BRIDGE Report 9: Women and Development in Laos

Author: S. Baden, S. Thompson
Publisher: Institute of Development Studies UK
Publication Date: Feb 1993
How does the position of Lao women compare with that of Lao men' What further steps are required to advance their status and promote gender equality' Lao women's concerns were formally addressed by the national government for the first time in 1975, when the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) came into power. This paper provides an overview of the political, economic, health, and education sectors in Laos, and argues that women have far from achieved equality with men. Although women are organised through the Lao Women's Union (LWU), with membership of more than a third of the female population, it has predominantly focused its concerns on national revolutionary matters rather than women's advancement, and women still lack political power. To improve the status of women in Laos, education and health should be made more accessible, women's political participation promoted, and economic support, such as credit, must be introduced.

On taking power, the LPRP encouraged women to participate in activities of national reconstruction and the building of socialism. The vast majority of Laotian women are engaged in rural production, agriculture, domestic labour and small-scale craft production. But gender issues still have not been mainstreamed into macro-level policy in all sectors. Women continue to be marginalised by male-dominated political and social institutions (such as the all-male Politburo that controls the Communist Party) and face fewer opportunities for education and jobs. Despite the favourable political and economic context for women in Laos, their subordination persists. Several indicators of gender inequality in Laos include: . Strong socio-cultural bias against women's active participation in public life (including politics, the labour market, and civil society). . Restricted education and employment opportunities (in the formal market) for women. . Geographical isolation of highland communities and their more traditional male-dominated customs put highland minority women at a particular disadvantage. . Most maternal deaths can be easily prevented by immunisation, adequate birth spacing between pregnancies, and improved maternal nutrition. Low awareness about contraception has negative impacts on maternal health and HIV/ AIDS prevention. . Lack of existing research on Lao women. Where it does exist, the focus is on lowland women who represent only half of the female population. . Domestic tasks are not being shared by men, despite women's increasing labour market participation (in agriculture particularly) and contribution to household income. This increases women's multiple burden of work. . While some young educated women may be in a position to benefit from economic liberalisation due to growing areas of employment opportunity (e.g. with multinational investors, export industries, tourism sector), others may be negatively affected by these economic reforms (e.g. growing number of informal sector female workers). In order to fully address gender concerns, the following are necessary: . Prioritise and improve education for girls and women by providing scholarships, school feeding programmes, more local provision of schools, flexible timetables, and adult literacy programmes which are sensitive to the multiple demands on women's time. . Promote an integrated approach to health care, particularly reproductive health, to incorporate family planning, maternal and child health and HIV/AIDS prevention, with the improvement of highland women and children's health a priority within such programmes. . Support and promote the economic contributions of women, particularly in the areas of agriculture and home-based handicraft through training programmes and credit schemes. . Support and provide credit for women's small-scale marketing operations in both rural and urban areas, combined with training in business and information skills and the formation of women's marketing organisations. . Promote more systematic consideration of gender concerns at the macro policy level, for example in changes in trade policy or the allocation of government expenditure. . Tackle persistent cultural norms and behaviours that reinforce male domination by providing financial and institution-building assistance to the Lao Women's Union and other women's NGOs, and encourage participatory assessment of women's needs at local levels. . Assist in developing a reliable database for women in Laos, especially for midland and highland women.