Poverty stills keep some children in rural districts of Laos out of school, especially girls. There are many barriers to girls’ education. Some must work to help their families or stay home to take care of younger siblings. Other girls simply don’t have money for education. Phonethip Vilayhoung, a Khamu 20 year old woman, from Phonthong district in Luang Prabang was one of those.
Her life journey has not been as simple or straightforward as other teenagers. Her father passed away when she was just a baby. Since her mother remarried, she has lived with her grandparents whom she has called her “parents”. Her grandparents were rice farmers and depended on selling sesame seed as a source of income. The family did not have enough rice to eat and struggled to have 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 says.
At Grade 5, her mother asked Phonethip to sacrifice her own education to help the family. She was aware of the suffering of her family but she could not let go her education as well. “I thought leaving school would not help improve our family situation that much. In the school in my hometown, there were only a few teachers. Only a few people had a chance to further education at that time,” Phonethip explains.
Phonethip admits that life of women in rural areas is harder than men. “Like other women in my Sammeun village, we do very hard work including rice pounding, cutting firewood, fetching water and working in the field,” she says. “I feel sympathy for my mother working so hard and hope I can help her to get out of this struggle.”
At the age of 12, Phonethip carried 10 kilograms of sesame seed across mountains to other villages to sell it. Throughout her secondary education, she did all sources of work from a farmer, vendor, and kitchenhand to factory worker in Vientiane during her school break. “I earned more than 1 million Kip from the factory. I ate little to save up money. And I bought school uniforms for my younger brothers,” Phonethip says proudly.
Phonethip has fought poverty and barriers throughout her childhood. Eventually, with a strong determination and a focus on her dreams, she managed to finish upper secondary school. She then passed the entrance exam for Souphanouvong University. As she struggled to find money to pay the registration fee, a teacher at the university recommended that she apply for the Laos Australia National Scholarships (LANS).
Phonethip is now one of seventy students from remote and disadvantaged districts in Laos to receive a Laos Australia National Scholarships award in 2015. She currently studies for a Bachelor of Physical Education at Souphanouvong University in Luang Prabang.
“I am happy. LANS has given me opportunities to study, to learn a lot of life skills and understand the environment around us. The teachers from the program are very supportive and take good care of me. I feel like I am staying with my own parents.”