CEDAW in Lao PDR
Laos became a signatory to CEDAW in 1981. Women’s rights and gender equality are acknowledged by the Government of Laos and prioritized in the National Socio-Economic Development Plan.
However, Laos still has a long way to reach full and effective implementation of CEDAW. As outlined in a research publication by ADWLE in 2016, many laws have been enacted that aim to ensure equality of rights between women and men, advancement of Lao women and protection for vulnerable women and children. However, there are very little funds available to the government and key stakeholders to implement the laws. There is low awareness at the grassroots level about CEDAW or the national laws that support the CEDAW principles. Many duty bearers at the village and district level (e.g. Village Authorities, Village Mediation Committees, police) also have little awareness or understanding of the laws that protect the rights of women or children. It is necessary to create a comprehensive mechanism, provide adequate resources, and improve human capital to implement those laws that relate the content of CEDAW at all levels.
Gender roles and barriers
Culturally, Laos is predominantly a patriarchal society. Women are excluded and disempowered by attitudes towards gender roles which dictate that women are required to cook and serve food at community events, while men are not required to help. Women often must ask permission from husbands to attend events as well. Within a marriage, big decisions about money are usually made by men, while women must ask their husband’s opinion first before making decisions.
Gender stereotypes are prevalent in Lao society and give rise to many gender-based barriers, contributing to the disempowerment and victimisation of women. According to data collected at a national level:
- at primary school, the enrolment numbers of boys and girls are fairly equal, however by the age of 16, almost 9% more girls than boys had dropped out of school
- despite the fact that 18 is the minimum legal age for marriage, 38.9% of women in rural areas and 21.4% in urban areas were married by the age of 18.  The rate of teenage pregnancy in Laos is the highest out of all ASEAN countries.
- 65% of all unpaid work (e.g. housework, child care, farming) is done by women, compared to only 35% by men
- although there are high numbers of women in the workforce, they tend to be in low-skilled, low-pay occupations that are more prone to exploitation
- Lao PDR’s national parliament has admirably high female representation (27.5%), but women occupy only 5% of leadership roles in other decision-making institutions within the Government, particularly at district and village level.
In 2014, the National Commission for the Advancement of Women (NCAW) conducted the Lao National Survey on Women’s Health and Life Experience to obtain a detailed picture about GBV in Laos. Some significant results of the survey were:
- 3% of respondents had suffered some form of physical, sexual or emotional violence from their husband or partner, and 5.1% had suffered physical violence from a non-partner
- 45% of the survey population agreed that a husband could hit his wife if she was discovered to be unfaithful
- 2% of the women who experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence never told anyone.
- The vast majority of the women interviewed were not aware of laws against GBV
The CEDAW Committee has expressed concern that in Laos there are “Persistent barriers, including stigma, fear of retribution, deep-rooted discriminatory gender stereotypes and limited legal literacy, that deter women and girls from registering their complaints regarding gender-based discrimination and violence, including domestic violence, marital rape and sexual harassment.”
Women are not empowered to report domestic violence when they experience it, and there is limited or no support for women in the community or by the state. Furthermore, female victims of domestic violence often do not have the economic means to pay for village mediation to resolve the issue, nor to leave an abusive marriage through divorce. This leaves them in a highly vulnerable position and continues the cycle of violence because they have no alternative but to stay in a dangerous situation.
Some aspects of customary law still practised in ethnic communities are unfavourable to women and may contribute to psychological and economic violence against women. For example, although polygamy is against national law, among Hmong villages, it is common for a man to have several wives, but a wife can only have one husband.