24 July 2009
General Assembly
WOM/1743

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

Chamber A, 892nd & 893rd Meetings (AM & PM)


LAO PEOPLE’S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC BOASTS NEW LEGISLATION, MACHINERY TO IMPROVE


WOMEN’S LOT, BUT EXPERT COMMITTEE FAULTS RAPE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE POLICIES


As delegates from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic shed light today on recent legislation and programmes to improve the lot of women in their country, they faced criticism from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women over Government policies to address rape and domestic violence.


Since its inception five years ago, the National Commission for the Advancement of Women had drafted the 2006-2010 National Policy for the Advancement of Women to promote and protect women’s rights and remove obstacles to women’s empowerment and full participation in national development, said Somsavad Lengsavat, Standing Deputy Prime Minister and National Commission President.  


Presenting his country’s combined sixth and seventh periodic report to the expert Committee that monitors compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Mr. Lengsavat, who headed the 12-member Lao delegation, said lawmakers had criminalized discrimination against women and revised the Law on the Development and Protection of Women to ensure gender equality and conformity with the women’s Convention. 


The Government had also set up women parliamentary groups to give female lawmakers a greater say in drafting legislation and in scrutinizing the Government’s implementation of national development plans and the courts’ enforcement of gender equality laws, he said.  In partnership with the Lao Women’s Union, the Government was working to erase entrenched gender stereotypes, particularly in remote, mountainous areas, through counselling and job training programmes for women, educational campaigns and health-care services.


While noting those steps, several Committee experts expressed alarm over the Government’s treatment of women victims of rape and domestic violence, saying the definition of rape in the country was too narrow and victims were not receiving the comprehensive legal, physical and psychological support they needed.  Some experts implored the delegation to reform rape laws to include marital rape, and questioned Government statistics that reported just three cases of men raping their daughters in the last three years.


Responding to those concerns, delegates said women victims had the right to seek legal protection and file complaints with the Prosecutor’s Office, and the Government had set up legal aid and counselling centres to assist them.  The Lao Women’s Union served as a focal point, while the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office provided legal support to victims of domestic violence.  In addition, mediation units in local villages aimed to settle domestic violence disputes out of court.  Those victims, however, often returned to their abusers out of economic necessity, a phenomenon the Government was trying to address through job training and capacity-building programmes.


The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m., on Monday, 27 July, to consider Switzerland’s third periodic report.


Background


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) met today to consider the combined sixth and seventh periodic reports of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (document CEDAW/C/LAO/7).


The Lao delegation was headed by Somsavad Lengsavat, Standing Deputy Prime Minister and President, National Commission for the Advancement of Women (NCAW); and also included Sysay Leudedmounsone, President, Lao Women’s Union, and Standing Vice President, NCAW; Sengdeuane Lachanthaboune, Deputy Minister of Education, and Vice President, NCAW; Ket Kiettisak, Deputy Minister of Justice; Hiem Phommachanh, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; Laoly Faiphengyoa, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Welfare; Khamhoung Heuangvongsy, Deputy Minister of Health; Kanika Phommachanh, Permanent Representative of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to the United Nations; Chanhdy Pankeo, Director, Secretariat, NCAW; Chansoda Phonethip, Deputy Director, Secretariat, NCAW; Kingmano Phommahaxay, Secretary of Standing Deputy Prime Minister; Songkane Luangmuninthone, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.


Introduction of Report


Presenting the reports to the Committee, which monitors States parties’ compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Mr. LENGSAVAT said his country adopted the 2006-2010 National Policy on Women’s Empowerment aimed at promoting and protecting the legitimate rights of Lao women, creating favourable conditions for their full participation in national development, removing obstacles to women’s advancement, and ensuring  that women benefited from Government strategies and programmes.  The Government had revised the criminal law to stipulate that discrimination against women was a criminal act, and it had continuously integrated provisions of the Convention into the country’s Constitution, as well as enacted and revised laws to ensure gender equality and conformity with the Convention, particularly the Law on the Development and Protection of Women. 


