From Farm to Able
Rising out of poverty is not an easy feat, and yet this provincial lass and former psychology teacher has become a pioneer, showing it can be done and how—by educating and empowering women.
“Education changed my life.”
Coming from a rural village of Lao PDR, at that time with no water and power supply, young Theonakhet Saphakdy made a bold move. She left the place she called home and went to the big city to study in high school—a first in their village. It was a turning point and an awakening. She realized that she wanted to help other girls and women to break free from old stereotypes, that they could do more.
Today, Theonakhet – who is called Theo for short – certainly did. She is a senior social development officer (gender) at the Lao PDR Resident Mission (LRM), pushing for gender mainstreaming and women empowerment in the country. Because up to now, men still dominate most industries and institutions, she says. Nonetheless, she adds how happy she is to see the new generation in her country. “With the new generation, women are educated now. Before it’s difficult to find people who speak English. Now, both girls and boys speak English and they learn from abroad.”
Theo herself has a master’s degree on gender and development studies and a PhD certificate on gender in aquaculture and aquatic resources management from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. She has worked on gender and development since 1997, providing research and consulting services, developing policies, and preparing feasibility studies and supporting project implementation for various international organizations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
She joined ADB in 2009, managing and supporting all the gender action plans of ADB’s Lao investments, which at the moment are 26 out of 28 projects. She says: “I like my job so much. First, I have an opportunity to use my expertise. Second, I come from an undeveloped area, and now I am able to help develop communities.” Surely, when someone like Theo is convincing local governments and stakeholders to support women as a driver for poverty reduction, then there is no need for further proof of success.
Tell us about yourself.
Theo: I was born in a rural part of the country and my family lived off a rice field. We’re farmers. My parents have 10 kids and I’m the eldest. I studied psychology and pedagogy in university and did my master’s degree on gender and development studies at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand. Back then, women do not study in my village. There was only a primary school in our village. I had to leave my hometown after primary school and go to the city to attend high school. I had to be a strong woman. My parents were very worried about me. But it was also at this time I decided I wanted to help women. I like to support women.
Wow. What made you pursue studying when no one had done it before?
Theo: I thought about the history of my family. My grandparents had seven daughters and my grandfather decided to divide the rice field into seven. My mother got one of the seven, and so I thought if my mother divided this piece of land into ten, how would we survive? There was only one solution: study and find a job. This is why I decided to leave home for my education, and also I cared for my brothers and sisters as well. Up to now nobody has divided the rice field. We just left it there [laughs]. Many people followed me since then, leaving home to study, including my brothers and sisters.
How do you feel that you’ve started this path and paved this way of thinking?
Theo: I’m very happy. I feel like I opened a door to bring people outside, to know what to do… For me I didn’t see anybody who did this, pursue education. That’s why I can say education changed my life.
What do you do nowadays? Where do you devote your time?
Theo: We have 28 projects under the Lao portfolio, and 26 of those have a gender action plan. I am responsible for implementing all 26 gender action plans to ensure that gender components are achieved. One key point I want to say is to become a gender specialist or gender expert, having a gender background is not enough, you have to have the project implementation knowledge and skills. You have to know the project cycle. When I worked with UNDP I implemented projects, so in ADB when I had to integrate gender into the project I was able to do so because I knew about project implementation.
I try to divide my time equally, although I have to focus more on certain sub-projects that are difficult to implement. Because in Lao it’s difficult to find a qualified gender specialist in the country, so even though we commit to implement a gender action plan, we need to provide technical support. ADB not only supports through financing, but also through technical and knowledge support, especially for gender mainstreaming. In fact, because of this, government and other development partners always tell me that ADB is a gender champion.
Why is there a big push for gender equality in Lao PDR?
Theo: It’s the main issue. If you look at the division of labor, 60% of women in Lao PDR do unpaid work. That’s why I focus on water. If you have water supply, we can reduce women’s work. Women are responsible for carrying the water, and sanitation. When we have water, women can reduce their labor and time spent. If we have water, and say a washing machine, women don’t have to spend time washing and cleaning. That’s why I came [to this training in Manila] to see how I could support women to get water supply.
Aside from division of labor, the second one is access. Many people living in the rural areas lack access to infrastructure, such as access to water supply, access to school, to medical centers, roads, markets, and also access to information. We see this in the community level, and then when we look at the institutional level, we look at power relations. We need to support women to get better jobs because men are dominating. Men become the leaders. In Parliament, 27% are women; but it’s not down to the local levels yet. Women need to become decision-makers. We need to have more women at the institutional level.
How about you? Don’t you want to run for political office?
Theo: That’s a very good question. I used to be a university teacher for 13 years. But to answer your question, it’s because of personal reasons. My mother passed away when she was 47 years old. I had to become responsible for taking care of my brothers and sisters, so on a government salary we cannot survive. In fact I liked the teaching job, but I had to look for another job to support my brothers and sisters. I became the mother that time. But I’m happy. They're all educated now and have jobs.
So far, what has been a memorable project in ADB?
Theo: Normally when we have a project we recruit a gender specialist to implement the gender action plan. For the Smallholder Development Project unfortunately, there was no gender specialist hired. Actually I have two projects like that, like the Nam Ngum River Basin Development Sector Project. They cannot find a qualified gender consultant so I had to train the government on how to implement the gender action plan and co-monitor it with them. It was so difficult in the beginning. Later on, in 2016, once the project completion report was done, we got an award from the Southeast Asia Regional Department. We did a good job and achieved all the indicators. That’s why cooperation between the team leader and gender specialist in the resident mission is very important.
Also, when we do project design, we need to identify clearly what obstructs women to be able to address their needs. And we need more gender analysis. For example, a gender indicator for a project may include ‘30% of women participate in training’, but we need to look further. What did they gain from the training? How did they use the knowledge to improve their livelihood? I want to see how they improve their income. It’s not only the numbers.
Outside of work, what do you like to do?
Theo: I like gardening. I plant mangoes, coconuts, and banana trees around my house, and I have a rice field. I always go to my rice field during the weekend. It's different from my daily work. I want to remember my life when I was still living with my parents. That’s why I’m happy whenever I see my rice field. The view is good, and when the rice stalks grow, the smell is good too.
“If you look at the division of labor, 60% of women in Lao PDR do unpaid work. That’s why I focus on water. If you have water supply, we can reduce women’s work.”
Senior Social Development Officer (Gender)
Lao PDR Resident Mission