|Report No 9
Women and Development in Laos
Report prepared for Women, Health and Population Division, Australian International Development Assistance Bureau
by Sheila Thomson and Sally Baden
1. INTRODUCTION 1
4.1 Agriculture 5
4.2 Cottage industries 6
5.1 Formal Sector 8
5.2 Informal Sector 9
6. INDICATORS OF WOMEN’S STATUS 10
6.1 Education 10
6.2 Health 11
6.3 Politics 13
7.1 Lao Women’s Union 14
7.2 International assistance 15
FIGURES AND TABLES 21
Lao women’s concerns were first formally addressed by a national government in 1975, with the ascendancy to power of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The new communist regime had earlier promised to ‘realise equality between men and women in all fields, political, economic, cultural and social, and to do away with all acts of contempt or oppression toward women’ (Brown and Zasloff 1986: Appendix A). On taking power, the LPRP encouraged women to participate in activities of national reconstruction and the building of socialism. In spite of the Government’s formal commitment to eradicate gender inequality and its promotion of women’s economic participation, Lao women today have far from achieved parity with Lao men in the areas mentioned. Considerable advances have been made in women’s access to education and employment since 1975, but women’s social status and political representation remains low. (Ng, 1991: 174-5.) Furthermore, the dire economic situation faced by the country has imposed increasing demands on the time and energy of women.
This report begins with a brief overview of the political, demographic and economic situation in Laos in the 1975-92 period. Following this is a short section on Lao women’s participation in economic development after 1975. Women have made a vital contribution to both the rural and urban economies, particularly the former. The discussion of the rural sector will concentrate on agriculture and small scale industries, and that of the urban sector will cover the formal and informal sectors.
Despite women’s essential contribution to the development of Laos, gender disaggregated data on education, health and political representation show that women still lack access to basic services and political power. Nonetheless, women are organised at the local, provincial and national levels through the Lao Women’s Union (LWU), an organisation with a membership of more than one third of the female population. Even so, it has only been in the last few years that this organisation has focused its attention specifically on women’s concerns and not simply those of the revolutionary state. This organisation faces several challenges in its attempts to redress women’s subordination in Laos. Some of these constraints have been tackled recently with the assistance of the international community. The nature of this foreign assistance will be outlined, and followed by some policy recommendations.
This report is limited in nature due to the lack of research on the socio-economic situation of Lao people, and particularly of Lao women. Most of the literature written on Laos to date has focused on the military and strategic aspects of the country. Furthermore, the little information which does exist on Lao women is almost exclusively concentrated on Lowland women who make up only one half of the female population. However, an attempt will be made to incorporate information on the situation of Highland women where possible.
2. RECENT HISTORICAL OVERVIEW (1975-1992)
A brief overview of the recent political, demographic and economic situation in Laos is necessary to provide a context for the following discussion. Laos is presently governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) which assumed power in 1975 after more than thirty years of armed struggle against the French colonialists and later against American forces in the Indo-china conflict. Women were active in all spheres of work during the wars, from militia activity, to health care of soldiers and food production (UNESCO, 1989: 5). The three decades of war, and the half century of French colonialism before it, has left Laos one of the poorest countries in the world. The economy remains predominantly agrarian with a gross national product per capita of a mere US $ 180 in 1989 (UNDP, 1992).
Laos has a population of 4.2 million, and a sex ratio of 96.1 males per 100 females (Frisen, 1991: 58). Eighty-five percent of the people live in rural areas. The country has a total area of 236 800 square kilometres, but only 12 percent of the land area can be cultivated due to the mountainous terrain, impenetrable forests and to the massive destruction caused by US bombing in the 1960s and 1970s in which exfoliation agents were widely used (Heyzer 1986: 30). Ninety percent of the labour force is concentrated in the agriculture and forestry sectors with only two percent in industry and construction (Frisen, 1991: 63). Urban dwellers are concentrated in four major centres: Vientiane, Savannakhet, Pakse and Luang Prabang. The most densely populated city is the country’s capital, Vientiane, which has a population of 442 000 (Government of Laos PDR, 1992: 2).
Laos has an extremely varied ethnic composition with over 68 distinct groups. These diverse peoples are often put into three categories. The largest group is the Lowland Lao, or Lao Loum, who make up 55 percent of the population and inhabit the plains and valleys. The Midland Lao, or Lao Theung, live on the plateaux and mountain slopes and constitute 27 percent of the population. The remainder of the population are Upland Lao, the Lao Soung of the mountain tops (Iinuma, 1992: 2). Because of poor infrastructure and communication systems, most of the Lao Theung and Lao Soung people still live in virtual isolation from the other more developed parts of the country. This study will perforce focus primarily on the situation of Lao Loum women.
