Paris, 10 May. As Covid-19 threatens decades of progress on reducing poverty and gender inequalities around the world, Education For Women Now, supported by The L'Oréal' Fund for Women, launches an innovative solution in Laos, Southeast Asia, that positions education as a pathway to female empowerment.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, 132 million girls were excluded from school globally. According to UNESCO, now, the crisis threatens to exclude a further 11 million, depriving them of their right to education. Compounding this problem is a spike in child marriages globally.

In Laos, before the pandemic, 9% of females were married by the age of 15, while 35.4% were married by 18. This is significantly higher than the global average of 20% and may increase as the Covid-19 crisis continues. Reports warn that 25 years of progress on ending the practice of child marriage is set to be reversed as Covid-19 puts 2.5 million more girls at risk of early marriage by 2025, globally.

Often early marriage is viewed as the only option for girls from isolated areas in Laos, something driven by traditional cultural beliefs, particularly among ethnic minority communities. These gender dynamics are reflected in the education system where females are more than twice as likely to be unschooled than males, with 21% of adult females reported in the government's census to have no educational attainment compared with 10% of adult males.  

For Education For Women Now, education is synonymous with empowerment and the development of autonomy over one's own future. In Laos, our Education For Women Now movement, financially backed by The L'Oréal Fund for Women - a charitable endowment fund created by the L'Oréal Group to support vulnerable women - is launching a ledership and enterpreneurship project for young ethnic minority women in Laos.

The project is designed to reach those who never had the opportunity to finish school and those currently at risk of dropping out. We are working with communities where physical, structural and social barriers coupled with traditional gender beliefs and attitudes have contributed to less value being placed upon girls' education typically leading to girls marrying young and not finishing school. 

In 2020, we piloted the project and reached 22 participants in two villages in Vientiane province home to primarily Hmong and Khmu ethnicities which demonstrate strong traditional gender role divisions and educational disadvantages. Now, we're taking the lessons learnt from our pilot and building on its success, scaling up to reach 860 participants over the next four years. From training on how to apply for a job to how to build a start-up, our goal is to improve the social, behavioral, and entrepreneurship skills of ethnic minority women in Odomxay Province.   

23-year-old Onglao, launched her own business with others from her village after participating in the project in 2020. Onglao is now selling lotus crackers to her community, something she never imagined she'd have the confidence or opportunity to do before the project. 

"Most girls here dropout of school early to get married, to go to work at one of the factories in Vientiane, or to farm - I used to be one of those girls," said Onglao.

Through offering participants mentorship in designing and implementing community-oriented business start-ups, our project seeks to disrupt the gender norms that kept girls in low or unpaid agriculture, domestic and care work.

Local authority figure Bounmy Kayong, Deputy Director of the Feuang District Education and Sport Bureau, noted that the communities involved in our pilot project had improved their capacity to earn an income and wished to see projects like this reach other villages. "Expanding this activity to additional villages will benefit others and increase their income and employment," he said.

What started as a small pilot project in two villages has now grown to represent something much larger for some of the communities' key figures - the realization that more options can be created for young women other than child marriage, agriculture and unpaid domestic labor, and that such options may stand to benefit whole communities. 

Over the course of the next four years, we will enroll 860 disadvantaged women particularly from rural areas and ethnic (non-Lao) backgrounds in entrepreneurship and employment skills training. The focus of the project is on youth, defined as 15-35, although lower secondary students may be included as suitable. We estimate that approximately 3,440 people will be reached as a result of our project.

As Covid-19 positions education and gender equality in a state of emergency, we are ready to respond by supporting the development of a skilled workforce and the inclusion of women in education, business and society at-large. 

Christine Redmond

Copyright: Christine Redmond