I find myself in a rural Lao village surrounded by 15 women. They are all different ages: mothers, daughters, grandmothers, even babies. Their language is completely alien to me. I strain to understand but I only grasp a few numbers in their exotic tonal tongues. But I don’t need to understand what they’re saying to understand that they’re excited. The women hold up and pass round different cottons, fabrics and intricately embroidered silk. Their sing-song voices clamber over each other, reaching a deafening crescendo which descends into near hysterical laughter. Notable is the complete absence of any men.
This is my first trip to the Ban Hai village in central Laos, and I am witnessing something truly special - micro-credit in action.
A forgotten land
Laos is a beautiful country; unlike neighbouring Thailand, it remains relatively unspoilt by tourism and development. The people are warm and friendly, and genuinely pleased to welcome you into their country and into their homes.
Despite its diminutive size, Laos is bursting at the seams with incredible sights and experiences: there is literally something for everyone. From the laid back charm of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, to the wild parties and tubing in Vang Viang. For the nature lovers and adrenaline junkies, Laos’ forests and caves are stunning and well preserved, with a higher percentage of protected land than any other South East Asian country. For sun seekers the unique Four Thousand Islands that appear in the Mekong during the dry season offer a beach experience like no other. And for gastronomic travelers, Laos’s capital Vientiane punches above its weight in the international restaurant scene.
But look past the incredible scenery and hospitality, stumble slightly from the tourist trail, and another picture emerges: a picture of poverty.
Little known Laos is one of the poorest and least developed nations in South East Asia; while the world knows of the tragic, and at times horrific, histories of bordering countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos remains forgotten. Almost a third of people in Laos survive on less than a dollar a day and a staggering 74 per cent on less than $2. In the rural and remote areas, where three quarters of the Laos population lives, half of all children are severely malnourished and suffer with stunted growth.
And like so many countries where poverty is prevalent, the women bear the brunt of the burden. Women do the lion’s share of all work, not just in the home, but in the fields, the markets, the shops and restaurants. Visit Laos and you can’t fail to be struck by how hard the women are working, whereas men seem almost invisible.
That women receive less education and have fewer opportunities is unsurprising. Women’s literacy is just 54 per cent compared to 77 per cent in men; girls in rural areas leave school after, on average, just two years. In a country war-torn for almost two decades many women find themselves the sole income earner for families struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table.
In a forgotten land, these women are the forgotten people.
Small loans making a big difference
It’s a simple idea. But like so many simple ideas, it works. Provide women with small loans to start their own businesses, based on skills they already have, give them the right training and help connect them with potential buyers, and empower them to change their lives.
The women in Ban Hai are excellent weavers. The quality and beauty of the silk they weave is unrivalled, but they lack the means to buy enough materials to produce large quantities, or the connections and influence to negotiate fair prices.
The Social Economic Developers Association (SEDA) is an organisation that has been working with these women, and similar women in villages all over Laos, to give them a fighting chance at long term financial stability.
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