Higher Education as a Pathway for Greater Gender Equality and Social Inclusion in Laos

The USAID Local Solutions Support (LSS) activity in Laos has partnered with the Ministry of Education and four public universities to use evidence-based policy to improve higher education learning outcomes with a special focus on equity and inclusion for gender, sexual, and other minorities.

The higher education landscape in Laos

The female to male ratio in tertiary education in Laos has improved from 0.82 in 2012 to 1.13 in 2021 (Statista, 2023). Despite these gains, disparities in educational employment and attainment persist; women comprise just under 40% of the tertiary academic staff. Additionally, discrimination against ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, people with disabilities, and women exist in the higher education sector and the wider Lao society.

As the proportion of women in higher education grows, there is a need to examine experiences of women and other minorities when pursuing tertiary education and assess the effectiveness of laws designed to strengthen gender equality and social inclusion (GESI). 

Understanding the need for equitable policies in the Lao higher education system

The USAID LSS activity conducted extensive research on gender and social inclusion in the Lao higher education system. The LSS team surveyed nearly 500 individuals at four of the largest Lao universities. The most striking finding was that the existing policies and stated objectives in support of GESI are not borne out in practice. The survey found that:

  • 66% of respondents were unaware of university GESI policies
  • 87% of respondents thought that universities should include more GESI content into the course curriculums
  • 93% of respondents said that there is a need to have policies and disciplinary practices to prevent discrimination against a person’s gender identity, sex, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics
  • 52% of respondents felt that university facilities were inadequate for people with disabilities
  • None of the four universities included planned GESI initiatives or targets in their five-year action plans and resources have not been allocated for GESI coordinators or associated training

Applied research with an aim to improve equity and inclusion in higher education

To improve the shortcomings identified through this survey, the USAID LSS team developed and delivered customized trainings as well as facilitated dialogue sessions for university students, professors, and staff. These trainings and dialogue sessions focus on GESI issues and recommendations that were discussed in the survey.

The first round of training at Suphanouvong University and Savanakhet University was highly evaluated by the 77 participants (56% female). During the sessions, many participants identified significant GESI challenges due to cultural norms, beliefs, and practices that are present within the university administration, instruction, and student body – hindering a truly inclusive teaching and learning environment. Notably, the Vice Director of the Women’s Union at the National University of Laos wants to work with the LSS team to scale the training and organize other GESI activities through the Women’s Union.

As the backbone of the country’s economic, social, and cultural development – universities are in a unique position to advance the policy, practice, and attitudes toward diversity, equality, and inclusivity within Lao society. The LLS team’s applied research with Lao university staff and students will contribute to greater gender equality and social inclusion in Laos. The next step for the LSS team is to work with each university on GESI action plans and as a coalition to prioritize a collective action GESI advocacy agenda.