For many households of the indigenous Hmong people in Laos, girls are second on the priority list for attending school. Even some families with the desire and financial resources to send their daughters to school enforce restrictions on their education but not on their sons’. Education builds financially independent women and transforms them into critical thinkers. Such practices can also have the long-term effect of reducing poverty. The benefits of girls’ education in Laos reach out to the general community, not just to the girls.
A famous Hmong proverb translates to “Nine moons can’t compare to one sun; nine daughters can’t compare to one son.” It means that boys are expected to grow up to become breadwinners while women are seen as not being worth investing in. In part, this mindset leads to higher school enrollment rates for boys.
Exposure to Western Education Systems Influences Girls’ Education in Laos
Laotian history has been marked by the Pathet Lao’s rise to power in 1975. The communist regime began a genocide against the Hmong people in retaliation for aiding the United States with covert operations related to the Vietnam War. As a result, nearly one in 10 Hmong citizens fled to Thailand, later arriving in the United States. Education is especially valuable to the children of refugee parents because it offers a chance for them to seek a better life than what previous generations in Laos endured.
In the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Kaozong N. Mouavangsou, the daughter of Hmong refugees, described the influence of Hmong culture even as she pursued higher education in the U.S. Family members encouraged her to attend a university close to home while her brothers got to choose schools farther away. They aimed to protect Mouavangsou from environments where she might get distracted from her studies by men who wanted to marry and have children.
When girls pursue higher levels of education, they are able to form their own opinions about how girls are treated in Hmong culture. Mouavangsou’s Western education gave her insight into the differences between the U.S. and Laos in terms of women’s roles in society. Such knowledge provided her an opportunity to choose which path in life was best for her, instead of prioritizing the needs of a potential husband and children.
International Organizations Work to End Sexual Harassment in Schools
Unfortunately, many girls in Laos do not receive the advanced schooling they need to forge such a path for themselves. In South Asia, approximately 100 million girls will drop out of school before getting a chance to pursue secondary education. Girls have a lower attendance rate in secondary education because those schools are located farther from home. This means it is harder for parents to guard against sexual harassment inflicted by male classmates.
In response to such issues, UNICEF began a project in collaboration with Plan International, CARE, U.N. Women and Girl Guides to make secondary schools safer environments for girls. The project created a chatbot where boys and girls can share their ideas about how to end violence. This forum engages a demographic of people who might have peers that are either the aggressor or the ones being harassed.
In addition to UNICEF’s chatbot, more plans are being implemented to help make girls’ education in Laos more accessible. Some schools are offering flexible hours to accommodate when girls can attend classes. Others are promoting an atmosphere free of gender-based violence and awarding scholarships to make the cost of education more affordable. Overall, the gender disparity in the Laotian education system dropped from 4 percent in 2008 to less than 2 percent in 2010.
Many issues, such as sexual harassment, gender inequality and poverty are interdependent upon one another. With that in mind, girls’ education in Laos can help the whole of Hmong society as well as provide girls with greater well-being.
– Sabrina Dubbert