September 24

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All Things Female and Feline

I have been here for over a month now and it feels like time is already going pretty quickly. Work with Save the Children (STC) is going well, we are in the midst of a re-organisation so I am supporting the HR processes and learning a lot about Laos Labour Law.  Now, as much as my HR colleagues will appreciate more of the details, I’m not so sure about friends and family, so I’ll come back to the HR-ey bit in later blogs but for this one, I’m all about females and felines (well one very specific kitten!)

Girls, girls, girls

Most of the education work STC focuses on is aimed at adolescent girls. For obvious reasons, young women are more vulnerable and take a back seat to education for the sake of their male counterparts whilst culturally the focus is on getting married and having children (usually in their teens).  However, interestingly, another reason is that studies have shown young women in developing countries have a greater long term positive impact on both their immediate, and surrounding, social and physical environment in comparison to boys.  As young girls develop into young women, they are naturally more inclined to support each other and pass on their knowledge to future generations and become the long-term catalyst for positive change:

STC stats.png

This brings me nicely to “The International Day of the Girl”.  11th October marks a special day as the 6th Observance Day where the developing world focuses its attention on progressive ways to support and educate adolescent women.  To promote this special day, my office is hosting an event called “A Day in the Life of a Lao Girl” on 10th October 2017 here in Vientiane which I will be helping with and am very excited about!  Donors and development community stakeholders will be invited to attend; there will be an Expert panel and a Pop-Up Gallery focusing on ways in which they can support the progress of young women and to show their commitment to girls’ education going forward.  This will be the pre-event to the actual day on the 11th where STC will meet with Lao government officials to discuss future work here and to launch their campaign “Every Last Girl”.

Having been here for 5 weeks now, and of course being female myself, I have also noticed a few things which has made me think about what it means to be a girl here and in general. Now this next bit may be a bit too “feminine” for the men reading this but hey…your daughters, wives, sisters, mums all go through this so bear with me.  As women, we go through life acutely aware that we are different to men – sounds pretty obvious right – but we are for all intents and purposes ‘the hunted’.  This natural instinct comes into play pretty much wherever we are in the world, when we are walking down a dark road alone, when we lock our doors as soon as we get in the car, when we keep an eye on our drinks at a bar, ask a friend to message us to say they got home safely or what you see here are women on scooters wearing their jackets on backwards over their bags so they cannot be pulled off them whilst riding along.  And on a more day to day basis, there are just general things that we as women have to think about.   One of the things I had to think about a couple of weeks ago, was my period, nothing out of the ordinary, but the reason it became an issue was when I was trying to buy applicator tampons.  They are not sold here which came as a huge surprise and shock!  Now, I’m not going to go into detail and my female readers will certainly understand the dilemma I faced, but when I asked a few Lao friends, many of them didn’t really know what they were (they only used sanitary pads) and during that time of the month were very limited in the activities they could do.  Now luckily for me, one of my housemates was going home to the US for a week and brought me back a box but it really did hit home the differences here and the opportunities I had been afforded growing up in the UK.

This brings me to another interesting conversation I had – I was with a group of ex pat colleagues who have worked here for a few years and I learned about some of the local traditions young women as new mothers experience in a few of the provinces. From my last blog, I mentioned that there are 70+ different ethnic groups (49 official) that live in remote areas in Laos who are seen as separate to the urban Laos loom.  For example, I have learnt that in the Hmong (pronounced “Mong”) community, after the women give birth at home, they ‘rest’ on hot charcoal with limited clothing (not so hot that it will burn your skin but hot enough to be very uncomfortable) for 28 days.  The family members rally around as their job is to keep the charcoal hot whilst the new mum nurses her baby and lies on the coal pretty much the whole time.  The belief is that the heat from the coals ‘clean out’ the woman and helps her body heal despite it being incredibly uncomfortable and exhausting.  Now I am yet to understand if there is any scientific evidence to support this but it’s an interesting theory.  The conversation then moved onto other traditions like skin branding and we discussed – if it causes unnecessary emotional or physical pain and is not a medical necessity then it’s wrong.  But that made me think about ear piercing in babies and small children – (I had mine done, my mum and aunties did too), and standard circumcision in baby boys (very common practice in the US).  Despite there being no medical requirement, we believe (and I put myself in this “we”) that these actions are OK even though we know it causes pain to our children because that’s how we grew up.  Now the conversation did move briefly to the cultural beliefs behind FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) which I put in a completely different category, but that’s for a different day and fortunately not common practice here.

