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Being a woman in Laos

Laos is a plural country whose population is composed of 68 ethnic groups according to ethnologists and 47 according to the Lao National Edification Front. This diversity is rich in different cultural practices which can sometimes appear difficult to understand for us Westerners who tend to evaluate situations according to our own social and cultural reference points.

At the heart of these cultures, women occupy a central place in the family system. She manages the family home and more particularly all the household tasks, which gives her a certain power.

Lao women are also very representative of the diversity of their country and it is perhaps wiser to speak of Lao women in the plural. Indeed, what is common or different between women from rural mountain villages such as the Hmong, or the Khamu, and Lao-Thai women from an urban environment?

This work of observation, reflection and comparison is rich in lessons on the functioning of Laotian society in general and on the gender issue in particular.

There are many points of opposition between these women. The cultures are apparently different and the social and economic situatio

ns are at odds. A cultural, social and economic gap that has been widening for several years between the cities and the rural and mountainous areas in the hinterland. The same gap is reproduced within the urban areas.

For example, in Vientiane, two types of female population can be found side by side: on one hand, women who belong to a rising bourgeois class, coming from commerce, administration or university, which gives an image of modernity. On the other hand, migrant women who have come from their villages and are employed as domestic servants (fed and housed but not paid) or who, at best, have precarious jobs in companies, shops or restaurants.

Today, this precarious urban balance between two models of women is accentuated by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. With the appearance of COVID-19 in March 2020 and the closure of many businesses, many young wage earners from rural areas have been forced to leave the city and return to their villages. There, they at least find room and board and help with the work in the fields whenever possible. Those who no longer have any ties with their village of origin or who have been repudiated by their family remain in the city. This is the dramatic case of young single mothers with no resources who now find themselves without any means of subsistence.

However, despite these social, economic and cultural differences between town and countryside and within the town, certain common points emerge which help to position them both in the conquest of their legitimate place and in their servitudes.

The first one is on the religious level. Theravadan Buddhism is spreading throughout the country (around 50%) and is making a link in the population.

Lao women are very religious and follow the numerous Buddhist festivals attentively. Those who are able to do so are willing to spend a lot of time and money on these rituals, which gives them a higher status than women in the mountain areas, who are mostly animist.

Another common point that seems to have contributed to giving an important place to all these women is historical and concerns their participation in the war effort (Vietnam War and the Pathet Lao revolutionary period). Recruitment during this period was done without distinction between boys and girls. Young girls (mostly from urban areas) who became women participated equally with men in the war effort (even though there were more men). They served as informers, activists, caretakers or teachers. They carried rice or transported weapons.

This active participation in the revolution gave them a unique place which was taken into account very early on and led to the creation of a research committee on women's activities, which today has resulted in the current Lao Women's Union. Participation in these events marked a whole generation and served, for a certain number of them, as a social lift. Those who have benefited from it have been able to find themselves in the state services, including in positions of responsibility. They continue to express their ideals of social emancipation and equality between men and women.

The fact remains that these feminist values carried by the revolutionary ideal are more easily identifiable among educated women who are able to express themselves. However, this does not exclude the fact that other women may express their desire for emancipation in other ways. In the villages, young girls participate in collective work on the same basis as boys and are not the last to dig trenches or mix cement.

We can therefore wonder about the social and cultural logics that lead to the evolution of their emancipation. Are they limited to the urban environment or can they also be found in rural areas, even if they are expressed differently? In what way has the development of the market economy over the last ten years or so contributed to the development of these disparities?

Helped economically by China, Laos has invested massively in communication roads and in the construction of dams. After the high-speed train, which should enter into service at the end of 2021, a motorway between VANGVIENG and VIENTIANE has just been opened. The infrastructures therefore mainly benefit urban areas and the risk of increasing inequalities remains high. It still takes several hours of track to reach some mountain villages which still do not have electricity. This is the case, for example, of the village of NAMPHOUAN, which can only be reached at the end of a bad track where we built a magnificent dispensary which still remains without electricity since 2018…

In 2018, the urban population reached 35%. It continues to grow as many young people come to the city in search of work and despite an annual growth rate of 6.25%, the gap between the poorest and the richest is increasing (Index 3.2 for the poorest and 29.80 for the richest).

Therefore, between urban and rural areas, between rich and poor, we must try to understand how this plurality of situations from conception to adulthood organises the social life of Laos today and what role is devolved to women.

