20 January 2005
Committee to Eliminate Discrimination against Women Considers Reports of Lao Peoples Democratic Repulic
NEW YORK, 19 January (UN Headquarters) -- In a day-long examination of the situation of women in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, members of the Committee monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women emphasized the Governments responsibilities under that instrument and stressed the need for concrete measures to advance gender equality and eliminate both direct and indirect discrimination in the country.
The Convention stipulates that a State party should submit its initial report within one year after the instruments entry into force and subsequent reports at least every four years thereafter. Having ratified the Convention in 1981, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic presented its combined initial through fifth periodic reports today.
Introducing those documents, Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad said that the reasons for the delay included a shortage of resources and skilled personnel, as well as the ongoing reform of economic and political institutions. Despite its difficulties as a landlocked least developed country, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic had achieved initial progress in the advancement of women, but poverty, illiteracy and deeply entrenched gender stereotypes presented many challenges that could not be phased out overnight.
He said the Lao Womens Union played an important role in efforts to promote gender equality. The National Commission for the Advancement of Women was tasked with assisting the Government in formulating national policies and functioned as the focal point for the implementation of gender-equality policy. It was now in the process of drafting the national strategy for the advancement of women for the period 2005 to 2010. In late 2004, the National Assembly had passed a law on the development and protection of women. The country had also set a target for achieving nationwide compulsory education by 2010, focusing on increasing womens literacy rates to 75 per cent in 2010 and 85 per cent in 2020.
Recognizing the challenges faced by the country, expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) emphasized the importance of dialogue between the State party and the Committee and expressed the hope that their recommendations would serve as a useful tool that could help the Government in the future. They also encouraged the country to seek international assistance in the implementation of the Convention.
In connection with the countrys national machinery, many experts asked questions regarding the role of the Lao Womens Union and the National Commission for the Advancement of Women, particularly their staffing, budgets and functions. One expert noted that with regard to solutions to the problems facing the country the report referred to the Lao Womens Union -- a mass organization entrusted with executing certain policies. The State had the responsibility to guarantee the effective participation of women through legal measures or political directives. Hopefully, the new National Commission would consider that matter.
Several experts encouraged the country to reconsider its legislation, as some of its provisions were not in harmony with the Convention. For example, the criminal law did not specifically address domestic violence, and marital rape was not criminalized in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. A provision of the Criminal Code stated that exemption from penal liabilities might be granted in cases of physical violence between close relatives without serious injuries or physical damage. The countrys reports also referred to the fact that violent behaviour between spouses was perceived as fairly normal. According to a survey, some 53.4 per cent of young people agreed that it is all right for a man to hit his wife if she makes a mistake.
Experts also expressed serious concern about the problems of prostitution, sex tourism and human trafficking. It was heartbreaking that so many girls and women were involved in prostitution, a Committee member said. The Government seemed to display a certain helplessness and uncertainty about how to tackle the problem. Lao girls and women were exploited and abused, largely by sex tourists from industrialized countries, the governments of which had a duty to help tackle the problem. The country should demand such assistance. It was important to emphasize that prostitution and trafficking went hand in hand and that prostitutes were victims of exploitation.
Urging the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic to seriously address the situation, another expert said that the problem could not be solved merely by creating employment opportunities. The Government referred to difficulties and the need to devote time to the most pressing tasks, almost as if those difficulties were an excuse for not moving faster on the advancement of women. Womens rights were part of the problem that the country was going through, but they were also part of the solution.
In that connection, members of the country delegation said that, given the different levels of economic development among countries in the region, the movement of illegal labour was a problem. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was participating in a project that sought to establish cooperation among various neighbouring countries in combating trafficking. The Government had also set up a commission to fight trafficking under the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. A mechanism to assist and protect victims of trafficking and prostitution was being created.
Among other issues addressed in the article-by-article consideration of the countrys compliance with the Convention was the situation of rural women and the countrys numerous ethnic groups and minorities, the situation of women in the labour market and the need to raise awareness of womens issues.
The Committee will take up Turkeys reports at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 20 January.
Taking up the situation of women in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, the Committee had before it that countrys combined initial, second, third, fourth and fifth periodic reports (document CEDAW/C/LAO/1-5). The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic ratified the Convention in 1981.
The report notes that the country follows a one-party system. Mass organizations function under the direction of the Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party, including the Lao Womens Union, which is specifically entrusted with improving the status of women. With some 800,000 members, the Lao Womens Union represents the rights of women and children in all ethnic groups and is the rallying point for the unity of Lao women of all strata.
Among the obstacles to the advancement of women is the countrys land titling process, the report states. That process, which began in the 1990s, involves the adjudication of land titles or permanent documents certifying the legal ownership of land. In Lao society, daughters make up the majority of those who inherit land from parents. Most husbands move in with the wifes family after marriage, as it is the daughter who will take care of the parents until their death. This matrilineal tradition is special in Lao society, the report states, as it acknowledges the value of caring for the mother and father and of carrying out the appropriate funeral rites after their death.
As a result of the land titling process, however, the matrilineal inheritance patterns are slowly changing, the report states. Statistics show that, while most of the land originally belonged to women, land title documents were mostly registered in the husbands name alone.