When you are posed with different practices to your own, it challenges your values and without realising it you have passed some sort of judgment (have a look at some of the scooter pics I have posted and tell me what doesn’t look right to you). But, when you are immersed into another culture, you begin to reflect on your own and it dawns on you that we are all indoctrinated in one way or the other.  For example, I was having a conversation with a Swedish woman who has been in Laos for several years working in the provinces and she told me about the dietary health issues of infants in a few specific communities; 80% of their diet for the first few years is derived from white rice (rice milk for babies) and in the absence of other nutrients and proteins, it is having a negative impact on their long standing physical and mental development. Now during this conversation, there were other westerners present and many passed judgment on the lack of diet available to babies and young children.

This really made me think – what’s worse, giving the best of whatever you have available to your children because that’s the only option you have or giving nutrient deficient food to your children despite there being available healthier alternatives? It’s easy to prejudge traditions that are alien to us (I’ve found myself doing it when I first moved to the US from the UK) but then as I reflected to the group, our Western traditions manifest themselves into actions that also could contribute to long standing health issues in children such as diabetes and other dietary issues that I’m sure we have all been guilty of at some point, and the same judgment could easily be passed on us.  For example: sugary cereal or pancakes with syrup for breakfast, candy floss (cotton candy) at the fair, buckets of sweets/candy at Halloween and Christmas, cow’s milk, McDonalds Happy Meal (or any fast food for that matter), cake for birthdays.  Now I have only been here for 5 weeks and malnourishment is a problem in remote areas but equally I haven’t seen one child (or person for that matter) who is overweight, I haven’t see one McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Bo Jangles, Chick Fil-A, Wendy’s – which tells a story.  In fact you see the slogan “Slow Food” in local eateries promoting the antithesis of ‘fast food’.

Slow Food

It really made me think what I take for granted and what I have at my disposal at home. Now this isn’t just a reflective, look at what I have at home compared to here, it’s more about reflecting on cultures, including our own and realizing that there are things we do have better at home, but other basics we get wrong and our complacency hinders our own advancement.

Meet Sisom (“See-som” – ‘orange’ in Lao)

OK complete change of topic and something a little more light hearted…..“I’m definitely more of a dog person” I would hear myself say “Cats can be mean and indifferent…blah blah blah” That was me until about 3 weeks ago – then enter Sisom!  I was opening the front door to leave for work when I found on my doorstep a few week old, tiny scrawny kitten whimpering and shaky on her feet.  I had no idea where she came from, still don’t, and of course there was no way I could ignore her.  I found her some tinned mackerel, which she wolfed down and then promptly proceeded to climb into my lap and fall asleep.  I mean, what do you do in those situations? – I was on my way to work. I had to call my new manager, the conversation went something like… “So there’s this kitten….I’m going to be late in…”  Luckily, she is a lovely lady and was great about it.

In any case, this little lady has been our 4th housemate whilst she has been building up her strength and I’ve been trying to find her a new forever home.  It’s not easy with so many transient people here and locals don’t see cats or dogs quite in the same way other parts of the world do, the streets and temples are full of strays, so it’s been a challenge.  I finally found a great home for her and the day before she was due to go, she caught panleukopenia virus, the horrible one that kills kittens.  I won’t go into detail but the symptoms were horrible, the poor little thing went through it.  I managed to get her to the vet in time and then proceeded to emotionally break down (basically cry my eyes out) when they told me she wasn’t going to survive the next 48 hours – all this over a kitten!  Anyway, after her little shaved body took the blood tests and antibiotics and all the poking and needles it could, my little survivor made it through and yesterday I picked her up and took her home.  She now has to take a couple of weeks to recover so her stay with me has extended (yay!) to get her strength back (again) and then fingers crossed, she’ll be able to go to her new home. So that’s the story of how I started working for “Save the Cats” as well as “the Children” ; )

I think that’s enough from me for now, I visited Vang Vieng (a beautiful mountainous village 70 miles north of Vientiane) a couple of weeks ago with Jyoti and some friends which involved an overturned kayak, frantic swimming in rapids, lost oars and fighting a couple of large spiders trying to get back in the kayak with us but I’ll leave that for the next blog along with some pics!

Wishing lots of love and best wishes and will be in touch soon….