Phanya has been encouraged by her teachers to think big for the future. “I love going to school,” says 11-year-old Phanya. “I don’t want to get married. I want to study for many years, go to university and then work in an office – maybe become a doctor.”
Such ambitions may seem pipe dreams for a Hmong girl at primary school in rural Xieng Khouang because many children don’t go to school in these areas, especially females. However, there is inspiration at the nearby Nongpet secondary school. For example, Phongsamay, 18, is one of many girls preparing for university entrance exams. “I want to pursue a profession such as medicine,” she says.
Various factors make education difficult for girls from ethnic groups in Lao People's Democratic Republic: there are fewer schools and teachers in rural areas where the ethnic communities live; parents are reluctant to let daughters walk the long distances to school; many adults view education as more important for boys; and the work girls do at home is highly valued. And for some girls, early marriage – as young as twelve - means the end of school for them.
Bridging the (education) ‘gender gap’
This is why UNICEF is working to improve education quality, especially in rural areas and is collaborating with education authorities to persuade families of the benefits of educating all children – including their daughters,
“Ideas about education are changing for nearly everyone here,” says Phongsamay, whose parents have put 13 of their children through school. She explains that education authorities have visited her village to explain how knowledge and skills can end the cycle of poverty. “Our people want their children to have a better life,” she says.
“Why should it be difficult for girls?” says Phanya. “We can get knowledge and help our families, just like boys.” In her village, the education “gender gap” is a thing of the past. “Education values spread quickly. When people start sending children to school, others quickly follow,” says her teacher, Mr. Soulichanh. “The quality is important though. If schools aren’t worth coming to, families won’t bother. With UNICEF’s help we get resources, teacher support and upgrade training, and we have learned to work with the community to improve facilities.”
Not all communities are so forward thinking. In the next district, Nong Nam village, there are two primary schools. Si, a 10-year-old girl, lives near both. But she cannot read and when asked if she goes to school, she answers tearfully, “[No] my parents don’t let me.”
“Education is important,” says Si’s mother, “but there’s work to do at home as well. We are poor and have to make a choice.” The standard of the local school is one reason why Si’s family keeps her home. Nong Nam falls outside UNICEF support; many of the teachers are untrained and a lot of children miss school.
Back in Nongpet, Phongsamay weeds the vegetable plot and chops firewood before finally getting to study her homework. “If adults are encouraged [to allow their children to attend classes] and schools offer a fair chance to all, then I think all families will send their daughters,” she says.
Although Phongsamay’s community is unusually dedicated, the case of Phanya’s village shows action can make success stories the norm, rather than the exception. Phanya also fetches water and makes breakfast for the family before walking to school. “Sometimes I have a lot of chores and am late for school,” she says.” The teacher gets angry, but never for long. He knows we always do our homework anyway.” Always? “Not quite,” says her teacher with a grin, “but I’m proud of the effort these girls are making.”