PeaceWoman of the Month
The recognition behind her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize has brought international appreciation of Kommaly’s work. In 2011, on International Women’s Day, she received the International Women of Courage award from the US Department of State and in the same year, she was awarded a special achievement award from the Samdhana Institute, Global Greengrants Fund and International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, in Vientiane.
In 2015, Kommaly was the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award. This is an annual award, established in 1957 by the trustees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund based in New York City with the concurrence of the Philippine government. The award was “in recognition of her fearless, indomitable spirit to revive and develop that ancient Laotian art of silk weaving, creating livelihoods for thousands of poor, war-displaced Laotians, and thus preserving the dignity of women and her nation’s priceless silken cultural treasure”.
2015 also brought Kommaly to the 27th ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur as a speaker on the Voices of ASEAN Women platform, where she was able to speak about developing business opportunities for rural women. Employment for women, especially in the villages, is limited; Lao youth and ethnic minority women are in danger of being trafficked, particularly to Thailand for sexual and financial exploitation. One way for women to remain in the villages is to use their weaving skills to produce fabric that can be sold to tourists and on the international market. Kommaly has been so successful that the women she supports, in over 200 villages, now produce the very highest quality work that commands top prices. In 2008, the work of these rural women was displayed at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne, Australia.
Kommaly works predominantly in the remote areas of northern Laos with marginalised people, encouraging sustainable alternatives to opium production and harmful slash and burn agriculture. She runs training courses for farmers to help improve their skills in organic agriculture; in 2016 alone, she and her team trained two thousand people. The focus of Mulberries, her organisation, is to support farmers in producing high quality silk. Mulberries, a social enterprise that seeks to create income generating opportunities in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, not only trains the farmers but also provides an initial supply of silkworms and supports the women weavers. Using know-how inherited from past generations, she shows the farmers how to use natural dyes; the Mulberries products are thus unique and of extremely high quality.
Her latest venture is the local, sustainable production of organic cosmetics, using silk by-products. Kommaly spent some time studying Japanese research before embarking on these new products that are based on silk proteins. She has also managed to get accreditation for Mulberries from the World Fairtrade Organisation based in the Netherlands. Kommaly is passionate about her work and is clearly a role model for the next generation of Lao women.
Caroline Morrissey, January 2017