Notes from the Field

Women’s Leadership Critical to Reaching Development Goals in Laos

September 12, 2012

In late August, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong approved the first-ever national draft strategy on gender; a broad plan designed to increase the number of women in senior positions in government. The strategy is not yet public, and it is not clear whether this will become a law or a decree, but it is at the very least drawing attention to the number of women at the top levels of government in leadership positions.

In single-party Laos, the National Assembly (or parliament) consists of 25 percent women, a figure significantly higher than the international average of 19 percent. According to the most recent figures compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Laos is ahead of its ideologically similar neighbor Vietnam (24.4%) and well ahead of democratic Thailand (15.8%). In fact, the powerful role of president of the National Assembly is held by a woman. Yet figures for women in sub-national and local government tell a different story. Of the 143 district governors, only 10, or just under 8 percent, are women. Of the 8,608 village chiefs throughout the country, 228, a mere 2.64 percent, are women.

Borivone Phafong

In Laos, women’s leadership in business is more the exception than the rule. Borivone Phafong, who started her own handicraft shop in Vientiane, is one of these exceptions. Photo by Marco Ryan.

The Government of Laos has set the goal to graduate from least-developed country status by the year 2020. Part of the agenda to do so is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which include specific objectives to narrow gender gaps in education, participation in government, and income generation. Compared to countries with similar levels of development, women in Laos fare relatively well in some areas, yet the culture remains largely patriarchal. A common saying in Laos is that women are the back feet of the elephant while males are the front feet, implying that men should lead and women should follow. This is reflected across sectors, including in business, where formal women’s leadership is much more the exception than the rule.

“Women generally do not aspire to leadership roles, preferring to let men make the decisions,” explained one Lao businesswoman from Vientiane who I spoke with recently. Furthermore, as is the case in many developing economies, women are generally responsible for domestic duties including caring for children and elderly relatives, taking care of the household, gathering water and firewood, and tending to the family garden, among other daily chores. This leaves little time for any other pursuits outside the home, and negatively affects women’s access to loans, prospects for professional advancement, and integration into supply networks.

At the same time, the economy here is booming; its annual growth rate averaging between 7-8 percent over the past five years. While much of this growth is due to mining and hydropower projects – sectors in which the few direct employment opportunities are overwhelmingly for men – the results are visible along the streets of the capital city of Vientiane where even women-run small businesses are popping up daily. These boutiques, restaurants, and bakeries are new features in this city of 650,000 where up until only a few years ago, glass-fronted shops were an anomaly and even today are still well outnumbered by open-front stalls and informal shops established in household carports. In the nation’s small towns, villages, and countryside where an estimated 80 percent of the population resides, however, there are few commercial enterprises for either men or women as the vast majority of the country still pursues subsistence agriculture. In these rural locales, the predominant women-run businesses are selling vegetables, producing handicrafts, or owning noodle stands or small shops that sell goods like soft drinks, soaps, and cigarettes.

With 99.8 percent of all Lao businesses considered small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the government recognizes the importance of these enterprises to national development and their crucial role in reaching the goal of poverty eradication. Just this month the Lao Development Bank announced its new SME Fund and its resulting intention to release loans to about 70 SMEs. Yet with interest rates between 9-10 percent, it will remain to be seen if many SMEs actually take advantage of this fund and how many of them are run by women.

Recognizing these barriers, the Lao Businesswomen’s Association (LBWA) started in 2004 to provide a stronger network for women-owned businesses. It now claims a membership of approximately 300 women-led businesses throughout the country.

On August 30-31, The Asia Foundation supported a workshop hosted by the LBWA for 40 businesswomen from throughout Laos to discuss challenges and how to build their network more effectively. The businesses represented were wide-ranging – from wood furniture and handicrafts to restaurants, hotels, and a mulberry tree plantation. Many participants expressed how unique this opportunity was for them and how useful it will be for growing their businesses. One participant from Luang Prabang said, “At this workshop, I learned from other businesswomen who run different types of business, and we can share experiences. Now, I know how to get access to the bank, to a loan, to get a Letter of Credit… I learned how to create a network and why networking is good for us. Nevertheless, this workshop is a first time for me; we should set up such workshops regularly and also I want to learn how to manage my business more properly.”

The United Nations estimates that the Asia-Pacific economy would earn $89 billion every year if women were able to achieve their full economic potential. To reach its development goal by the year 2020, the Lao government will need to utilize all of its resources wisely, including its driven and aspiring women entrepreneurs. As one successful Lao businesswoman from the workshop said, “I feel running a business is not easy at all; sometimes you fail sometimes you win. However, if you try and learn from experiences and your weakness it makes you stronger.”

Gretchen Kunze is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Laos and Viengprasigh Thiphasouda is a program officer there. They can be reached at gkunze@asiafound.org and prasith@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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