The Asia Pacific Women thought leadership series brings focus to the status of women in the Asia-Pacific region through expert commentary on women’s social inclusion and economic engagement in several aspects of life.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, while SDG 5 aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. As of 2015, Laos had achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target on school enrolment, attaining a 98.5 per cent net enrolment rate with gender parity in primary education while primary graduation was around 90 per cent, lower secondary completion about 61 per cent, and upper secondary  less than 40 per cent. Nevertheless, UNICEF and other international organisations point out that Laos still has some of the poorest education indicators in South East Asia.

The 2018 Education Index, a component of the Human Development Index (combining equally the average adult years of schooling with expected years of schooling for children), ranked Laos 149 out of 189 countries, only ahead of Cambodia (151) and Myanmar (157) in South East Asia. Similarly, the Legatum Institute places the country’s education ranking in 2019 at 116 out of 167 countries, again ahead of Cambodia and Myanmar, measuring enrolment, outcomes and quality across four stages of education, as well as the skills in the adult population.

SDG 4 indicators have been integrated within the overall goal of the 8th Lao National Socio-Economic Development Plan 2016-2020, specifically in Outcome 2, Output 3 focusing on universal access to quality education. The overall plan focuses on reforming education systems to ensure equitable access to quality education from early childhood education to vocational and university levels; and developing high-value human resources to meet the demands of socio-economic development and graduating the country from its least-developed status. More specifically, the Education and Sports Development Plan 2016-2020 outlines the goals, outcomes, policy and strategic directions as well as required resources across all levels of education from early childhood to higher education.

However, educational governance in Laos is still a top-down process. The Lao education system is organised hierarchically, with the starting point at the highest political level. Although education reforms have encouraged a new role for teachers, the traditionally hierarchical organisation, administration and control of the education system remain in place, limiting the implementation of reforms in practice. Albeit improvements, challenges of access to primary and secondary schools still persists, especially for Lao’ many ethnic groups, large rural populations, and children with disabilities, with girls often more impacted than boys due to responsibilities to look after the elderly or younger siblings in the household. Overall students’ learning outcomes are low, leaving children without essential knowledge and skills early on in life.

Correspondently, while the number of enrolments in technical and vocational education has increased over the past years, Laos has struggled to supply skilled laborers to the market, mainly due to poor education quality. The impact of earlier years of education are visible throughout the whole education system, including at the tertiary level. Female students are often underrepresented in natural science and technical fields at the universities, especially for Master and PhD programmes. For example, at the Faculty of Water Resources at Laos’s leading university, the National University of Laos, 572 students are currently enrolment in the Bachelor program, including 50 per cent of female students. While these numbers showcase gender parity at the Bachelor level, at the Master level, the number of female students is significantly lower with only 21 per cent female students enrolled in the Master of Integrated Water Resources Management between 2016 and 2020 compared to 79 per cent men. As highlighted by a female Lao academic in the natural sciences: “traditions still play a big role, women are still scared of breaking through traditional education fields and do something different”.

Gender disparity is not only visible in the education system but also in technical positions within the workforce, including the Lao government. This gap is significant outside the capital, where the large majority of technical staff in the natural resources sector are male, while female government staff are predominantly employed in non-technical and general administrative roles. This was especially prevalent when conducting research in the natural science areas, including water resources management and climate change between 2016-2010. I conducted over 30 interviews with provincial and district officers for natural resources and environment in three northern provinces, and only very few female staff were in positions of Technical Officer or higher. Similar findings were made when conducting technical workshops in southern Laos, where the large majority of technical staff are male. These examples showcase clear gender disparity in technical roles within the government, especially at provincial and district levels.

Scholarship programs for Laotians provided by Australia, Korea, Japan and other countries often emphasise equal participation of both male and female. As emphasised by a female Laotian Japan scholarship recipient: “scholarships allow to fill traditional gaps in the Lao education system and support female professionals to reach the next level in their professional careers”. Australia provides various scholarships programs in Laos, including the Laos Australia National Scholarships which offer domestic university level scholarships to improve access to tertiary study for disadvantaged students from poor rural areas so they can continue into higher education and study a Bachelor degree in Laos. Reserving at least 50 per cent of scholarships for female applicants, the program especially helps girls to bridge the gap between high school and university—the time when they are most likely to quit school, work on farms, find payed jobs or get married.

To support the next generation of Lao leaders, the Australian Awards Scholarships provide an opportunity for recipients to undertake study, research and professional development through tertiary study in Australia, with recipients returning to Laos with new ideas and knowledge and the ability to make a significant contribution to Laos as leaders in their field. With a target of providing 50 per cent of scholarships to women, 10 per cent to people living with disability and 25 percent to people living in provincial locations, these scholarships among others provide opportunities in filling the gender gap in Laos.

While the Lao government takes steps to improve access to quality education and address gender disparity, the current cultural norms, top-down process in governing education and limited resources are still key barriers in achieving SDGs 4 and 5 by 2030. Scholarships, training programs and alternative experiences are essential resources that will support filling the gap in gender equality and creating a higher skilled workforce with a more balanced ratio of male and female leaders, both in the capital and rural areas.  In the long term this will support socio-economic development and graduating Laos from its least-developed status. Scholarships and opportunities to pursue higher education are important factors to close the gender gap and allow women to reach senior positions; but as one female Lao academic states: “it is not only about knowledge but the support of superiors and co-workers. It is a slow trend and I hope this will change in the future as women nowadays focus more on higher education”.


Andrea Haefner is a Lecturer at the Griffith Asia Institute with a focus on Global Work Integrated Learning programs. She is an expert on non-traditional security issues focusing on environmental security and water governance combined with practical experience in water resource management, climate change and higher education. Andrea has worked across government, academic, and not-for-profit organisations in Australia, Germany and South East Asia, most recently in the Mekong region where she spent four years working and living in Laos. Andrea completed her PhD at Griffith University in 2015 focusing on transboundary river basins in Latin America, Europe and South East Asia.