20160308 IWD 191x191On International Women’s Day 2016 Coffey celebrates the stories of four brave and resilient young women in Laos, who are overcoming challenges to prioritise their education – working towards attaining gender parity.

The Australian Government, through the Coffey-managed Laos Australia Institute, supports more than 200 students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at the National University of Laos. 

Each year seventy students from provincial areas, half female, are awarded a Laos Australia National Scholarship. This scholarship covers the student’s tuition fee and provides a monthly allowance.

Barriers to girls’ education are a significant issue in Laos. Some girls work to help their families or stay home to take care of younger siblings, while others don’t have money for education.

That was the case for Phonethip Vilayhoung, whose family did not have enough rice to eat and struggled for food each day.

“I had to help my grandparents to earn money and do housework. I did not feel comfortable to totally depend on them,” Phonethip said.

While in Grade 5, her mother asked Phonethip to sacrifice her own education to help the family.

“I thought leaving school would not help improve our family situation that much,” she said.

“Like other women in my Sammeun village, we do very hard work including rice pounding, cutting firewood, fetching water and working in the field. I feel sympathy for my mother working so hard and hope I can help her to get out of this struggle.”

Phonethip is now one of the students from remote and disadvantaged districts in Laos to receive a scholarship and is studying a Bachelor of Physical Education.

“I am happy. The scholarship has given me opportunities to study, to learn a lot of life skills and understand the environment around us.”

Aiher Saupor, 22 years old, is determined to continue her education despite poverty and her parents’ disapproval.

“I have seen my parents working so hard in the field and they still live in poverty. That’s why I don’t want to be the same. I wanted to study and get a job,” said Aiher.

Aiher had asked her father for permission and some financial support to sit the entrance examination at the National University in Vientiane.

“I promised my father that this was going to be the last time I ask for money from him,” she said.

Aiher secured a place at the university, and then received a Laos Australia National Scholarship in 2012. She is now in her third year of a Bachelor of Chemistry Education. 

Phaynalin Toummala has now completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the National University of Laos.

“The scholarship not only gave me an opportunity to further my study, it made my life better and to be a better person,” Phaynalin said.

Thatsanee Huksaphone received a scholarship in 2012 and is now in her third year of study towards a Bachelor of Chemistry Education at the National University of Laos. 

“Without the scholarship, I would not have come this far,” Thatsanee says.

“My parents never told me to stop school but I could tell that they had no money. Many times they asked to postpone the school fees,” she recalls.  

However, as one of the brightest students in her school, her family and teacher strongly encouraged her to finish high school. 

“Somehow, I thought if I quit, our family would still end up in poverty, therefore I had to study.”

After finishing high school, Thatsanee’s family borrowed money from relatives to send her to sit the entrance examination at the National University in Vientiane.  

Thatsanee’s story represents the impact that educating girls and young women can have for poor communities.  She believes that her degree can make a huge difference in improving the family’s situation and also help her village.

“After I graduate, I will go back home and teach at my school because we do not have enough chemistry teachers. I want to make my teachers and my family proud of me.” 

Because of her scholarship, her family is now able to keep her younger brother at high school.

Coffey continues to work with the Laos Australia Institute supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their educational pursuits. 

Pictured: Top; Phaynalin, Thatsanee; Bottom; Aiher, Phonethip.