He said that the Government had set up women parliamentary groups to strengthen female parliamentarians’ active contribution in drafting legislation and scrutinizing the Government’s work, especially as it concerned follow-up to implementing the National Socio-economic Development Plan, adopted by the National Assembly, and monitoring the work of the People’s Court and People’s Prosecutor Office on enforcing the Law on the Development and Protection of Women’s Rights.  Since its inception five years ago, the National Commission for the Advancement of Women had drafted the 2006-2010 National Policy for the Advancement of Women and then allocated Government funding and foreign technical and financial assistance to implement it.  The National Commission also served as a focal point for gender mainstreaming, gender equality and eliminating discrimination against women.


In addition, the National Commission had established affiliations in governmental agencies and local administration, carried out awareness campaigns and strengthened their capacity to implement the national women’s advancement strategy, he said.  It had carried out vigorous mass media campaigns, as well as workshops with local Government officials to spread awareness about human rights treaties and women’s rights’ action plans.  The Lao Women’s Union strived to achieve good citizenship, good development and a happy family life for women by focusing on gender equality and eradication of domestic violence.  It had counselling and job training programmes for women to end poverty, coordinated consultations with multiple stakeholders to implement the Law on the Development and Protection of Women, and worked to attract financial and technical assistance.


The Government was working to end gender stereotypes at home as well as in school and the workplace, he said.  Although it was difficult to devise regulations that could dramatically alter such stereotypes in a short period of time, the Government had been able to eliminate discrimination against women in legal terms and at different Government institutions.  Some inappropriate gender practices still existed in poor, remote areas.  To tackle them, the Government had linked gender policy and women’s advancement with the National Poverty Eradication Strategy, setting up villages with sound health services, promoting development and rooting out crime. 


Turning to human trafficking, he said that most victims were from poor farm families.  Sixty per cent were young girls between the ages of 12 and 16.  Seeking employment in urban areas, they were coerced into prostitution.  The country’s criminal law had imposed various types of penalties on perpetrators, with the most severe being the death penalty or life imprisonment, along with a fine of between 500 million and 1 billion kip and forfeiture of all assets for killing or permanently disabling the victim or infecting the victim with HIV/AIDS.


Gender equality was gradually being achieved in the country, he said.  The Government had implemented a policy of solidarity and equality among the country’s various ethnic groups.  The Party Central Committee -- the ruling party -- had 55 members, of which four were women.  Four of the country’s 32 Ministers were women, versus just one when the country last reported to the Committee.  There were 29 women parliamentarians of the 115-member National Assembly.  There were two female ambassadors and one female consul general.


The Government had set up the Promotional Education Centre for Women, Ethnic People and People with Disabilities to carry out the Ministry of Education’s policy on justice and equality for those groups, he said.  The goal was to narrow the education gap between urban and rural areas and to achieve universal compulsory education by 2015.  To ensure equal access to health-care services for people of different ethnicities, the Government had set up a technical team to address family planning, maternal health, children’s health and nutritional concerns.  The Ministry of Health conducted training for medical personnel to support prenatal services nationwide. 


To ensure gender equality in the workplace, the Law on the Development and Protection of Women stipulated that women had the right to be involved in legal activities in manufacturing, business and services, as well as the right to choose their profession and to receive bonuses and work incentives, he said.  The Labour Law prohibited employers from terminating work contracts of pregnant women or forcing pregnant employees to resign.  The Government had made it a priority to increase women’s enrolment in technical and vocational schools.  The Lao Women’s Union had set up vocational schools exclusively for women.  As the Government carried out economic reform at a time when the country was suffering the impact of the global economic crisis, it had instructed the Ministry of Labour, Lao Women’s Union, Ministry of Education and other agencies to diligently implement the Labour Law and the Law on the Development and Protection of Women, and to ensure them regular employment and labour skills development.  The goal was to raise women’s efficiency in the workplace and improve women’s living conditions.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said he was still not clear about the status of the Convention in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.  Could its provisions be invoked in domestic courts?  What obstacles existed to amend the Law on the Development and Protection of Women to include the definition of discrimination?  What is the exact scope of that law?  Did it govern the private sector?  Did it provide for temporary special measures? 


