GENDER JUSTICE ACTIVIST AND CAPACITY DEVELOPMENT SPECIALIST
Khamsavath (Kham) has been working to promote gender justice and eliminate violence against women and girls since completing his graduate studies. His work has taken him from Ha Noi, Viet Nam where he worked for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), to Bangkok, Thailand where he joined the United Nations Regional Joint Programme on Violence Prevention (or Partners for Prevention) to work on projects that address harmful masculinities to prevent violence against women. Currently, Kham is with the UN Women Training Centre based in the Dominican Republic, where he leads several capacity development initiatives aiming at advancing gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women’s rights.
Kham hoped to get involved in the field of gender and women’s rights upon completion of his studies; his interest in the area started in adolescence. Kham grew up in Laos where he struggled to identify with the hyper masculinity that was both revered and expected of men:
“It’s not an easy way to grow up when you’re not conforming to conventional masculine norms. Of course, I didn’t really understand the meaning of the extremely gendered environment that I was growing up in. Being somehow different is hard for we face bullies.”
Kham had a close relationship with his mother, which contributed to his interest in women’s rights and gender equality, and especially witnessing in her a life characterised by gender and class suppressions. Growing up, he could not escape noticing the obvious inequality his mother dealt with every day; he listened with great interest to her stories and opinions. This provided a unique experience, as well as an insight into the effects on women and girls of conservative notions of gender roles and a woman’s subordinate place in society:
“My mother was a woman that was born not for herself, but for everyone else in her life: first her father and family, then her husband, and then her children. The day she was born until the day she died was totally dedicated for others. One time I asked her what her dream was, and she said that she did not know! And I said of course you should know your dreams, everybody knows what their dreams are, and she said no, she did not know her dream. After asking her many times she said her dream is that her children are happy and healthy. So her dream was for other people. The society expects women such as my mother to serve, follow, and obey. And for me, being a person without a dream, personal agency or aspiration, and opportunities to realise such dream is a cruel way to live.”
Kham’s formative years and upbringing show the influence of other strong women, too: he has three sisters who are each determined, independent and educated. They raised him to carry out domestic chores and care work – activities that are traditionally performed by women and girls, and to respect women and girls. Kham’s strong female role models showed him how different life can be for women, and the potential that exists in every woman to become great, so long as they are given the opportunity.
Kham sees inequality and injustice in everything. Like many people working on women’s rights and gender equality, Kham often finds it difficult to switch off:
“When you put on the gender lens, you cannot take it off.”
Kham dreams that, one day, gender inequality and violence against women will be a past. His ideal future is one in which sex, gender, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, physical features, heritage, and all other characteristics, no longer have the social political meaning they have now. He hopes that the future will see equality ingrained in society, where all people will have equal access to opportunities to realise their dreams and will live a life with dignity and freedom.
“We – as a society – have made two steps forward, then one step backward when it comes to advancing gender justice and women’s rights. Despite achievements and efforts thus-far, misogyny, discrimination, and gender-based violence remain prevalent worldwide. The journey to social justice for all is a long, difficult, painful, tear-shading, seemingly endless one. But I think we cannot afford to give up. Because giving up the work to ensure gender justice for all women and men means giving up on our humanity.”