On the Platform with PhouthAlee Vongsamai

What I love about Platform Stories is the opportunity to showcase and support ordinary women living with disability who live extra ordinary lives. I feel honoured that so many amazing women have shared their stories with me, and am constantly reminded of the power of womanhood, of how women can accomplish amazing things when we support each other.
I have felt this more strongly as I have grown older, and often, my heart sings as I see women with disabilities living their lives in a myriad of ways, determined to show up and stand out for who and what they are.

I have lived this disability life for a long time. My lived experience has seen a shift from not outwardly celebrating difference and diversity and not feeling worthy for the longest time, to pushing for and witnessing incremental change that has created more space for us all.  When this happens, we all grow in our shared humanity. It is for these reasons I am thrilled to share stories on the Platform.

I’m delighted to bring you an update on one of our previous Platform Storytellers.

Phoutalee’s story reinforces that when we believe in ourselves, and  support each other, we can make so much difference in the world.

Phoutalee Vongsmai
PhouthAlee Vongsamai, lives in Vientiane, Laos PDR. I first met her in 2017 when I was working alongside her at the Laos Disabled Women’s Development Centre. She is a mother, a wife, an employee, a friend to many, a woman with disability and an advocate for others.

                   

For context, there is no health care, and no social security system in Laos, and basic fundamental rights for people with disability are not available, including the right to drive! The community is largely inaccessible and people with disability are largely excluded from community life including employment.

In 2017, Phoutalee spoke of a dream she had to create her own organisation to support people living with disability, who are some of the poorest people in Laos.
Fast forward to 2021 and Phoutalee has not only done just that, the organisation she created, Xon Phao, is currently supporting 35 people with disabilities who would not have the opportunity otherwise. They are now in an accessible environment where earning a modest income is not out of reach. The group is made up people living with various types of disabilities, including polio survivors, the vision impaired, persons born with disabilities, and those living with disabilities following an accident.

“Xon Phao wants to create environmentally friendly products which generate income for people with disabilities and their families, and we will use locally sourced products to do so, while preserving the cultural traditions and products of Lao PDR”

                

Xon Phao provides an opportunity for those involved to generate income, learn training in sewing, textiles, handicrafts, marketing, financial literacy and life skills to expand employment pathways for them. The aim is high, and they are well on the way to  producing handicrafts that are unique, beautiful, high-quality, and with a design that is different from that of other local brands. All the while have their value and worth acknowledged.

   

Phoutalee has worked tirelessly to establish a suite of products made by the participants in the program.  The  product selection includes shopping bags, purses, clothes, home appliances, embroidery, and shoes- whilst maintaining a focus on learning new skills. It even responded to the Covid crisis by making face masks.  Impressively, PhouthAlee has also established several international buyers for those products. As the Covid Pandemic has had devastating impact across the world, it stands to reason that the lives of people with disability in Laos, (which is listed by the UN as being one of the poorest countries in the world) have been devastated.

    

 How have recent times have been for those at Xon Phao?

“When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Lao PDR, like many small enterprises, the team at the Xon Phao were unsure how they would manage the uncertain times.
The Centre could no longer access funding, materials, and the machines necessary to keep production moving forward.
With the closure of borders, the Xon Phao was unable to complete several orders for international clients, which had been a reliable income stream prior to the pandemic.
Even the training programs that had been established through international connections came to a standstill”

The immediate impact was even more critical. As funds dried up, so did the ability to access basic needs such as food and other essential items for survival.

“The Xon Phao has been well supported by their neighbors, friends, and families, who have often donated materials and even brought food and essential items for the members living on site since the COVID-19 crisis”

It would seem that through the toughest of times, Xon Phao have managed to survive and continue to provide a place of support and solidarity to those who need it most.
You might wonder how Xon Phao is surviving through this difficult time, the answer demonstrates the true resilience and fortitude that arises when you don’t actually have any other option for survival.

“The immediate impact ( of Covid 19 ) was even more critical. As funds dried up, so did the ability to access basic needs such as food and other essential items for survival.”

       

“COVID-19 taught us the importance of building more resilient businesses and continuing development on products more for the future.
We are now looking to increase the use of local and sustainable materials, grow our client base in Lao PDR, and we aim to establish a small farm and training centre, raise our own chickens and grow vegetables for both consumption and sale”

And what of the future?

“Xon Phao wants to create environmentally friendly products which generate income for people with disabilities and their families, and we will use locally sourced products to do so, while preserving the cultural traditions and products of Lao PDR”
I am again reminded of the power of women, and how with support and determination, we can raise each other up, we can do more, go further, and change the world.

If you would like to support the work of Xon Phao, go to the website or email and check out the wonderful products available for purchase. All proceeds directly go the Centre and directly impact the quality of life for those living and working there.

Ms. Phoutaly Vongsamai, Xon Phao Center Director, – xonpaolao@gmail.com
Xon Phao Laos Disabled Persons Working Group (xonphaodisabledpeopleworkingroup.org)     and  Follow Xon Phao Centre on Facebook @Xonpao

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