This duality between urban and rural areas, between rich and poor, is reflected in what we can understand about women's sexuality and their desire for children or not.

According to a study carried out in a health centre in VIENTIANE in 2008, 26% of young women have had premarital sex and 23% of them have had an abortion. 15% of births occur among adolescents aged 15 to 19, of which 35% are unwanted pregnancies. Meanwhile, 92% of unmarried adolescents under 21 have had sex, including with prostitutes. Young girls are disadvantaged compared to men and are not in a position to demand a condom.

According to another study by the University of Paris Sorbonne, also in 2008, 26.8% of women aged 15-49 have been pregnant and have had at least one abortion. The average number of abortions per woman consulted (interviewed for abortion complications) is 1.7. Some women have experienced up to 10 abortions.

These numbers are for an urban area, in this case VIENTIANE, the capital. Rural areas do not benefit from abortion methods (vacuum aspiration, curettage, Chinese pill) and the majority of them have abortions at home (27.1% in the city). Abortion is therefore used as a means of contraception, even though it is illegal, and sex education and contraceptive courses are not effective.

The birth spacing is 3.7 years. The fertility rate is 2.1 children per mother. Men want more children than women. In urban areas, women who can afford it can give birth in private clinics where they receive better care. In rural areas, the majority of women continue to give birth at home and a long process of educational persuasion has been undertaken to encourage them to give birth at the clinic. When they agree to give birth at the clinic, they do not stay there. They give birth and then go home. The neonatal mortality rate in 2018 is 22 per 1000 and the infant mortality rate in 2008 was 82 per 1000 (prematurity 37%, infections 23%, asphyxia 21%, tetanus 6%, malformations 4%, diarrhoea 3%). This is obviously a national average that hides great disparities. In some isolated villages, families may refrain from reporting mortality to the health authorities.

The pregnant woman continues her activities until she gives birth. She is subject to many dietary prohibitions (eating animals or more generally red flesh). In some ethnic groups, the woman gives birth squatting with the help of her husband. The child does not have a name right away. It is considered "incomplete" and will have to wait for the official ceremony, usually a BACI. Also in some ethnic groups, the placenta may be placed in a basket that is tied to the top of a tree in the forest.

A ritual that brings together women from both urban and rural areas is the practice of fire, which is widespread in Laos. It consists of exposing the woman over a fire that will be fed until the flow of blood stops. This can last from a few days to a month. Several of my urban, educated friends have been subjected to this practice.

The child is loved and treated as such by his parents. He grows up in the affection of his family. The father surrounds his children with the same affection as the mother. It is not uncommon for men to carry their children on their backs as women can. Whenever possible, children participate in the life of the household. They may fetch water from the river or carry their younger sibling. This is more true for girls.

The literacy rate in 2015 for young women over 15 years of age is lower than for young men. It is 79.39% for women and 89.96% for men.

A number of girls stop school at the age of 15 in order to be married. Often by the time the girl has her first period, she is already promised to a boy. Marriage is not seen as an individual matter but as a social and economic act. A girl can be promised to a boy who has not reached puberty. Boys and girls have relative freedom until puberty. Children up to the age of 8 may walk around the village naked.

Men and women often bathe together in the villages. On the day of menstruation, a woman is considered unclean. She cannot have sexual relations with a man. At the end of her period, she takes a purification bath in the river. Homosexuality is not debated. Tender gestures can be observed between two women or two men. Transsexuality in Laos is widely tolerated and accepted as a minority capable of participating in public events such as PI MAI. Only relationships between men and women are considered to be really serious and surrounded by taboos.

In principle, there is no immediate sexual relationship as this would shorten the engagement period. However, the fact that the young woman is pregnant just before the wedding is interpreted in certain ethnic groups as a sign of the spirit's consent. Indeed, the child is recognised as the work of the spirit that enters the body of the man and woman to create a new being.

Some of the numbers mentioned above are old, but still reflect the situation of Lao women, who are caught between tradition and the desire for modernity. The opening up of Laos to the outside world, the development of tourism over the last fifteen years and the use of social networks have all contributed to changing her image. Even young girls in rural areas no longer want to be excluded from a certain modernity. Under the cover of tradition and respect for customs, they know admirably well how to preserve their privacy. In Laos, as in all countries, it is through women that society will continue to evolve towards greater equality and independence.

Jean-Michel COURTOIS

Translated by Maïwenn SWANSON

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