Phonsay District, Lao PDR─Thong Sawin has raised chickens and pigs for much of her life in this rural community in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), but it never provided enough income to support her five children. The 48-year-old widow could barely feed her family with the earnings from her tiny livestock holdings and work as a day laborer.
The chickens often died before they could be sold, and she struggled to find or buy the food to feed the livestock. The situation became so desperate that one of her daughters had to quit school to help support the family.
"Livestock is the best income earning opportunity here. By training women in this field, we are empowering them."
- Khanla Liengphadith, governor of Phonsay District
In the last year, the fortunes of Thong Sawin and her family have changed. A community livestock training program taught her how to plant forage and provide proper nutrition and vaccinations to pigs, cows, and chickens.
After Thong Sawin completed the training, the project supported her in accessing microfinancing from the Village Livelihood Fund to buy four goats, three pigs, 20 chickens, and three heads of cattle.
"I now know how to keep these animals healthy so that they bring the best price," she says.
From the profits earned selling her healthy livestock, Thong Sawin was able to put her daughter back in school, improve her family's clothing, install electricity in her home, and stop working as a day laborer. She is now saving up to buy a new house, a dream that she is confident she can achieve.
Empowerment through training
Thong Sawin benefited from the Northern Region Sustainable Livelihood through Livestock Development Project, which was supported by a $9.3 million loan and $700,000 grant from ADB, a $3.5 million grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and a $3 million loan from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Approved in September 2006, the project has improved livestock productivity and market access for some of the poorest people in Lao PDR.
Lack of access to adequate productive resources and marketing opportunities has led to the absence of sustainable livelihoods for the predominantly poor upland ethnic groups in northern Lao PDR. People in the area have been hit by falling productivity from upland agriculture and a lack of adequate land and forest for food production and gathering.
Livestock productivity has also been severely constrained by the lack of modern production technologies, financial services, and access to markets. Women and girls, who have very limited opportunities in the area, have been some of the hardest hit.
"Gender inequality continues to persist among ethnic groups, with more women than men remaining illiterate," says Theonakhet Saphakdy, a gender and development specialist with ADB's office in Lao PDR. "Girls assume household responsibilities at an early age, which precludes their education and reduces their chances to improve their livelihoods."
"Now we can make complaints and we can be heard. I don't know if a woman will ever be a village head, but they can't stop us from being heard now."
─ Chim, a beneficiary
The ADB project included a gender action plan, which facilitated the equitable participation of women, particularly poor women from upland ethnic groups, in all project outcomes and impacts. The project has improved women's knowledge and access to financial, physical, and social capital for improved livelihoods. It has also targeted women for literacy and numeracy training to eliminate their initial disadvantages.
A key aspect of the project's work to empower women involves training. It has supported women's participation in village-based training, where at least 50% of participants are women. For training programs aimed at smaller livestock, women make up 70% to 80% of all trainees.
Having a say in village life
Khanla Liengphadith, governor of Phonsay District, and a key supporter of the initiative, notes that the project has taught villagers in his area to plant crops more effectively and keep livestock healthier through vaccinations and higher quality feed.
The project also provided a small walking bridge across a river in the area. "Before the bridge, women had great difficulty crossing the river to tend to the livestock in the upland area," the district governor said. "Now it is easier to cross and safer for children."
The district governor says that the land in the area is well suited for raising livestock and there is a tradition of doing so. "Livestock is the best income earning opportunity here," he said. "By training women in this field, we are empowering them."
One person who clearly feels empowered by the project is Chim, an 80-year-old village resident who goes by one name only. She has lived in the village since 1975 and has seen dramatic changes.
"It's a very different situation for women now," she says. "Back then, women had 10 children or more. We had to carry rice from the field with our children and take care of them while we worked in the field. Life was very hard but we had no choices."
She says that the project has encouraged women's involvement in the administration of the village and there is growing acceptance to this.
"Before, women did not have any chance to participate in any village meeting," she said. "If there was village business being discussed, they would yell at us, 'Get away! Get away!' Now we speak up at village meetings. Now we can make complaints and we can be heard. I don't know if a woman will ever be a village head, but they can't stop us from being heard now. They have to listen to us now. They can't tell us to go away."