BY NHIEN NGUYEN
When Dr. Boualaphet “Nong” Chounthavong boarded the plane to Seattle during her first trip to America, she was surprised to see a woman pilot at the helm. In Laos, Chounthavong shocked village leaders when she came to town driving a truck.
“Not many women in Laos drive trucks. Here, women fly airplanes,” said Chounthavong.
The equality of women was the first thing that Chounthavong noticed as the biggest difference between the United States and her country of Laos, and it’s the first thing she wants to change in her homeland.
In January 2005, Chounthavong was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as one of the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005,” where 1000 women from more than 150 countries were selected for their commitment to human rights and peace politics. Explore Asia, a local travel consultancy that supports responsible tourism, sponsored a reception for Chounthavong and Todd Sigaty of Village Focus International (VFI) at Seattle’s Phnom Penh Noodle House on Sept. 6. Chounthavong also spoke in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In an interview with the International Examiner, Chounthavong said that in Laos, women did not hold a lot of power, particularly in the remote areas of the country where education level is very low. Some women in Laos never even see currency, as women are often not allowed to deal with cash.
Growing up in Laos where women rarely get the opportunity to get an education, Chounthavong was fortunate to have a father, who was a teacher promoted after the Vietnam War to a high-ranking post in the Ministry of Education, and a mother, who was a member of the Laos Women Union. Chounthavong learned at a young age that education formed the foundation of future opportunities in life.
Chounthavong is one of the few people in Laos who earned a university degree in medicine and, instead of opening a high profile medical practice in the capital, opted to work on rural public health issues in her native province of Salavan in southern Laos, where American forces spent billions of dollars heavily bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
With a strong desire to dedicate her life to serving upland villages, Chounthavong wanted to work without the restrictions and limitations imposed by large international organizations. In 2000, she helped co-found VFI, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore. with a mission to build capacity and create opportunities for local leaders in Laos, Cambodia and India to design and implement positive change in their own communities.
VFI rests on the theory that local leaders are better able than foreign experts to develop and implement health and education solutions, provided the local community has the appropriate long-term funding and resources.
In the effort to improve health issues, Chounthavong believes that women are the first people to talk to when it comes to talking about real problems and concrete solutions. For example, when Chounthavong discovered a high rate of infant mortality with a certain ethnic minority in Laos, she spent time learning more about its culture and beliefs.
These women did not allow husbands to help with birthing. They went to the forest to give birth because of a myth that blood spilled in one’s own home was considered bad luck. Instead of attempting to change the cultural beliefs, Chounthavong devised an appropriate solution to protect women in labor, which included building a communal birthing house, training midwives and providing birthing kits.
Dr. Nancy Harkrider of Explore Asia, LLC said that Chounthavong’s work is important because if a medical team from outside of Laos came to help with such an issue, they would likely not think of a “culturally congruent” solution.
Chounthavong’s leadership has changed the lives of villagers in Laos as well as creating a model for new, innovative methods of community development throughout the world. Her work has taught local officials how to respect village wisdom and integrate their ideas into planning and decisions.
Though Chounthavong is shy to call herself a leader, she knows she has established a voice within a male-dominated local government in finding ways to develop basic health initiatives in her country.
For more information on Village Focus, visit www.villagefocus.org.