In 1996 a woman called Carol Perks, a nurse from Melbourne, was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of her service to the health and welfare of people in remote areas of Laos as an adviser with the Save the Children fund. She is another remarkable Australian woman doing exceptional things in another country. Last week in Laos I had the pleasure of meeting Carol Perks, who generously gave up her time to talk to the delegation that was travelling in that area and to show us that she is a remarkable woman and is making a real difference.
Carol is a nurse and midwife who, 21½ years ago, decided to answer an advertisement for a two-year placement in Laos. She did not speak the language. She did not know a lot about the job, but she thought it would be a good thing to do. Previously she had worked in a range of jobs in her profession, and you always find midwives working in amazing jobs. She decided it was worth a shot, and she went to Laos. Now, over 20 years later, she has established a number of hospitals and midwife centres, has developed codes of practice in that region and has made a real difference for women and children in the country.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is classified by the World Bank as a low-income country under stress. In Laos 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and half the population are young people and children. The infant mortality rate is terrifying. The World Health Organization puts the figure in Laos at 70 infant deaths for every 1,000 babies born. Here in Australia, the current figure is about eight deaths for every 1,000 live births. It is a different world. Carol Perks has decided that every woman and every child deserves to have a healthy start to their lives, and that is what she is doing. In her country the predominant causes of death among women and children are malaria, diarrhoea, acute respiratory infection, measles, perinatal conditions and complications of pregnancy and childbirth. All these conditions are made worse by real levels of malnutrition which are caused by extreme poverty. All those conditions here have access to strong medical help, and what we found in Laos was a woman working with local conditions to ensure that she could bring her skills to bear to work with the community.
Carol talked to us about standards of education that were so low in an area where superstition still has a high level of interest in the community. She has said on record that she does not believe in miracles. She knows that, if you want to stop babies becoming sick and dying in remote villages, you put your faith in science and pragmatism, not superstition. You set up a primary healthcare program and teach local midwives to do away with traditional birthing methods and to work with the local community. In her time she has set up more than seven hospitals, and we had the real pleasure of meeting with her at one of these hospitals and seeing the work she does with trained personnel in the hospitals and also the genuine pleasure and affection the local people have for her. The laughter of the small children and the genuine affection of the women who were waiting there to have their checks reflect the work that this woman has done.
It is important that we understand that the work requires support from here, and it is very much important that Carol now works with the Save the Children fund. We all know Save the Children. It is such a well-established NGO. She has been working there in that time, and Save the Children has been working with kids for almost 90 years. Its credo is to 'protect children's lives and strive to give all children a safe and happy childhood'. In the Save the Children program in Laos Carol works now across a number of regions, but we worked with her in Luang Prabang, a beautiful part of the world. In that area she is now able to ensure that women have the chance to be trained as midwives to operate within their own communities, to have practical things like clinics and simple things like birthing kits, and to address the awful problems of malaria and dengue fever, ensuring that there are mosquito nets and control of the insects in the local areas-things that we take for granted but things that Carol Perks knows will make the difference.
She said that when she arrived it couldn't have been any worse. For people here education standards were so poor that they thought contraception amounted to eating elephant placenta-not a common method in the suburbs of Melbourne but one that we found is still talked about in the regions of Laos. That gives you an idea of the gap in knowledge. But what we have found is that the local community and the government value the work that is being done. Laos has set itself a very strong program to meet the Millennium Development Goals, and it is moving forward. I think we can see at work locally that commitment to achieving a better world particularly for women and kids, because they know that, if they can have strong, healthy children, there is a real future for the community.
We visited with Carol a couple of the schools that our AusAID program has been funding, and we saw then the amazing commitment that the local community had to ensuring that their children had appropriate education. I think some of them were a bit astounded to see five Australians turn up to their school, particularly as it was not a school day, and they had turned out to show us with pride the schools that they had built locally with AusAID support. There is nothing that makes you prouder of the work that our AusAID people do and the way that the Australian community gets involved than seeing the way that communities can change lives and the joy of the children showing us their classrooms. We hope that, through the work that Australians continue to do through the education programs, the work with Save the Children and women like Carol Perks, we will continue to have a strong relationship with the country Laos and see that there will be a better future.
When I spoke with Carol about how she feels about the work she is doing, she says: 'This makes a difference. The people want to change and improve their lives. They really embrace it.' She knows that her work is valuable, and she says, 'When things are low, the only way is up.' I think it is an important thing for us here to hear the stories of people like Carol Perks. In Laos in the region where she is working, they know, respect and value her. I think it is most important that we hear these stories here in Australia because not only does she deserve our respect; I think her work gives us true inspiration. By our efforts we can be better partners in an international world.
She has her plan-the Perks Plan-for how a small regional hospital should look. When we were at the hospital that she showed us-one of the seven that she has been involved in constructing and planning-she was able to show us how Australian support was making a difference. I think that is the kind of thing that our AusAID program should be doing more of. I think that we should have that relationship.
I truly want to congratulate Carol Perks. Her time in Laos is not over. That two-year placement is now 21 years on. I think that, if we have the pleasure and honour of going back in the future, we will see her again and see that there will be more than seven hospitals: there will be the impact of the work continuing. I sat down at that hospital with some fairly young twins-I think they were about six months old. They had been born in the local hospital and were being cuddled and loved by the community of women professionals who were there doing their jobs but who took that time out to meet the babies and to be with them. That gives us hope, and that is why I want to have in some way the opportunity to say thank you to Carol and to give her our best wishes for her ongoing work.