Scholarships for young women in Lao People's Democratic Republic are helping today's students become tomorrow's water leaders.

Phahatphane Manivanh is one of 26 female students awarded a scholarship to do a 4-year undergraduate degree in environment science. Her 25 other peers are studying civil and environment engineering at the National University of Lao and the Vocational Institution of Technology in Vientiane.

"After graduation I will be secured with a job with the provincial water supply utility and will have good income to support my family."

-- Phahatphane Manivanh, student

"At the beginning I did not like to study environmental sciences but this scholarship is my only chance for continuing higher education as my parents could not afford it. Now I love this field as I have learned many things related to the environment that we haven't paid attention in. After graduation I will be secured with a job with the provincial water supply utility and will have good income to support my family," says Manivanh.

The pool of qualified women in the water and engineering field is limited, as few enter the field after completing high school. Hence, a scholarship program to encourage young female school leavers to train in these technical areas.

Opportunities to train as engineers

The female scholarship program is a pilot program funded by ADB's Gender and Development Cooperation Fund and linked to the Small Towns Water Supply and Sanitation Project. The pilot program is designed to address the current gender gaps in leadership of the urban water and sanitation sector and to build a future pipeline of female water professionals and water utilities leaders. Of the 26 scholarships awarded - 27% enrolled in civil engineering, 69% in environmental engineering and 4% in environmental sciences. All 26 students have passed their examination for Year 2.

Mentoring relationships have been established for the students with experienced women from private sector and from different departments of Ministry of Public Works Transport (MPWT). During school holidays the students are provided with opportunities to practice different skills through internships with government offices and international organizations.

Besides the female scholarship program, the grant also includes piloting a demand-driven and performance-based capacity development program for promoting gender equality in participating provincial water supply utilities, known as provincial nam papas (PNPs). This will be done in two steps: First, a needs assessment will identify capacity development and other needs for PNP staff to become more gender balanced and to support women staff to grow professionally and improve their roles within the utility. Each PNP will then get access to grant funds to build the capacity of its female staff.

Targeting females for training and capacity building is critical to the sustainability of water and sanitation initiatives, both in technical and managerial roles and as customers and as beneficiaries.

Workshop on gender

Women's potential contribution to the sector can extend from water policy development, water engineering, maintenance and repairs of water and sanitation systems, education and awareness raising, reuse and hygiene, and financial management of water utilities.

Currently there is a dearth of water supply and environmental engineers in Lao PDR and most PNPs only have one water supply engineer. To enhance the capacity of the PNPs and to staff the growing number of small town systems there is an urgent, and long-term, need to significantly increase the pool of water supply and environmental engineers.

The budding pool of female water professionals will not only fill the existing skills gap in this area but will help create a new generation of women water leaders.