“She must have provoked her husband to beat her up”, “Blind women are helpless, they cannot work and should stay at home”, “You cannot have a family and children if you are HIV positive”, “Once addicted to drugs, one can never return to a normal life” - These are only some of the stereotypes associated with women from disadvantaged groups, who we do not see, do not hear and who are usually ignored by society. The prevalent prejudices many of these women encounter every day contribute to limiting their opportunities and add on the difficulties they are already experiencing.
This year, to celebrate International Women’s Day, the United Nations in Lao PDR and Fida International Laos decided to lend a voice to these and other invisible women through a Human Library event.
Opening the event, Ms. Evy Messell, Senior Gender Advisor at UN Women said: “International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on progress achieved towards women’s empowerment and on what is yet to be done to enable all women and girls to fully enjoy equal rights to men and boys. The United Nations is helping the Government to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including the important Goal Number 5 on Gender Equality. The Sustainable Development Agenda requires us to work closely together across sectors to leave no one behind.”
The Human Library event at the Youth Resource Centre in Savannakhet brought together women from disadvantaged groups, such as, women living with HIV, single mothers and survivors of violence to share their stories and respond to any questions the audience might have. It allowed schoolchildren and the Savannakhet public to borrow any one of the ten human books, for ten minutes each. Instead of reading, they got to hear real-life stories of struggle, unwavering strength and inspiration.
Talking about her disability, one of the ‘human books’ said: “I think people do not know much about us and they feel uncomfortable talking to us and asking questions. I believe that only through open conversations like this can we break myths and improve relationships.”
A participant of the Human Libraryfrom Sounantha College in Kaysone Phomvihane District shares his experience at the event: “I have never had the opportunity to speak with a woman who was exposed to violence. I learned about her life and how hard it is for her to be an accepted member of her own community. Her story makes me appreciate my own easy life as a young man and understand how we all have a responsibility to support each and every member of our society.”
The event attracted more that 150 visitors from schools and the public of Savannakhet, who said their preconceptions had been changed after reading the “books”.
Mr. Phoutthaxay Xaysongkham, Project Coordinator of the Youth Resource Centre in Savannakhet, said: “It's time to face our fears and confront our stereotypes, most importantly by bringing young people together with women from the fringes of society. We hope that by organising such events we help empower these invisible women and help them live in a world free of discrimination and stigma.
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women