Boualaphet Chounthavong was born in 1967 in Salawan province, southern Laos, at the height of the Vietnam War. Her father was a teacher who was promoted after the war to a high-ranking post in the Ministry of Education. Her mother was a member of the Laos Women Union. Studying on a government scholarship, Boualaphet obtained her degree in medicine from the National University of Medicine in Laos in 1993. But instead of opening a high profile medical practice in the capital, she opted to work in public health in the rural areas.
Boualaphet is one of the few Lao women to graduate from a state school of medicine. But she has not used this to her own advantage. Instead of working in a hospital in Vientiane, she chose to return to her home province, Salawan, to work as a staff member for the World Education Project, an NGO. "I want to help cure people to make use of my education. Helping them get better would make me happy. When I was asked by this organization if I would like to do public health work, I decided to give it a try for at least three months, after which I could decide to leave if I did not like it. But the more I worked, the more I liked it. It is one of the ways to help heal people." Her first assignment was to train the villagers to work with the health care team. She was based in a remote area inhabited by five indigenous groups. Using different dialects, but sharing some cultural beliefs, the peoples are among the poorest tribal groups in the province. Realizing that certain health problems in the area arise from traditional beliefs, instead of concentrating purely on health work, Boualaphet initiated projects to help tackle their root causes. She oversees two projects: firstly the Village-based Education in Southern Laos (VESL), which includes health, education, food, security initiatives, school building construction and informal education, development of learning centers at district level and the provision of clean water for drinking and other uses; secondly the Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), which maps the community, identifies and plans land use and develops products from the forests. From her initial plan to work for three months, Boualaphet has now been on the job for more than a decade. In 2000, she set up Village Focus International (VFI), working in more than 70 villages in remote areas from the banks of Mekong River to the border of Vietnam.
Village Focus International (VFI)