Describing the situation in the different Lao ethnic groups, the report notes that in the main Lao group, which follows a matrilineal tradition, the bride price practice is common with husbands paying a bride price in some 87 per cent of the marriages. In the Lao Theung group, which follows a mostly bilineal and patrilineal family structure, the bride price was paid in some 77 per cent of the marriages. In the Hmong group, male children inherit the land and women go to live with their husbands. The bride price was received in 67 per cent of those marriages. Common to all ethnic groups is the traditional division of labour in which the responsibility for caring for the family falls heavily on women. Most Lao women carry a double workload: household work and work in the economic sphere.
Regarding attitudes towards domestic violence and rape, the report notes that violent behaviour between spouses is perceived as fairly normal. According to a survey of young people, some 53.4 per cent of young people agreed that it is all right for a man to hit his wife if she makes a mistake. The criminal law does not specifically address domestic violence but states that exemption from penal liabilities might be granted in cases of physical violence between close relatives without serious injuries or physical damages, libels, slanders or insults.
On the issue prostitution, the report notes that factors contributing to the increase of prostitution include the salaries in factories that fail to meet normal standard of living costs. Girls and young women often have a family obligation to send money home to their parents. That financial pressure forces many girls to earn extra money by working at restaurants, night-clubs and hotels. Much of the same reasons that drive women towards prostitution drive them to being trafficked. After the rainy season, young people tend to seek employment in Thailand for four to six months of seasonal employment.
Introduction of Report
SOMSAVAT LENGSAVAD, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic and Chairman of the National Commission for the Advancement of Women, introduced his countrys report. Also participating in the delegation were: Ket Kiettisak, Vice-Minister of Justice; Khemphet Pholsena, Vice-President, Lao Womens Union; Alounkèo Kittikhoun, Permanent Representative of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic to the United Nations; Kanika Phommachhan, Director-General, Department of International Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ounseng Vixay, Minister Counselor, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Souvanpheng Bouphanouvong, Head of Secretariat of the National Commission for the Advancement of Women; Kingmano Phommahaxay, Director of the Secretariat to the Deputy-Prime Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Viengsavanh Sipraseuth, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic to the United Nations.
Noting that it was the first time his country was reporting to the Committee, Mr. LENGSAVAD said the reason for the delay was due to the countrys ongoing reform of its economic and political institutions. Another reason for the delay was the shortage of skilled personnel to draft the report.
Providing an overview of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, he said the Lao population was composed of 49 ethnic groups with some 80 per cent of the population living in rural areas. Throughout nearly two centuries of abject poverty under colonial rule, Lao women had struggled to regain national independence. In the course of that struggle, a number of women had become national heroes. In 1975, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic had been formed opening up an era of independence, freedom and gender equality for Lao women.
Noting that the report had been drafted many years ago, he updated the Committee on various developments since then, including the adoption in 2003 by the National Assembly of an amended Constitution which called on society to focus on the implementation of policies for the advancement of women. To further translate the provisions of the Constitution into reality, in late 2004, the National Assembly had passed a law on the development and protection of women. That legal instrument had been adopted to define the basic provisions and measures for the protection of womens interests, as well as the responsibility of the State vis-à-vis women. It aimed, among other things, to advance womens knowledge and competency, to prevent trafficking in women and to combat domestic violence. The amended Constitution and the adoption of the law had provided a solid foundation for updating the countrys legal framework for the elimination of discrimination against women.
The Government had also set the target of achieving nationwide compulsory education by 2010, he said. In that regard, the Government had focused on increasing womens literacy rates to 75 per cent in 2010 and 85 per cent in 2020. In the health sector, the Government had provided health-care services to Lao multi-ethnic women, particularly those in remote areas. Concerning national development in general, the Government had established the National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy to execute rural development programmes in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. In that regard, the Lao Womens Union had been instrumental in developing various projects, including microfinance and capacity-building projects.
He said the Government had spared no effort in disseminating the Convention. Tasked with assisting the Government in formulating national policies for the advancement of women, the National Commission for the Advancement of Women functioned as the focal point for the implementation of the gender equality policy. The Commission was in the process of drafting the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women for the period 2005 to 2010. The Strategy would focus on enhancing womens participation in the National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy, education, health care, womens representation in decision-making positions. It would also give priority to strengthening organizations for the promotion of womens advancement. While initial results had been achieved, issues such as education, customs and tradition and deeply entrenched stereotypes presented many challenges, which could not be phased out overnight.
Experts Comments and Questions
As the Committee began its article-by-article examination of the countrys compliance with the Convention, many experts acknowledged the countrys difficulties and focused on the countrys national machinery and legislation for the advancement of women. Numerous questions were posed on the role of the Womens Union and the National Commission for the Advancement of Women, their staffing, budget and functions.
CEES FLINTERMAN, an expert from the Netherlands, said he had been trying to understand the status of the Convention within the legal order of Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. Would it be possible to invoke the Convention if a conflict with national laws arose? Did it have precedence? He was also intrigued by the status of the Womens Union, wondering if it was a State organ. What were its relations with non-governmental organizations?
