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FEATURE STORYMarch 1, 2023

Chansouk Insouvanh, Lao PDR: Determined, Persistent, Generous

Chansouk Insouvanh-Profile_Banner.

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields. Chansouk Insouvanh is a social safeguards consultant and a gender and ethnic group advisor. Growing up in extreme poverty, Chansouk’s life experience grew up with a determination to help not only herself but others who shared her situation and she remains a passionate champion for helping people escape poverty.

What inspired you to become a social protection and gender consultant?

I was inspired to work in social safeguards and gender by poverty, lack of education, a feeling of helplessness, and by constantly being told how poor and how uncivilized I was while growing up. I come from an extremely poor family. As a child, my siblings and I often went to bed without dinner. 

Early in my career, the Lao PDR went through rapid socioeconomic and development change, which often created gaps and disparities. I was always tagging along behind people who worked for development projects, had income, and could provide for their families. I admired them and dreamt of being able to help not only myself, but also other people who were in the same situation. Thus, I work in the areas of social protection and gender-related issues to help myself and other people, especially women, to escape poverty.

If you could describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be?

Self-determination, persistence, and generosity.

As a person from a poor family with limited support, I have grown professionally. I believe that while education is extremely important, self-determination – persisting in the face of challenges, being self-confident, knowing your purpose, and being good at what you do – are also key factors in helping a person to both stand on their own feet, and grow professionally. 

This year's theme is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. In your opinion, how can digital technology, and innovation, deliver greater gender equality?

Lao people are gaining benefits from digital and information technology. Such innovations offer women, in particular, new opportunities to overcome mobility restrictions and restrictive social and gender norms. 

Digital jobs enable women to generate income, improve productivity, and increase financial autonomy. However, gender gaps still exist due to women’s lower education levels, and household factors tied to gender roles. Women tend to face obstacles in accessing markets and information, and in operating businesses. Gender stereotypes mean that ICT and digital skills are often associated with men, and this may deter women’s participation in digital skills training or the adoption of new technology. 

In addition, while some enterprises have made positive changes in promoting digital technology for women, there is also evidence that technology can have negative effects if used without proper knowledge. For women, this impact can be greater. With lower levels of literacy and limited access to non-traditional skills, women can suffer from exploitation and deprivation, for example, through technology-facilitated sexual violence. Women may suffer unwanted sexual behavior through digital means, including online harassment, coercive sex-based communications, and online sexual abuse. It’s important that people are informed of these risks.

What does your work mean to you?

I can help myself and other people, especially women, escape poverty.

In jobs you have worked in, or in areas of society, have you seen issues of equality evolve over time?

During COVID-19, digital technology became vital in providing access to information, communication, and work opportunities. However, many in Lao society, especially women and children, may not immediately understand the risks that are present. As well as unwanted sexual behavior, these include becoming addicted to online games and entertainment apps. 

As communication becomes ever more private and personal through mobile devices and instant connectivity, it can become more difficult to identify who is at risk, how they are at risk, and where they are at risk. These types of risks are quite new in Laos and are not often discussed. Victims not only have limited understanding but also little social and policy support. To manage technology-facilitated abuse, I feel we should be making ourselves familiar with the benefits and risks of digital technology so that we are able to provide accurate information to others. 

What are some of the challenges you face as a “public leader”, and what have you learned from these?

Gender equality is often interpreted as gender neutrality, and this misperception can lead to gender insensitivity. This can undermine women’s roles and involvement, and mean a failure to address the specific needs of different groups of people. 

Gender equality means all people have equal rights, access, power, responsibilities, and opportunities regardless of their background. However, women often have unequal power, and opportunities, which can lead to dependency, gender-based violence, and child abuse. 

One way of addressing inequality is to reverse the root cause, by allowing women equality. For example, if a woman is jobless, giving her a job reverses the root cause. We can give women equal rights, access, power, responsibility, and opportunity by creating an enabling environment, allocating the budget, and implementing existing gender strategy/action plans. Very often, gender equality promotion activities are designed but without the allocation of specific human and financial resources. This approach causes confusion about how to deliver gender equality. Self-reliance – especially economic independence – is critical to reaching gender equality. 

There is no single correct pathway, but whatever steps we design, they should aim to reverse inequality. For instance, if there is unequal access to education or opportunity for women, an environment needs to be created, and resources allocated, to enable equal access. If women are economically dependent, an environment needs to be created in which they can have access to income-generating opportunities. 

What are the key ingredients to succeeding in your work?

Self-determination, persistence, and help from others. In my case, the latter involves Australian and US-Fulbright scholarships.

What are some of your favorite projects or the most memorable people you've worked with in your career?

The Women’s Leadership Inclusive Development Programme, funded by the Lao-Australia Institute with the Griffith Asia Institute and three Australian universities, connected me with many women in leadership positions. I not only got to know them in person, but also the professional challenges they face.

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women end up in leadership positions in Laos?

Many of us doubt ourselves and lack confidence. We question whether we are good enough as a wife, mother, daughter, employee, and whether we are okay with being ‘selfish.’ True self-esteem means making ourselves a priority. 

We cannot effectively help others if we are vulnerable and lack resources. To help others, we need the right capabilities and resources so that we can provide accurate support. We also need to analyze the benefits and risks of giving support.

What advice would you have for women in Laos who are still studying or early in their careers?

When I got an Australian scholarship in 1997, I chose community and social development as my major. However, after attending university, I realized the interconnectedness of the environment, economy, and society, and that in order to achieve sustainable development, there must be a balance between these three competing factors. I then enrolled in Environmental Policy and Planning as another major for my master’s degree and in courses that addressed economic and women’s development. 

My advice would be not to rush, but explore the best suitable field of study and career options. You may go through trials and errors, and you will learn from these.

Any other thoughts you have on International Women’s Day?

International Women’s Day offers a time to think about the important and unique roles men and women play in our daily lives, whatever we do. It is a day to recognize and respect the bond between males and females, and gender-diverse people, including LGBT+ people, and to learn to place trust in each other. 

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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