She says: “I enjoy my work and am happy when people feel proud of our work”. And: “The climate becomes drier, unlike the past when rainfall was consistent, now we are suffering from drought, and lack of water. Many wild animals that cannot find food start to roam around and eat the villager’s produce. If we do not take care of our own food, well, all the animals, wild boar, barking deer and other deer will eat it all”.
Boualaphet Chounthavong – Laos
Boualaphet Chounthavong was born in 1967 in Salawan province, southern Laos, at the height of the Vietnam War. Her father was a teacher who was promoted after the war to a high-ranking post in the Ministry of Education. Her mother was a member of the Laos Women Union. Studying on a government scholarship, Boualaphet obtained her degree in medicine from the National University of Medicine in Laos in 1993.
But instead of opening a high profile medical practice in the capital, which should have earned her a convenient life as a physician, she decided to return to her rural village in Salawan province. She chose to work in a very remote and backward neighborhood in the rural areas.
The population there was composed of five main indigenous groups. Though they shared some cultural threads, their dialects were different. They knew nothing about standard basic public health services and other infrastructure. Being peasants in the main, they lived at the mercy of nature.
The people live with traditional beliefs that stood in contrast to modern medical views. For example, women are not supposed to deliver their babies with assistance at home, but alone in the forest, as it is believed that the house spirit does not like bloodstains from birth delivery. Even their husbands cannot touch their bodies. So the women deliver their babies on the ground on which a rag is laid, and risk infectious diseases, accounting for the high mortality rate among infants. A few days after delivery, they go back work. As a result, women tend to suffer health problems more than men do.
Boualaphet and her colleagues suggested that a house be built outside the abode of the spirit where the women should be allowed to deliver their babies. “We tried this with one village. If the spirit was not so fussy, other people should follow this method”.
Another major problem is malnutrition of the children. The villagers only have rice to eat for three to four months, after which they have to rely on whatever they can get from nature, i.e., wild potatoes, wild yams, etc. causing malnutrition.
“They are peasants by nature, before, nature was abundant, they could dig and cut here and there for food. Now the population is growing and the forest is dwindling. Clearing forests for land has been forbidden by the state, and therefore, they have less land to till. They also grow the same mono-crop until the nutrition in the soil is completely depleted and it no longer gives them any good yield”.
Based on her commitment to grassroots work, she realizes that the way of life and the local environment have contributed to health problems among the villagers. From basic public health, her work has thus expanded into other areas including the Village-based Education in Southern Laos VESL which includes a health education project, food security initiatives, school building construction and informal education, development of learning centers at the district level, and the provision of sufficient clean water for drink and use. And, community-based Natural Resource Management CBNRM which carries out work to map the community, identify and plan land use and develop products from forest.
Actually, Boualaphet has a long list of projects in mind, but the lack of resources, including funding, has made them just wishful thinking so far. In any event, she looks forward to the day she can carry out the work she wants to do, in particular, environmental projects to help her neighborhood, which is under threat from globalization.
One of the unique aspects of her work is her support of women and children playing central roles in development. In her opinion, many Lao women have very little chance to learn and prove their potentials to outside society, even though they are equally capable as men. Also, certain work needs the sensitivity of women if they are to succeed. Children are our future and they need to be made aware of the issues now.
The work of Boualaphet and her colleagues in the community has borne fruit not only in terms of direct benefits to the villagers, but also in terms of changing the attitudes of district and provincial officers. From looking down on and mistreating tribal villagers, they have begun to try to understand and appreciate indigenous culture better.
Boualaphet started working for the World Education Project in 1994. Initially, she planned to do it for only three months.
After all, she was still a student doctor who wanted to help heal people. But soon she realized there are many ways to help people other than being a doctor.
Understanding the community well, she finds the need to adjust her projects so that they are more effective. In 2000, Boualaphet and her colleagues launched a new project to facilitate their work. They set up Village Focus International VFI, a village-based organization working in more than 70 villages in remote areas, all of which are poor and situated in rural areas with no basic facilities, stretching from the banks of the Mekong River to the border of Vietnam. As the brains of the organization, she is mandated to evaluate its work and oversee 30 staff members. Village Focus International [VFI] lays down a blueprint for actualizing planning and evaluation of projects. She heads a staff of 30 people.
Undeterred by hard work and the lack of material comforts, Boualaphet and her colleagues find real joy in their work and in contributing to society. (Read all on 1000peacewomen 2005).