Referring to an important development in 2004, when a new law on the advancement of women had been adopted, he wanted to know if its definition of discrimination was in line with that in the Convention and if it provided for a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the law. Also, had the country become a party to any new human rights treaties since it held a workshop on human rights treaties in 1999?
DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, an expert from Croatia, asked who had prepared the report. What was the role of the Womens Union and the National Commission for the Advancement of Women in that regard? Had the report been adopted by the Government and had it been submitted to the Parliament? Had the Convention been translated in all the languages and published in the country? Were international laws directly applicable in national legislation? Did the Government have plans to incorporate the Conventions definition of discrimination in national laws?
TIZIANA MAIOLO, an expert from Italy, asked if the State had thought of introducing a specific law relating to ethnic groups. Did the Womens Union, which was currently involved in relations with ethnic groups, have power to promulgate laws in that regard?
HEISOO SHIN, an expert from the Republic of Korea, expressed hope that the promise of Deputy Prime Minister to submit the countrys next report on time would be kept. She expected that from now on, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic would submit its reports as scheduled. She sympathized with the difficult situation of the country, which had experienced many years of colonialism and was now in transit to a market economy.
As for the countrys national machinery, she wanted to know haw many times the National Commission had met in 2004. Were there any plans to increase its secretariat, which currently consisted of six staff members? She also asked how the national strategy for the advancement of women was going to be mainstreamed in the work of various ministries. How many womens organizations did the country have? She also noted that the national plan did not include measures to counter violence against women. Such measures were very important, and she wondered if the Government was planning to address that issue.
NAELA GABR, an expert from Egypt, said that according to the report, the national machinery for the advancement of women was in its initial phase. Through todays dialogue, she hoped the country would achieve a clearer vision of gender equality needs and possible courses of action. She wanted to know how the national strategy for the advancement of women had been developed and how its priorities had been determined. Did Laos intend to cooperate with international bodies, which offered assistance, or take advantage of regional assistance?
She noted that the country had several ethnic groups and languages. It also had problems with illiteracy, particularly among women. How did the Government intend to promote the Convention among rural women, where the rates of illiteracy were higher? She also asked questions about the budget of the national institutions and the impact of the drug culture on women.
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, an expert from Cuba, thanked the delegation for establishing the dialogue with the Committee and noted that the country had encountered many challenges. Its difficult economic situation posed a number of challenges for the Government. While measures had been adopted, particularly in 2003 and 2004, including setting the National Commission for the Advancement of Women, she had several questions. The Lao Womens Union played an important role in the efforts to promote gender equality, but that was a popular movement that did not have executive power. How did it interact with the executive power bodies? How did the Union represent the interests of all ethnic groups and minorities, including those in remote areas? What measures had it adopted to raise awareness of womens issues, particularly in view of the high rates of illiteracy?
FUMIKO SAIGA, an expert from Japan, noted that in the report, the Womens Union had been introduced as part of the national machinery, but she did not have a clear picture of its functions and authority. The National Commission had also been formed with the recommendation of the Union. Which organization was really part of the national machinery responsible for the implementation of the Convention and gender policies? She also wondered if the budget of the Commission was separate from that of the Union.
Describing the Lao Womens Union, a member of the delegation said the Union was a mass organization representing the legitimate interests of the Lao multi-ethnic women. Established in 1985, it aimed to protect womens rights and promote the Lao womens role in national development. The Unions organizational structure comprised representatives at both the central and local levels, and its role was equal to that of a line ministry. Other mass organizations existed in the country, including the Lao Youth Revolutionary Union and the Lao Trade Union. The various unions enjoyed close interaction.
Mr. KIETTISAK said the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was a State party to several international conventions and treaties. Domestic law prevailed in cases when the country was a signatory to the conventions. The country was in the process of studying the issue and received assistance towards that end. For example, although the country was a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there was no national law on their rights. They were currently in the process of drafting that law. The Lao courts did not have the power to solve cases of conflict between domestic law and international conventions. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was doing its utmost to fulfil its obligations under the various conventions.
Concerning the definition of discrimination, he said the countrys legislation did not include a definition of discrimination. According to the Constitution, however, men and women were equal before the law, and there was no gender discrimination. Womens development had been further protected by the adoption of the new law in 2004. To clarify the issue, a Prime Ministers decree would be issued on the implementation of the law.
Mr. KITTIKHOUN said that as the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was a least developed landlocked developing country, one could understand the difficulties facing it. On the delay in the reports submission, he said it had been difficult due to a lack of resources and personnel. Most of the countrys resources were dedicated to poverty elimination strategies. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was a State party to the womens convention, the Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It had already reported on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and would report next month on the elimination of racial discrimination. While there was no definition of discrimination as such, given the countrys current legislation, it was on the right track. From a legal point view, there was no discrimination against women.