VICTORIA POPESCU, expert from Romania, asked how the Government managed efficient and effective coordination of the various local and line-ministry subcommissions addressing women’s issues.  What was the relationship between the Lao Women’s Union and other associations and organizations aimed at advancing women’s rights and empowerment?  She asked for concrete examples of how the national socio-economic development plan and the National Policy for Women’s Empowerment had been successful in the last three years, as indicated in Mr. Lengsavat’s statement.  Also, did the National Poverty Eradication Strategy have a gender dimension?


YOKO HAYASHI, expert from Japan, asked about capacity-building measures for female political candidates.  Had the Government approached political parties so that they would increase the number of female candidates? 


RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, criticized the lack of statistics in the country report and the delegation’s answers to the Committee’s questions on gender-based violence against women.  There was not enough concrete data on the number of trials or charges against the perpetrators or programmes to sensitize police officers and the judiciary about the problem and shelters to assist the battered women.  The definition of rape was extremely narrow and should be amended to include all cases in which women were forced to have sex against their will, including marital rape. 


FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, asked about provisions in the 2004 Penal Code to protect women victims of violence and bring offenders to justice.  What services were provided to victims of gender violence in terms of health, education and awareness of their legal rights, particularly for women in rural, mountainous areas?  Were shelters for victims adequate in terms of services? 


SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked what the Lao Government could do in collaboration with the Thai Government to prevent and end trafficking of women and girls.  Had the Lao Government conducted research about girls being trafficked to China?  How was the country working with the Chinese Government and other countries in the region in that regard?


Country Response


A delegate said domestic laws, such as the Law on Development and Protection of Women, the Family Law and the Heritage Law, were in line with the Convention.  The Law on Development and Protection of Women extended to the private sector.  Women victims of violence did have the right to seek legal protection, and the Government had an office that provided legal and counselling services.  The country’s women’s network also offered legal services to help female victims.


The Government was distributing information on the Convention to better inform women about their rights.  It had held a series of consultations and workshops with the Lao Women’s Union to target the needs of women of ethnic minorities and women in rural, mountainous areas.  The Government had set up the Lao Businesswomen’s Group and it was coordinating with other stakeholders to protect women’s rights.  The maternal mortality rate was declining.


The Government was doing its utmost to involve as many women candidates as possible in the National Assembly, she said.  It had a training programme for potential women candidates, and the number of women candidates had increased.  The Lao Women’s Union had set up programmes to help women compete in the workplace and be better citizens.  The Government and the Lao Women’s Union had introduced local measures to erase gender stereotypes, create equal opportunity within families for boys and girls, and better balance responsibilities in the home between the sexes.


She acknowledged the existence of domestic violence in the country, explaining it had classified the phenomenon into two categories –- one not harmful and the other, harmful.  The Government had set up counselling centres for women victims.  From 2006 to 2009, there were 400 registered cases of domestic violence, most of which were not considered very serious.  They involved yelling or scolding.  There were only three cases in which fathers had raped their daughters.  The Lao Women’s Union served as a focal point, while the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office provided legal support.


Concerning discrimination against women, another delegate said the National Assembly was charged with monitoring and overseeing implementation of laws and regulations.  There was no instance of prosecution of gender-based violence offenders, but whenever there was a breach, the Government would certainly prosecute aggressors in line with criminal law.  The Foreign Affairs Ministry had been mandated to study the country’s prospects of signing the Optional Protocol to the Convention.  The association of domestic non-governmental organizations shared the same ideology as the Lao Women’s Union.  Regarding whether criminal law was adequate to reduce domestic violence, he said education and sensitization programmes were used to curb violence, while criminal measures were a last resort. 


Another delegate said a specific Government committee, comprising representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office, Labour and Welfare Ministry, Justice Ministry, Ministry of Public Security and the National Commission’s secretariat, had a mandate to end trafficking in women.  There were sensitization programmes for law enforcement officers and attorneys in that regard.  Trafficking of girls and women had decreased, owing to cooperation measures and memorandums of understanding between the Lao and Thai Governments.  But there was often complicity among Government officials, including among border officers, on trafficking.


