Leading with courage and confidence
Ms Toumkham Phetsalath is the Deputy Head of the Champhone District Health Office in Lao PDR. Over 30 years of experience working in maternal and child health has shaped her critical consciousness to support and advocate for gender equality. This motivation translates to her workplace, and how she works with others in her team.
Ms Toumkham is a pioneer in promoting intergenerational equality in her district. In her team she mentors younger staff, particularly women, to step up and assume leadership roles. Ms Toumkham ensures that her team’s work is impactful by building their knowledge, awareness and capacity to implement gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) approaches in all their work.
Ms Toumkham believes that a leader should be brave, decisive, and accountable for their actions. Speaking of her own leadership, she reflects that building cohesion and team spirit is significant as it fosters mutual respect and unity among team members. These values extend to the team’s work in the community, by respecting the culture and tradition of various ethnicities of people.
While conducting community activities, there is a strong effort to include women and men in meetings and in the field teams, and to encourage the participation of women in village-level WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) activities and programmes such as WASH FIT (Water and Sanitation for Health Facility Improvement Tool) at health centres and schools. Moreover, Ms Toumkham’s team implements the government strategy of leaving no-one behind in the services they provide. This was demonstrated through their response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic whereby special attention was given to the needs of vulnerable populations, including those with a long-term illness, elderly people, pregnant women and children, people with disabilities, and migrant labour workers who returned from neighbouring Thailand.
Despite working in a context where traditional gender roles make it difficult to recruit women in leadership and decision-making positions in society, Ms Toumkham is relentless and driven by her passion and commitment. Now that she is close to retirement, her legacy is evident in the progress made in terms of gender awareness and capacity building of her team members, especially women.
Ms Toumkam continues to be inspired to expand this awareness to the communities where they work, aiming to improve the understanding of women’s rights and gender equality among the population. This is also her advice to aspiring leaders – so that they can challenge norms perpetuating inequalities and improve conditions for those who are vulnerable and marginalised in society so that they are able to access government services.
‘While it is certainly good to provide training to staff on gender awareness, this needs to be accompanied by building a better understanding of women rights and gender equality and the application of GESI approaches in their daily work.’
Authors: Avni Kumar and Diana Gonzalez Botero from ISF-UTS, with input from Pk Phetsakhone
Photos: Philippe Aramburu for SNV
 Toumkam Phetsalath is one of 19 leaders interviewed for the ‘Gender transformative leadership in WASH during the COVID-19 pandemic’ research project led by SNV and ISF-UTS. The project is funded by the Australian government's Water for Women Fund. Key findings of the research are presented in this learning brief.
 This blog was produced as part of SNV in Lao PDR's Beyond the Finish Line programme.
 Additional stories of leadership here: H.E. Dechen Wangmo, Minister of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan | Rajesh Sahani, Member of Disabled People's Organisation in Nepal | Chomsy Ngamvilay, Deputy Head of the Atsaphone District Health Office in Lao PDR | Namgay Pelden, Gup (local leader) in a sub-district in Bhutan | Ambika Yadav, WASH Advisor, SNV in Nepal
 To learn more about SNV's rural WASH work in Asia, contact Gabrielle Halcrow, Multi- country programme manager, by email.