Another member of the delegation noted that the Lao Womens Union was an important mechanism for the Governments promotion of the advancement of women. It was a State mechanism with an organizational structure spanning the country. The Womens Union was the largest womens organization in the country and was trying its best to implement the Governments decisions regarding women. Given the importance of the issue, the Government had established the National Commission for the Advancement of Women. The Lao Womens Union and the National Commission were the two main mechanisms for advancing the cause of women. The Commission had the role of assisting the Government in spelling out policy and monitoring the implementation of the various policies. In the next five years, efforts would be directed towards executing the most pressing tasks.
Regarding the budget of the Lao Womens Union, she said the Government had allocated a budget for womens activities. In the past, the Union had received the budget from the State. The National Commission for the Advancement of Women was a non-permanent commission consisting of 15 members from the line ministries. They did not receive salary and had to execute the instructions from the deputy prime minister, who headed the Commission. The Government had allocated the minimum budget to the functioning of the National Commission secretariat. Given the Commissions love for women, it did not require any reward for being involved in womens activities. The State budget was used to carry out the Commissions activities. As the current staffing arrangement was inadequate, the State planned to increase the number of personnel in the Commissions secretariat to 13 in the next five years.
On monitoring of the implementation of the law on development and protection of women, Mr. KIETTISAK said that law contained a definition on the monitoring and control of the law. Article 43 stipulated that the Government would monitor and implement womens activities. The Government had delegated the task to the authorities concerned, for example the health, local administration, education, social welfare and public security sectors. The Lao Womens Union was a central focal point for coordinating the Governments activities. If deemed necessary, the Government would create a supervisory or monitoring unit.
Experts Comments and Questions
HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, an expert from Germany, said that she understood the difficulties the country had encountered in drafting its reports. She hoped that the Committees comments would be a tool of assistance to the Government in its future efforts to advance the equality of women. She also encouraged the country to seek international assistance in the implementation of the Convention. Insisting that article 4 on the acceleration of equality between men and women provided an instrument for achieving substantive equality, she asked if the Committees general recommendation adopted last year had been discussed in the Womens Union. She also expressed appreciation for the fact that a quota had been established in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic for womens participation in the National Assembly. She wanted to know if any of the 21 women in the Assembly belonged to national minorities. Also, what were the benchmarks for representation in the new strategic plan? Was the country also creating support measures to improve womens participation?
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, an expert from Malaysia, focused on the cultural stereotypes, which had a strong influence on the lives of the people in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. She wanted to know more about the programmes being implemented in the country to overcome gender stereotypes. Entrenched perceptions of rights, power and leadership were very difficult to overcome. Strong embedded notions validated male leadership and authority in the country. For example, the notion of mens role as heads of household played a role in the situation as far as land titles were concerned. In Laos, men represented the family in society. According to the countrys reports, heads of local councils were elected democratically by heads of households. That was not a democratic election process. She wanted to know what was being done to raise public consciousness in the country. How were the Governments efforts impacting on the situation of women in that regard?
KRISZTINA MORVAI, an expert from Hungary, said that one of the most shocking stereotypes worldwide was that women were supposed to serve uncontrollable sexual urges of men. From the countrys report, it appeared that marital rape was not criminalized in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. That was wrong, and the country needed to reconsider its legislation, recognizing that it was not in harmony with the Convention.
It was also heartbreaking that so many girls and women were involved in prostitution in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, she continued. There seemed to be a certain helplessness on behalf of the Government, which did not know how to tackle the problem. Lao girls and women were exploited and abused, largely by sex tourists from industrialized countries, including Sweden, joined by several North European countries, and the United States. The Governments of those countries had a duty to assist Laos in tackling the problem, and the country should demand such assistance. Those countries enthusiastically fought against trafficking, but accepted the existence of prostitution. However, a human being should never be bought and sold as a commodity. It was important to emphasize that prostitution and trafficking went hand in hand. Prostitutes were victims of exploitation, and clients needed to be held accountable.
XIAOQIAO ZOU, an expert from China, said that the country had frankly referred to the problems it had encountered in the implementation of the Convention. Deeply rooted stereotypes of the inferiority of women and other prejudices existed in all fields and had a negative impact on the situation of women in the country. Reference was made in the report to the fact that violent behaviour between spouses is perceived as fairly normal. According to a survey of young people, some 53.4 per cent of young people agreed that it is all right for a man to hit his wife if she makes a mistake. What was the Government doing to counter such attitudes? That was not an easy undertaking, and she looked forward to seeing concrete actions to address the problem in the countrys next report.
Responding to experts questions, one member of the delegation noted that public opinion had been sought in drafting the Constitution. The prevailing view was the right of men and women to equal rights. Forty years ago, one could say that the husband was the head of the household. The current family law, however, stipulated that it was up to the husband and wife to decide who would lead the family. There was no argument on that question. It was incumbent on the husband and wife to sort out any family problems.
The issue of marital rape was totally new, he said. Lao legislation did not include punishment for marital rape or violence. While improvements to the criminal code had been carried out three years ago, the issue was still pending. On the issue of wife beating, he said he could not understand why that had been mentioned in the report, as it was incomprehensible to him. It must have been the perception of the expert who had drafted the report. While some minor incidents might occur, in general, Lao society did not tolerate the use of violence against wives. It was not the habit in Lao society for husbands to beat their wives.
