NewsAsiaFrom refugee girl to women's rights defender in Laos: "Giving birth should not be a death sentence"

From refugee girl to women’s rights defender in Laos: “Giving birth should not be a death sentence”

Sally Sakulku, coordinator of the sexual and reproductive health program of the United Nations Population Fund in Laos, on one of her field missions.Alejandra Agudo Lazareno

Sally Sakulku was born in 1965 in troubled Laos. She does not even mention in passing the civil war at that time, nor the international armed conflicts in which the country of which she lost her nationality was involved the day her parents decided to abandon it along with their seven children when she was 13 years old. “I’m not really sure,” she replies about the family’s reasons for leaving everything behind. “I think the main reason is, after seeing so many changes, my father felt that we would not prosper if we stayed. What worried them the most was the education of his children, ”she explains slowly and in a low voice on the train that connects the Laotian capital with the northern region of Oudomxay. Both moments of flight and return to Vientane are separated by 45 years, in which Sakulku has gone from being a refugee, first in Thailand and then in the United Kingdom, to a UN worker who accompanies a group of journalists to explain their efforts to improve the sexual health of women in what he considers his land. Even though her documentation says that she is a British citizen.

In a whisper, he recounts that he experienced leaving Laos as “a great adventure.” His first destination was a refugee camp in Thailand which, as I remember him, was nice. “We didn’t have a bad life because the shelter was built by UNHCR. So he didn’t know. And we had a nice room for our family. They gave us food rations, there were colleges and vocational schools for people who wanted to learn. So I took cooking classes, studied dressmaking, and started learning English. I was always busy, ”he recalls. “Nothing traumatic, it could have been worse; there are stories of families who lost their lives in the river and of girls who were raped. You know, the Thai police weren’t always friendly. But we were together and they allowed us to go out to the city from time to time with a pass to see movies, ”she continues, delving into her memory.

Men believe they are the kings of the family, they are the first ministers: they run the home and make the important decisions

What her elders told her was a “vacation” turned into a year in Thailand to later travel to the United Kingdom, where an aunt helped them settle. “At that age, you don’t think that going to another country is a big problem. But I guess for my parents it must have been. They never talked about it, about how they really felt about leaving everything we owned in Laos. It was a sacrifice they made for us, ”she continues, while on the other side of the train window, you can see a land that is considered the most bombed in history.

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Sally Sakulku at the headquarters of the UN agencies in Laos.
Sally Sakulku at the headquarters of the UN agencies in Laos. Bobby Phoutthavanh Sisavath (UNFPA)

What was its purpose? “My sister and I had the idea of ​​founding a school,” she recalls. On a brief visit in 1992, both found that “there was a lot to do in terms of development.” And they reflected that the best way to contribute was to provide quality education. “My sister is five years younger than me and she is trained as a civil engineer. So, when we came back in ’98, we started researching what we were going to need for our project”. It was too much. “Buy a piece of land, build the building, train teachers”, she enumerates. So they decided to look for a job and then resume their initiative. They never did. Sakulku started working at a French NGO. “And that was it, we never looked back.” Ahead of this petite woman, with gray hair and an easy smile, she had a career in which she would end up working for development, but not how she had planned.

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For 17 years, he worked in different NGOs, always in the health area. He believed that from these organizations he truly transformed people’s lives. “I was reluctant to enter the UN, it seemed to me that they did not do so much for the people because I always saw them in meetings, not in the field, which was what I liked. Being with the women, the toilets”. Until she realized that, with the projects of the entities, achievements were achieved in the communities, but not in the country. “I participated in a nutrition program. What we did was very good and we thought we could expand it to other places. We met with the World Food Program to collaborate with them, but my opinion was that we should not do it like they did. We shouldn’t just feed people, but help them grow their food and teach them how to get the most out of it,” she muses. Her course was about to change. “I figured maybe it wouldn’t be wrong to try to push this approach from the UN.”

I have learned to function and gain enough confidence so that they do not see me as a threat, but as someone who can support them and help them build a good system.

She joined the body that until then had rejected, specifically, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency that works to guarantee the sexual and reproductive rights of women. Regarding the situation of the Laotian female population, she considers that it is not as bad as in other countries. “Of course, there are areas where they have no education and the men take advantage of it,” she qualifies. “But, if men believe they are the kings of the family, they are the first ministers. They run the home, they are the ones who make the important decisions, ”she details. “There are also those who reach high positions and can maintain themselves.”

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The data confirm that Laos, a state of 7.4 million inhabitants, is advancing towards the elimination of scourges such as maternal mortality, which fell by 78% between 1990 and 2015. “But the figure is still high: 185 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births”, warns the UN. Most of them due to complications during and after pregnancy and childbirth. Sakulku’s dream, today the coordinator of the UNFPA sexual and reproductive health program in the country, is to drastically reduce these deaths. “Giving birth should not be a death sentence for women.” In it she strives. Now yes, with resources to train midwives, open units specialized in adolescent sexuality throughout the nation, guaranteeing contraceptives to those who wish to have fewer children.

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