By Karen J. Coates
Sunday, August 22, 2010
War-era ordnance kills and maims hundreds of Laotian villagers each year. Eighty-five percent of victims are men, leaving numerous women to fend for their families.
VIENTIANE, Laos (WOMENSENEWS)--Five years ago, 24-year-old Yue's husband, Lue Ha, hit a bomb while foraging for medicinal herbs in the jungles of northern Laos. The accident blinded him.
Since then, Yue, who only goes by one name, says, "Ooh, there are many things that have changed." She feels "like two or three persons in one," having to care for her husband and two young children. "The greatest difficulty is everything in the family became mine--husband's job became mine. Children's job became mine…I just tried to grow very little rice for the family. And I also did a little embroidery to sell and earn money."
The couple could not maintain their farm, so Yue's husband studied massage through an aid group in Vientiane, the country's capital. Afterward, he opened a massage business in a tiny Phonsavanh apartment where the family of four now lives.
"Since I'm blind, it's hard to earn a living," Lue Ha said. He gets on average two customers a day who pay about $3 a session. "It's not really enough because we have to pay for rent, electricity, water." If no one shows up, "I don't earn," he said.
If more than one customer arrives, Yue puts the couple's 6-year-old son in charge of watching the baby. She changes from her traditional sarong to comfortable pants and she gets to work using the techniques she has learned through Lue Ha.
Every day, Laotian villagers risk their lives farming, fishing and foraging. This landlocked Southeast Asian country remains littered with bombs since the U.S. military dumped more than 2 million tons of explosives here between 1964 and 1973. Those bombing raids, unauthorized by Congress, were aimed at communist forces in an offshoot of the Vietnam War. But civilians still live--and die--in the aftermath.
When an American bomb explodes in Laos today, it's likely to kill or injure a man. But the women in his life also suffer mental and economic consequences of accidents involving unexploded ordnance, known as UXO.
"The men do the plowing, so they take more risk," said Jo Pereira, an occupational therapist who spent several years as coordinator for a rehabilitation center known as COPE, based in Vientiane.
But while men suffer more injuries, Pereira says, women help to shoulder the heavy consequences.
Up to 30 percent of the bombs did not detonate when dropped in the 1960s and 1970s. War-era ordnance has killed and maimed more than 50,000 people across Laos, according to a 2008 National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents. UXO injuries account for the largest portion of COPE's clientele; 85 percent of accident victims are male.
Laos ranks among the world's poorest and least developed countries with a population that largely relies on subsistence farming. Many UXO accidents occur in fields far from hospitals and many villagers have little access to health care. Women often care for sick and injured family members at home.
"There's no other social safety net," Pereira said.
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