Sex tourism and prostitution were creating problems for the country, he said. In that regard, the Government had adopted measures to tackle the problem. Countries along the Mekong River were heavily affected by the scourge of trafficking and prostitution, and cities were most affected. Assistance and cooperation were needed from various countries to address the issue.
Ms. BOUPHANOUVONG noted that the National Strategy had five major goals. The various sectors of the Government were responsible for implementing the strategies in their areas of expertise. The overall implementation of the National Strategy was indeed the Governments duty.
Addressing the issue of trafficking, violence and prostitution, she said the country had experienced some instances of domestic violence in society. It was not a major event, however. The Lao Womens Union had done everything possible to protect womens interests against trafficking and prostitution. Given the different levels of economic development among the countries of the region, the movement of illegal labour forces was a problem which her country also faced. In light of the current situation, the Government had taken measures to cope with the scourge. A commission to fight against trafficking had recently been established under the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. A mechanism to assist and protect victims of trafficking and prostitution was currently being created.
Experts Comments and Questions
DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, an expert from Ghana, pointed to several groups of women who had become most vulnerable to people traffickers, including women from the interior of the country. When relocating, minorities were not provided with sustainable alternatives for maintaining their livelihood, which also made them vulnerable. What was the Government doing to address those peoples poverty? As part of the Governments efforts to deal with the problem of trafficking, the documents before the Committee mentioned a subregional project initiated together with several other countries. What were the results of that initiative? What follow-up was being implemented?
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, an expert from France, said that the Committee was aware of the countrys problems, and she hoped the dialogue beginning today would be useful to the Government. Removal of discrimination was not only necessary, but also useful for development.
Violence against women was present in many countries, she continued, but it was often hidden, for most of it took place in the home. The report of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic referred to the fact that its criminal law did not specifically address domestic violence, but stated that exemption from penal liabilities might be granted in cases of physical violence between close relatives without serious injuries or physical damage. She asked for clarification in that regard and wanted to know if the provisions allowing for exoneration from liability if abuse took place in the family had been removed. If not, it was not in conformity with the Convention. Had awareness-raising campaigns been initiated to encourage women to make complaints? Was training provided to staff, particularly in the police force?
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, an expert from Portugal, said, although trafficking was recognized as a serious problem, it had not been really researched by the Government. Prostitution in Laos was illegal, and the punishment was exactly the same for the prostitutes themselves and those facilitating and assisting prostitution. No punishment was envisioned for clients, however. Indeed, it was difficult to build an ideal world, but couldnt the Government do more to address the dramatic situation as far as trafficking and prostitution were concerned? The majority of women involved in prostitution were under 18. Many women were also subjected to economic exploitation as domestic servants in conditions close to slavery.
She stressed that concrete measures were needed to increase the economic welfare of the population and punish procurers and traffickers in people. The problem could not be solved with just creating employment opportunities, and she urged the Government to seriously address the situation. In the reports, there were references to difficulties and the need to devote time to the most pressing tasks, almost as if those difficulties were an excuse for not moving faster for the advancement of women. Womens rights were part of the problem that the country was going through, but they were also part of the solution.
A country representative said that the Government had been paying serious attention to the problem of poverty within the country. A time frame had been set to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2010 and eliminate the problem by 2020.
He also said that the country was involved in subregional efforts to cooperate in the fight against human trafficking, including trafficking in women. The problem could not be solved overnight, however. Recently, 10 human traffickers had been arrested. That was a good starting point.
Regarding the absence of punishment for violence within the home, he said that the article in question had not been removed. Of course, we cannot punish people if there are no serious injuries during a family dispute or violence among close relatives, he said. That did not mean that such actions were not an offence. Before prosecution of the offender, the injured person had to lodge a complaint before the court. Without such a complaint, the judiciary could not sentence the offender.
As for the advocacy campaigns against the use of domestic violence, the Government attached importance to minimizing the problem. That was an important issue that required a radical solution. Recently, a law had been adopted on the prevention of domestic violence. State agencies and organizations were involved in activities to tackle the problem. So far, no research had been undertaken on the prevention of domestic violence, but it was a good idea.
Legally speaking, prostitution was illegal, another country representative said. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic shared a border with Thailand, which was a more economically developed country. His country had launched awareness campaigns and had carried out vocational training projects. The problem would not be solved overnight, and the Government would continue its efforts to address it.
Another member of the delegation said the Government had done much to improve the situation of rural women and girls.
Experts Comments and Questions
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, an expert from Algeria, noted that the country had suffered from the effects of occupation and colonization for many years. The countrys ratification of the Convention in 1981 reflected its desire to recognize the role of women in the process of decolonization. Women must be appointed in all areas of national politics, in the Government and in the Parliament, and also at the local level. Whenever the Government had the opportunity of making an appointment, it should do so in the light of achieving gender equality. When appointed to positions of authority, women became role models and could best deal with family matters. It was the countrys duty to ask international agencies to help.
