• Friday, April 25, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    RIGHTS-LAOS: How Women Cope With Disability – Part 1

    Chanhpheng Sivila who walks with the help of a caliper believes "education for women is the key".  Credit:Melody Kemp/IPS

    Chanhpheng Sivila who walks with the help of a caliper believes "education for women is the key". Credit:Melody Kemp/IPS

    By Melody Kemp

    VIENTIANE, Nov 20 (IPS) – Before 2002, Chanhpheng Sivila held training workshops for the many Lao disabled women and men at her own house.

    Now she presides over the sprawling Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre fronting the Mekong, 20 km from Vientiane. Traffic thunders over the nearby Friendship Bridge on its way to Thailand, the noise carried away on the afternoon breeze.

    I was greeted by a myriad smiles from the women; each one herself disabled. One with skeletal deformity that shortened her stature, another with a foot that refuses to behave. Sivila herself had polio when young and walks with the use of a heavy and squeaky caliper.

    The stories of hardship and triumph spill from this animated woman. She radiates joy from her face and giggles at being the object of attention.

    “It’s remarkable. All the staff and trainers are disabled. The management board are all disabled. They don’t need able-bodied folks,” says able-bodied Kaylie Tiessen who assists with business management. She and Sivila frequently share warm glances, their regard for each other palpable.

    “The new woman who started last week,” Sivila begins, “is a good example of the women we can assist.”

    “She had leprosy as a child. Damage to one leg required amputation below the knee. She got married and had three children. But the damage was not controlled, meaning she was subject to progressive amputation. Her husband could not cope and began to beat her.”

    “She was earning money by making bamboo and rattan furniture, but he took control of her money and now she has nothing.”

    This is unusual in a country where women are usually the ones in control of money. That the woman lost control might reflect her vulnerability.

    Tiessen interjected. “While it’s not polite to say it here, in essence, he left her.”

    The woman has to find someone to care for her children before she starts at the centre. “Unfortunately we cannot accommodate women and children here,” Sivila continued. “Both her parents died when she was young. She moved to Huaphan (north eastern Laos) where her parents in law still live. They are the only ones left to care for the children; but she is afraid as they do not care, her kids may be sold to a rich person for domestic work or forced into factory work. She is very afraid of losing them.”

    Her best hope would be to learn some new skills and find a house so her children can join her. But that may be difficult. “She may not see her children again,” Sivila added.

    Sivila looked embarrassed when asked about her story. She repeatedly demurred before revealing she had contracted polio at three years of age. In a family of 12 children, the illness came as huge blow.

    When they found she could not walk, the reaction was one commonly held, she said. Attempting to protect her from taunts and embarrassment they refused to let her go to school. In frustration, she stole her sister’s uniform and turned up at school. The teacher was impressed and called on her parents to educate her.

    Her parents were reluctant, insisting she learn to sew at home so she had a source of income. She did learn, but by dogged persistence attended school, eventually earning a BA, majoring in Business.

    “Education for women is the key. In the old days they believed that disability was caused by something bad you did in a former incarnation. That type of thinking is still around but not as strong,” she said.

    “The government of Laos has given approval and support to the Convention for the Rights of the Disabled and are currently drafting a decree which will govern national policy,” Sivila said. But there is no social security, no income support for the disabled or their families. In short if you don’t work, you don’t live.

    The Lao Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare donated the land for the centre and various donors have helped build workshops and dormitories. But their income is far from secure. The funds are not sufficient to meet the burgeoning demands. There are no occupational therapists or vocational training staff. There are no designers. But there is a lot of positive energy and dignity. And it is Laos working for Laos.

    “We went to follow up some of our graduates,” said Kaylie dashing back in, “one had set up a school teaching computing to adults. Another had a very successful business making snacks – she is now supporting her family. Another who lives in a leprosy village, set herself up in a sewing business and now makes 5 U.S. dollars per day (average Lao rural income is 3 dollars).”

    Tiessen and Sivila exchange a look that speaks pride and achievement.

    So what now?

    “Well we hope to set up a group for the deaf. And we are to have a round table meeting on blindness. But the long term project is to show that the disabled, with education and assistance can live on their own. We can’t change the past, all we do is help the disabled achieve independence and success now.”

    *This is the first part of a series on gender and disability in Laos ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Laos accepted the international treaty in August 1981.

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