As far as economic development is concerned, Laos is currently undergoing a major economic transformation. In order to address the dire economic situation and to gain access to external financial assistance, the Lao Government enacted the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) in 1986. According to government sources, reforms introduced by the NEM include:
- decontrol of prices and distribution of goods
- elimination of subsidies;
- unification of the exchange rate;
- reform of the tax system and government expenditure;
- restructuring of the banking system and enactment
of a new Central Bank Law;
- refinements in money and credit management;
- passage of a Law on Foreign Investment;
- reduction of import duties;
- revamping the tax and customs administration;
- privatization of the means of production including some state enterprises;
- formation of the policy apparatus for further privatization.
(Government of the Laos PDR, 1992: 4)
These reforms contain many elements which are standard in structural adjustment programmes. The impact of such programmes elsewhere has been subject to a gender analysis which reveals a very mixed picture (see e.g. BRIDGE, 1992a). Adjustment programmes have several potentially negative outcomes for women. For example, price decontrol and subsidy removal creates pressure on household budgets, the burden of which is often borne largely by women; in other parts of Asia (e.g. Sri Lanka) trade liberalisation policies under adjustment programmes have led to the displacement of women working in handloom and other home based production (Jayaweera, 1992). No study has yet been made of the gender effects of these macro-economic policy changes in the Lao case.
Some consequences of the reform programme in Laos to date are a fall in real urban incomes resulting from price rises, and increased unemployment through public sector retrenchment. Women are thought to have been particularly hit by reductions in public sector employment because they generally occupy lower ranking positions. (Government of Laos P.D.R, 1992: 18-20.)
In December 1991, the Medium Term Policy Framework and Public Investment Programme (1991-5), was approved. This does not incorporate any specific gender analysis or concerns. (Iinuma, 1992: 5.) However, there is a strong emphasis on human resource development, particularly through investment in health and education (Government of Lao P.D.R and UNICEF, 1991: 6).
In parallel with the economic reform programme begun in 1986, there have been a number of legal reforms and a new constitution was enacted in August 1991. The constitution provides the legal basis for equality for women in the political, economic, social and cultural fields and in family affairs. Several of the new laws relate to gender concerns, for example, the Property Law, the Inheritance Law, the Labour Law, the Family Law and the Election Law. Along with men, women have inheritance and voting rights. There is insufficient information available to discuss the precise gender implications of these changes. In any event, due to the recent implementation of these legal reforms and also to the fact that much of the Lao population lives in isolation from major centres, its seems unlikely that these changes have yet had a major impact. (Iinuma, 1992: 4; Government of Laos PDR, 1992: 20.)
3. OVERVIEW OF WOMEN’S ROLE IN THE NATIONAL AND HOUSEHOLD ECONOMIES
Lao women have played a central role in the country’s economic development over the past two decades. Women’s participation exceeds men’s in the economically active population. Women made up 52.8 percent of the active labour force (15-44 year olds) in 1985 (Government of Lao PDR and UNICEF, 1991: 5). The distribution of women in various sectors is shown in Figure 1. Women compose 60 percent of the labour force in the agricultural sector; 60 percent of the handicraft sector; 50 percent in commerce, public health and education sectors; 25 percent in the public sector and 20 percent in the industrial sector. (UNESCO 1989: 18.) Aside from this enumerated work, a gender division of labour exists in Laos which assigns women the major responsibility for childcare and housework. As household size averages seven people (Ireson, 1991: 25), these tasks require numerous hours of work each day in addition to women’s work outside the home and yet domestic labour continues to be excluded from labour force statistics.
Lao Loum women are generally thought to enjoy a higher status than women of other ethnic groups (e.g. the Yao and the Hmong), among whom son preference is quite strong in accordance with kinship and inheritance structures. The Lao Loum have bilateral kinship systems and inheritance patterns, as well as a matrilocal tradition, whereby the married couple live with the wife’s parents at least for some years after marriage. In many cases, the youngest daughter and her husband remain with the parents to look after them in their old age. Thus, females often inherit property from their parents. By contrast, the Lao Theung and Lao Soung tend to adhere to patrilinear kinship rules and patrilocal traditions, whereby the woman is considered a member of the husband’s clan upon marriage. Where women are isolated from the support networks of their natal families, they are more likely to be dominated by the men in the household. (Government of Laos PDR and UNICEF, 1991: 2; Ireson, 1991: 24-5; Iinuma, 1992: 3.)
All ethnic groups have traditionally observed bride price, although the Government has discouraged this. In some minority areas, polygamy is practised, but rural poverty is tending to limit this. In spite of their major economic contribution, women are generally not considered as workers. However, women, particularly older ones, do control household budgets and share in financial decision making. (Iinuma, 1992: 3; Ireson, 1991: 25.)
4. WOMEN’S ROLE IN THE RURAL ECONOMY