VICTORIA POPESCU, an expert from Romania, noted with satisfaction that the National Strategy for 2005-2010 included in its five major goals the objective of increasing womens representation in decision-making positions. Involving women in public life was extremely important, as was their direct participation in all decisions of government policies. It was obvious that women encountered many difficulties, including high illiteracy rates and backward traditions. The issue of low self-esteem of Lao women was serious and should be addressed both at the grass-roots and government levels. In that regard, what concrete measures had the Government and the Lao Womens Union taken to address to facilitate womens aspirations in public life, particularly at the local level? She asked for concrete examples in the National Strategy.
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, said the participation of women in decision-making positions was very strategic for a country and not just for womens rights. As a result of a presidential decree, the percentage of women in the National Assembly was 21 per cent. What was the content of that decree and would the quota be increased?
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, noted that the participation of women in political life was not only low, but had, in some cases, also stagnated. Leadership positions in the party had been the same since the 1980s. Among 8,000 village chiefs, 88 were women. The report stated the difficulties facing the country, but when it came to solutions, it referred to the Womens Union -- a mass organization entrusted with executing certain policies. What about the responsibility of the State to guarantee womens effective participation through legal measures or political directives? She hoped the new Commission would consider that issue.
A country representative thanked the experts for their concern about the situation of women in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. The Government had done its utmost to promote the participation of women at all levels of public administration and formulation of national policies in that respect. The country was not just talking about the difficulties -- it had gone through a difficult period of foreign occupation, and its level of development was still low. Lao women were also still facing many difficulties due to entrenched stereotypes. The Government attached great importance to the advancement of women at all levels. However, when compared with men, the level of knowledge and education of Lao women was lower. Their understanding of their role in society was also limited.
The Government guaranteed gender equality, but it was also important to understand the mentality of Lao women, who believed that they had only a secondary role to play. That was a legacy of the old regime. Only after the establishment of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic had the Government begun its efforts to raise the role and self-esteem of the women. Women still felt inferior to men. It was important to educate the population and advocate gender equality in the country. Lao womens unions played an important role in that regard. First and foremost, it was important to improve the education of women in the country. Once economically self-sufficient, they would find it easier to achieve equality.
Another speaker added that the Governments policy on womens participation was beginning to show results. Provided women and men had equal competence, the Government would promote women. However, not satisfied with the current status quo, the Government had initiated a strategy for the advancement of women. It was also trying to raise the proportion of women involved in public administration.
Experts Comments and Questions
Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, addressed the issue of education, noting that the countrys illiteracy rate was still very high. Why had the Government decided to postpone the implementation of compulsory primary education?
Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said he shared the same concern about the decision to postpone the full implementation of compulsory education until 2010. In that regard, the Committee on the Rights of the Child had recommended that the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic continue to request further international assistance in order to ensure that most fundamental right.
Ms. SIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, noted that while the right to education was guaranteed by the Constitution, discrimination continued and there was no prohibition against it. It was important that constitutional rights be protected. Some minority groups had a very large number of uneducated girls. What was the Government doing to increase the number of minority girls receiving education and what was it doing to change negative stereotype in school textbooks?
Responding to the questions, a country representative said the economic difficulties facing the country had affected its capacity in the field of education. The Government had studied the issue and acknowledged the low literacy rates among women in rural areas. However, building schools in rural areas was difficult.
Education was essential to promoting the enhancement of women, another member of the delegation said. The ability to translate womens rights into reality was linked to the countrys economy. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was a multiethnic country with some 80 per cent of its population living in remote rural areas. Overcoming stereotypes required education, but without money education was difficult.
Stressing the need for women to gain access to education on an equal footing with men, another speaker noted that, in the past, women had been seen as caretakers of the family, confined to the family home. The countrys overall situation was very poor. Schools were not being built in every corner of the country, and many parents could not afford to send their children to school. That problem needed to be addressed and the Lao Womens Union would focus on that issue. Education was a major contributor to healthy national development.
Experts Comments and Questions
Ms. SHANTHI DAIRIAM, an expert from Malaysia, noted that market reform had led to the promotion of small enterprises and the diversification of the countrys economy. Stressing the importance of ensuring that women benefited from those newly-introduced measures, she asked what was being done to improve womens access to technology, to develop their skills and to increase their capacity. How were labour disputes settled?
SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, expressed concern that while some 90 per cent of women participated in the countrys labour force, they were more affected by market changes. From the report, it looked as though women were mostly being exploited as cheap labour as they occupied only 10 per cent of managerial positions. More information should be provided on such issues as wage discrimination, social security and job structure. What was the situation of women in government positions and what were their domestic responsibilities? With the prevailing gender stereotypes and womens high participation in the labour market, they seemed to be excessively burdened with domestic and work responsibilities.
PRAMILA PATTEN, an expert from Mauritius, said that, as a vital economic resource, women should be provided with more access to credit, training and financing. Were they benefiting from multilateral support through international organizations? She also asked about womens employment in civil service positions, the impact of traditional practices on womens employment and such acts of discrimination as refusal of employment and dismissal as a result of pregnancy.
