Harnessing community radio in Lao PDR to champion young women and girls’ education recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic
In countries across the Asia-Pacific region, prolonged school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the education, health and well-being of all learners, with data on the medium and longer term impacts still to be assessed. Such evidence from the current crisis and lessons learned from those prior remind us that it is often those who are especially socially or economically vulnerable who will bear the brunt of such negative outcomes. In terms of pandemic-related impacts on education and learning, young women and girls face heightened risk of school drop-out and accumulated lost-learning, not least of all due to gender norms that affect their ability to participate in alternative learning modalities, indeed even where these resources may be available.
UNESCO recognizes that the impacts of COVID-19 prevention measures are partly gendered in nature, and interventions that challenge social and gender norms undermining girls’ right to education can provide opportunities to stem learning loss and dropouts when schools reopen. Working in partnership to mitigate the potential learning crisis among rural and linguistic minority young women and girls in Lao PDR, UNESCO Bangkok and UNDP Lao PDR, in collaboration with the Lao PDR Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, and the Ministry of Education and Sports, are carrying out the project ‘Championing girls and women’s education in COVID-19 recovery through community radio in Lao PDR’. The project aims to promote community-based awareness-raising of gender equality issues in, and through education by fostering community radio programmes led by young women and girls. The various community radio programmes and their key messages developed through the project by the 30 young women and community radio staff, seek to address the prevalence of domineering gender norms that can deny a young woman or girl’s right to education, as well as her general health and wellbeing.
Community radio plays an important role within rural Lao communities as a source of information and as a channel for a diverse audience to engage in public discussion and share stories that matter to them. Working collaboratively with the community radio station staff from three remote and linguistically diverse communities in Nakai District in Khammouane, Houne District in Oudomxay, and Ta-Oi District in Salavan, the project engages young women radio volunteers in knowledge and skills-building activities aimed at enhancing their understanding of gender, culture and social norms that act as barriers to girls’ education, and creating radio broadcast content that promotes girls’ equal opportunities to learning and development, especially in the recovery phase from COVID-19.
In a first, hybrid workshop facilitated by project partners Plan International Laos from 6 through 10 December 2021, the young women community radio volunteers focused on ‘Understanding Gender Cultural and Social Norms’, identifying those gender norms deeply rooted in their community that reinforce gender inequality and examining how such norms undermine a girl’s fundamental right to education. Among the examples raised by workshop participants was the common assumption that women and girls are naturally less capable of learning than men and boys, and that women and girls more properly belong to the domestic sphere of a society, with the result that parents tend to believe it is ultimately unnecessary for girls to get an education.
In my community, it is acceptable for parents to not send their daughters to school because they think girls will face more challenges in the classroom, such as they won’t understand the teacher.
Young woman radio broadcast volunteer
Once the harmful norms were identified, the young women volunteers brainstormed the key, targeted messages that they could use for advocacy purposes to effect change in their respective communities.
These broad, key message areas emerging from the first workshop were further refined and shaped into community radio broadcast products in a subsequent hybrid workshop, ‘Co-Creation Workshop for Radio Broadcast Assets’. Facilitated by the Lao youth-led organization, STELLA, from 13 to 17 December 2021, this second workshop yielded a pool of radio broadcast prototypes featuring messages addressing parents, families and larger communities on the importance and value of girls’ education in post-COVID-19 learning recovery. Over the course of five days, 12 prototypes were conceived and then tested, using various kinds of community radio products, such as interviews, Vox pop (voice of the people), panel discussions, debates, role playing, jingle creation (short songs that are easy to sing along to) and extended storytelling.
These prototypes of broadcast assets are currently in the process of being finalized by the community radio volunteers and station staff for airing in their own communities, and subsequent sharing to various partners in the radio network for wider dissemination. In Nakai District for instance, the community radio volunteers and staff are developing a debate show discussing whether men enjoy more job opportunities than women. In Houne District, project participants are creating a storytelling show demonstrating how education empowers girls with an inspiring story of ‘Noy’, a young girl who completes her education and comes to use her knowledge of farming to enhance the wellbeing of her family and community. For Ta-Oi District, participants are producing ear-catching jingles to encourage girls to feel confident about themselves in their school classroom activities. Resources such as UNESCO’s Keeping girls in the picture: Community radio toolkit, are being used to support the process around message-creation.
Launched in June 2021 and concluding in April 2022, the project is being implemented under the umbrella of the UNDP Lao PDR ongoing ‘Enhancing people’s participation through community radio’ project, which focuses on promoting ethnic women’s access to information. The project is also in keeping with the #LearningNeverStops campaign by UNESCO and partners of the Global Education Coalition on COVID-19 education response, to ensure that every girl is able to continue her learning while schools are closed, and every girl safely returns to the classroom when schools reopen. The campaign also seeks to safeguard the right to education of all young women and girls, including those already out of school prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Jenelle Babb, Regional Advisor, and Pokrapee Chindain, Junior Project Consultant, Education for Health and Wellbeing Team, Section of Inclusive Quality Education.
For more information and tools on the ‘Keeping Girls in the Picture’ campaign by UNESCO and partners of the Global Education Coalition on COVID-19: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/girlseducation
For information on the ‘Enhancing people’s participation through community radio’ project of UNDP Lao PDR: https://www.la.undp.org/content/lao_pdr/en/home/projects/enhancing-people-s-participation-through-community-radio.html
For more information on work by PLAN International Lao PDR to advance children’s rights and equality for girls: https://plan-international.org/laos
For more information on the youth-led organization STELLA in Lao PDR: https://thestella.org/
Photo credit: © UNDP Lao PDR/ Kamkeo Sengpadith
Photo caption: Training on creation of community radio programmes to promote girls’ education at a community radio station in Nakai district, Khammouane, Lao PDR
 UNESCO. 2021. When schools shut: gendered impacts of COVID-19 school closures. Paris, UNESCCO. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000379270