Potraits - image courtesy Sara Rickards

International Women’s Day – Empowering girls through education in Laos

Last year I was sitting with one of my best friends from high school and her mum at a café in Melbourne. My friend’s mum was filling me in about the The Lotus Foundation. A charity she started after walking through a remote village in Laos, and noticing that hardly any of the girls were in school. This simple yet startling realisation resulted in her partnering with the village chief. Together they identified 44 girls from the poorest families to be sponsored to complete their education. Over the past eight years the program has been very successful. Last year, however, four of the Lotus girls went missing.

Laos is a poor, landlocked socialist state. Bordering Thailand, itself a well-known hub for sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, Laos has a high incidence of trafficking of girls aged 12-18. The girls who went missing from the program had presumably fallen into the hands of traffickers or married as child brides. Upon hearing this I was shattered – I wanted to help but I didn’t know how. I started thinking about what I could do, and what other women could do. A light bulb went off in my brain. As Macquarie’s Education for Sustainability Manager I know great change can come through education. So I started thinking about how we could use education to help these girls.

We know that educating women has a huge impact on society for example:

1.Educated women are less likely to die in childbirth: If all mothers completed primary education, maternal death would decrease by two-thirds

2.Women with higher levels of education are less likely to get married at an early age: Child marriage would decrease by 14% with primary education and by 60% with secondary education

3. Educated women are more likely to find work and have a decreased pay gap compared to men

(UNESCO, 2013)

Then the second light bulb went off. My mum is an obstetrician-gynaecologist – just the person to give the girls invaluable information about female health. Most of the teachers at the school where the Lotus girls attend are male. This is a common occurrence in Laos and exposure to empowering female roles models and a curriculum that provides knowledge and awareness of ‘sex- ed’ is very limited. So I persuaded my mother to accompany me to Laos, but it wasn’t as if I had to twist her arm!

And as it turned out, she was the perfect person. Here is an image of my mother showing the Lotus girls an animation of childbirth during our three-day Women’s Wellness Retreat.

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The big job then was to let the girls know about the trap of sex trafficking, in short, the difference between migration and trafficking. We got World Vision on board to teach the girls a role-play, for them to perform in their village when they returned home. This would help the girls amplify what we had taught them.

We also wanted to empower the girls, so we had two art therapists, Julie and Margot, show the girls how to paint their own self-portraits, as they took them on a journey to create a vision for who and what they wanted to be when they grew up.

My little sister Kate had just graduated as an Exercise Scientist, so she also joined us, taking the girls for their morning physical education. At this point it became a full family affair and a way for us all to use our unique skillsets to help empower other women.

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We also managed to crowd source some money to fix the only two toilets in the entire school. At the school, over 100 students jump the fence each day to go to the bathroom in a paddock. Did you know 40% of the world’s population don’t have access to a toilet? Additionally, It has been shown that every $1 invested in sanitation results in $8 of economic prosperity (Who Gives a Crap, 2015)

We did all of this over a few short days, whereby I even used my Macquarie University Volunteering leave.

Macquarie’s new Learning and Teaching Strategy has as its mission to create a connected learning community. I truly believe this is the way forward – sharing our skills and knowledge and working together for commonly established goals.

International Women’s Day is the 8th March and started in the 20th century by socialists in Germany. I believe the more we work together to empower women and create connected learning communities the less we will need such a day – but until that day I will continue to volunteer my time in this space.

Today is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women #PLEDGEFORPARITY

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One thought on “International Women’s Day – Empowering girls through education in Laos”

  1. A well written article Sara and you truly capture the essence of the project and what we aimed to achieve. Your participation was really appreciated and hopefully your ideas and suggestions for sustainable development will be implemented by Lotus and the local community in an effort to continue to empower girls! Thank you

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