Members of the delegation said that the Government encouraged womens participation in the national economy and, in fact, it would be impossible to execute the national strategy for poverty eradication without their participation. A recent decree by the Prime Minister sought to foster the development of small and medium enterprises for women, who, according to a national survey, owned more than 60 per cent of such businesses. However, women entrepreneurs showed a significantly lower education level and efforts were being made to provide training for them and to improve their access to banking services and facilities. Outside agriculture, government service was the second largest employment avenue for women.
The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic was a party to the relevant International Labour Organization (ILO) convention, according to the delegation. The Womens Union had collaborated with many international organizations, including the International Labour Organization, to promote womens economic activities and employment chances. In particular, it had established cooperation with other countries and international organizations to implement women-related projects as far as the eradication of poverty and development were concerned. The Government emphasized the importance of a policy to advance more women in the public administration. As a first step regarding the advancement of women in local-level administration, a survey had been suggested with regard to the training, skills levels, participation and retention rates of women.
On the resolution of employment conflicts, the delegation said that, as a first step, the two parties had to seek a settlement with the assistance of trade unions. If the dispute could not be resolved, it could be brought before the labour courts.
Experts Comments and Questions
Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, noted that while the Government had made efforts to increase the number of medical personnel and facilities, the health system was characterized by low access and limited efficiency in services. The gap in services between the urban and rural areas was quite high and some 70 per cent of rural families had only limited access to health care. Rural populations sometimes turned to village elders to address health-related issues. Had the Government considered providing basic training to elders so that they could provide basic health information and services to their communities?
The report also noted that girls were marrying and having children at a younger age, she said. What steps were being taken to address that issue? Even though the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate was relatively low compared to neighbouring countries, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic should not be complacent given that it was opening up its economy and, in light of such issues as trafficking in girls, the high-risk activities of men, and the limited ability of women to negotiate safe sex practices. What steps were being taken to reduce the risk factors for women?
Ms. KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, noting that the country was surrounded by neighbours with a high HIV/AIDS rate, said that women now represented the new face of the HIV epidemic in South-East Asia. The factors for that new reality existed also in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) had suggested that all AIDS programme include a womens empowerment approach in national programmes. Were women included in the national programme, and how many were participating at the decision-making level? The countrys high fertility rate -- one of the highest in the region -- was a real concern. What kind of family planning methods were being made available to rural women, particularly to ethnic minority groups?
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, noted that the rural population faced extraordinary barriers to good health due to severe poverty and food insecurity. The Government should intensify its efforts to tap international aid to improve the nutritional status of girls and women. What was it doing to address attitudes, and what measures were being taken to ensure access to health-care services, sanitation and safe water? Of particular concern were adolescent girls. To what extent were efforts being made to ensure they had access to health and nutritional services? Given the large rural population, what was the Government doing to reduce environmental hazards in poor areas? What services had been put in place to address the special health needs of older women and those with disabilities?
A member of the delegation agreeing that maternal and infant mortality rates were high, noted that while the fertility rate of 4.9 was high, compared to 7, the rate had declined. The Lao Womens Union, in collaboration with government agencies and with foreign assistance, had carried out many programmes to safeguard womens maternal health through education and counselling. The Government had established a national committee on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and the Union was participating in that committee. The reason for the high infant mortality rate was that women gave birth to many children. Everything possible was being done to encourage women to give birth in hospitals and the Union had launched a campaign to raise awareness among both men and women on birth spacing and reproductive health. Given the low level of womens education, negotiating with the husband on birth spacing was difficult. The Government had adopted a law on family development to highlight the importance of communication between husbands and wives and to promote womens participation in all national development policies.
Experts Comments and Questions
As the Committee turned to the situation of rural women, HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, an expert from Benin, noted that discrimination against rural women was quite significant. For instance, most land, although representing the common property of a husband and wife, was routinely registered in the mans name. It was important to focus on the effective application of the land property code.
ANAMAH TAN, an expert from Singapore, said that given the high level of illiteracy and large rural population, the issues of access to sustainable water sources and sanitation became very important. How would the country accomplish the targets of the 20/20 initiative in that regard? Regarding land rights, what percentage of women held land titles in the nine provinces where land was granted to women?
Ms. XIAOQIAO, expert from China, noted that in 1997 and 1998, the population of poor people constituted some 79 per cent of the total and poverty ratios were higher in rural areas. Had the Government initiated any projects to help rural women, and what were the targets in that respect? It had also been reported that the Lao Womens Union had carried out some projects to eliminate poverty among rural women. What percentage of women had graduated from poverty as a result?
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, echoed other experts concerns about land titles, saying she would like to see the results of the reissuance of land titles in the next report. Her second concern related to the heavy workload of rural women, who produced more than half of all agricultural produce while also busy with heavy household chores. What was the Government doing to change such unfair practices in terms of the division of labour? Were there any programmes to educate men on sharing the workload? With the development of agricultural machinery, were women given a chance to learn how to use machines? Women were underrepresented in village-level decision-making.
Ms. MORVAI, expert from Hungary, said that, as a criminal lawyer, she was worried about the fact that about 70 per cent of opium in the country was produced by women. Were there any dangers for women who worked in opium production, for example from organized crime groups? Should the country ask for international assistance in its efforts to combat drug production and trafficking? Toxic chemical contamination of the soil and water was also a matter of concern.
