have been trained in two-three things: folder, document bag, neck-hanging bag and school bag” explains Leh, a villager. “For one bamboo stem, we can make legs for a table. From the middle of the stem, we can make other things. We do not waste any of the bamboo. We have a collective area for cutting where we go with our husbands. We come home and start cutting bamboo in pieces, rubbing, baking and boiling. Most of the tasks are done by women. The husbands do the drilling” adds Channoa, member of a bamboo producer groups.
"Before, we were trading a traditional way. We did not know market information. There were also problems with environmental issues. Villagers or we, small traders, did not know how to use resources in a sustainable way. The forest management was not sufficient to control appropriate bamboos shoots harvesting and this led to the reduction of natural bamboos in the forest but now there are village committees to protect the forests” says Mr. Khammeung from the bamboo trader association.
"The level of violence has decreased"
Ms. Vanna, a gender village volunteer underlines that these activities have strengthened gender equality between husband and wife, and families have fewer arguments. “Regarding domestic violence, especially physical violence, both men and women have learnt about law and protection of women and we have noticed that the level of violence has decreased” adds the spokesperson of the Lao Women Union, the Lao mass organisation defending the rights and interests of women.
Thanks to the improved quality of the products, villagers have been able to increase their income and save money. “At the beginning, it was difficult for villagers to trust saving groups” explains Mrs. Bouakhai from a village committee saving group. “Now, 100% of villagers are saving members. Our saving group has contributed to village development. We save 3% of our interest for village development fund and projects such as building village office, building roads and purchasing some equipment and tools. We also help buying light bulbs for the village office” she adds.
"The project belongs to the villagers"
Local authorities such as the District Agricultural and Forestry Office (DAFO) closely lead and help villages getting organised. “The project belongs to the villagers. We have learnt from the establishment of producer groups which become central with a lot of potential. We need to keep implementing these activities because we work directly with villagers and strengthen them” says the spokesperson of DAFO.
“For the future we would like to expand the project in order to improve livelihoods of the families and strengthen women’s position in the development of their villages” concludes Boutsady Khounnouvong, program coordinator of the Gender Development Association.”These kind of successful projects provide us evidence to influence our decisions-makers to defend and protect women’s rights. We want to contribute to a society where women are empowered and can live without violence and discrimination. Women should work along with men to reduce poverty and benefit from opportunities for development”.