Ms. SCHOPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, wanted to know if any re-registering of titles in womens names had already taken place in the nine provinces mentioned by the delegation. Had there been any opposition from their husbands?
Noting that there had been about 15,000 rural women working in the international garment industry in 1996, she asked about their working conditions. Yet, another source of concern was the construction of international roadways. Did it represent a danger from the point of view of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and what was being done in terms of prevention?
GLENDA P. SIMMS, an expert from Jamaica, recalled that when speaking about the relocation of rural people from mountain regions to the plains, country representatives had seemed to justify it in terms of the countrys economic hardships. However, from the point of view of women, relocation was more than a response to mosquito bites. Women had a strong spiritual link to the land, which should never be underrated, particularly in developing countries. As for the limitations of education opportunities, distance education should be used to bring literacy to rural people. The rich resources of mountain areas should also be tapped.
On the land title issue, a member of the delegation explained that land had in the past been registered in the husbands name. Today, that situation had changed and the land titling commission had acknowledged shortcomings in the system. Lao women had been educated on the land titling process. According to Lao law, common marriage assets had to be registered under the names of both husband and wife.
Regarding opium production, another delegation member said it involved mostly one ethnic group, the Hmong. Living mainly in the highlands, they had cultivated opium for many years. According to their custom, the women did the work. Regarding the relocation of rural people to the plains, he said people were not forced to leave, but encouraged to come down from the highlands. Some, once they moved to the lowlands, did not want to return to the mountains. It was a difficult situation and the Government would assess the many views it had received in that regard and arrive at the most appropriate solution.
Another delegation member said the Government was carrying out many projects to free the country from underdevelopment and the Lao Womens Union was coordinating with various ministries on those projects. The approach had been to incorporate the eradication of illiteracy into other development projects. On the issue of heavy work, stereotypes meant that even small girls were left to carry water. That was why the Government had begun to install water pumps and rice mills. In the past, men watched television, drank alcohol and let the women do the work. Regarding opium cultivation, the report had been written many years ago, at a time when there had been an active cultivation and production operation. The Government had enacted a policy to eradicate opium production and had counselled about its dangers.
Regarding the protection of women working in Government factories, the delegation said the Lao Womens Union worked with the national chamber of commerce to ensure that the law on the protection and development of women was observed. On the issue of land titling, the Lao Womens Union was responsible for educating both women and men on the importance of land titles. In the past, women had not cared about land titles, but today they were aware of their rights and responsibilities.
Experts Comments and Questions
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, noted that while the marriage age had bee 18, it had been lowered to 15 in special and necessary cases. What were those cases? On the issue of domestic violence, she said that, while she was happy that wife beating was not a common practice, perhaps violence in the home was not being reported. She requested that the matter be examined so as to assess the reality of the situation.
Ms. BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, said with regard to early marriages in rural areas, that efforts in that regard did not seem adequate. In what cases was reducing the marriage to 15 justified? She also raised the issue of dowry, noting that several ethnic groups practised it. That discriminatory practice should be questioned.
Responding to the latest round of questions, members of the delegation said that the age of marriage had been set at 18, but in special cases, including pregnancy, it could be lowered to 15. In an effort to educate the population, information about early marriages had been included in the educational curricula.
Regarding domestic violence, it was considered to be a shame to physically abuse members of ones family and such practices were not accepted. That was clearly stipulated in the law on the protection and development of women.
On dowry, the Committee heard that it had lost its financial significance and was now more of a symbolic gesture. By giving the dowry, the groom contributed to the family, thanking its members for the brides upbringing. The dowry also signified acceptance of the groom by the brides family. If the dowry was high, it did not mean that the bride was to be subordinate to the husband. The elders from both sides negotiated the dowry when making arrangements for the wedding, the costs of which were shared by both sides.
On land titling, a country representative said it was a matter of education and trust. The issue had been resolved and from now on, communal property would be registered in both spouses names.
ROSARIO MANALO, Chairperson of the Committee and an expert from the Philippines, said the Lao Government would be receiving the Committees recommendations and conclusions in due course.
On behalf of the delegation, Ms. BOUPHANOUVONG thanked the experts, saying their input had been of great significance to the country, which expected to learn important lessons from the exchange.
Concluding Comments by Experts
SILVIA PIMENTEL, an expert from Brazil, raising the question of prostitution, said in her own country only the exploitation of prostitution was criminalized rather than prostitution itself. Prostitutes should never be criminalized as they were victims of an unfair economy. The only thing that should be criminalized was exploitation and trafficking. There should be a legal provision in the Criminal Code on that question. While policies were needed, they should not be punitive.
Ms. POPESCU, expert from Romania, said the Committee was well aware of the serious difficulties facing the country, including those resulting from its colonial inheritance. However, the current situation should not be considered an excuse for tolerating any form of discrimination against women. The Government bore the primary responsibility for taking all necessary measures to design and implement specific policies for the advancement of women. No one expected the impossible, but the Government should continue to take concrete measures to help its women. It should make greater use of the assistance provided by the United Nations and its agencies.
* *** *