Another delegate said women victims of domestic violence often returned to their abusers after leaving them, due to economic necessity.  The Government was trying to address that through job training and capacity-building programmes for victims.  Regarding the criticism that the definition of rape was too narrow, he said according to article 128 of the criminal law, sexual intercourse without the consent of the woman was considered to be an act of rape.  Regarding marital rape, the Government had studied the issue, and he took note of the Committee’s concern.


Another delegate said the Government provided assistance to victims of trafficking for sexual and commercial exploitation, including male victims, but funding was limited.  In some cases, families of the victims were relied on to rehabilitate them.  The Lao Women’s Union played a critical role in that regard.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, said education and sensitization programmes to erase gender stereotypes must be carried out simultaneously to end violence against women.  The delegation had said there were only three cases of fathers raping their daughters.  But the phenomenon of men raping their daughters was prevalent worldwide.  She also implored the delegation to answer her question about gender stereotyping in certain ethnic groups, particularly the practice of raping girls before puberty.


Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said he still lacked a clear picture of the status of the Convention.  The general prohibition of discrimination against women was not sufficient to end it.  The Government must narrow that down to specific forms of discrimination against women, which must be criminalized.


Ms. POPESCU, expert from Romania, asked the delegation to clarify the two classifications of domestic violence as harmful and not harmful, stressing that the Committee believed that all forms of domestic violence were harmful.


Country Response


A delegate said that in the past three years, the Prosecutor’s Office had only received three complaints of men raping their daughters.  The Lao Women’s Union worked closely with the Prosecutor’s Office, and to the best of the delegation’s knowledge, no other complaints had been filed.  The rape of ethnic women prior to reaching puberty had been a problem in the past, but no cases had been filed in recent years.  In fact, the Lao Women’s Union had dispatched members to conduct surveys about that, and no cases of complaints had been filed with them.  Women had the right to lodge complaints with the Prosecutor’s Office if they were denied access to health-care services.  Regarding whether the Lao Women’s Union had specific activities for ethnic women, she said income-generating programmes were provided regardless of ethnicity.


According to the Law on the Development and Protection of Women, violence against women was classified in two ways.  One classification concerned violence that was most harmful; the other concerned less harmful violence.  In cases of less violent acts, the relatives of the victim and her aggressor, or the village elders where the victim and the aggressor lived, were tasked with settling the case.  Senior village elders headed mediation units to settle such disputes.   


Another delegate said the forms of domestic violence that were classified as not being harmful were those that were not very serious and did not endanger the victims’ lives.  The Government had set up mediation units in rural areas to handle civil and penal cases of domestic violence and other crimes such as stealing buffalo and other property theft, in order to alleviate the burden of the federal Prosecutor’s Office.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Committee Chairperson, NAELA MOHAMED GABR, expert from Egypt, said the country report did not give clear figures on the number of women in foreign affairs.  Were they administrative staff or career diplomats? 


Ms. POPESCU, expert from Romania, asked for statistics on the number of women working as lawyers, magistrates and in the armed forces.  There were few women ministers and, at just 1.3 per cent, a very low representation of women village chiefs.  As 80 per cent of the population lived in rural areas, it was essential to have adequate women’s representation in local posts.  Who created the mediation units in villages and were women part of them?  Was the Government planning to use temporary special measures to reach the targets it set to increase the percentage of women in Government?


Country Response


A delegate said there were considerable numbers of women in law enforcement, and statistics on that would be included in the next periodic report.  There was one female governor and one female chief of district.  By 2010, the Government should achieve its target for increasing the percentage of women in Government. 


Another delegate said the Female Bar Association had fewer than 10 members, and it was currently trying in earnest to recruit more.  Village mediation units were headed by the chief of the village and representatives of the Lao Women’s Union and the Security Unit.  Women’s representation was indispensable in the mediation units.  Lao citizens could have only one nationality. 


Another delegate said women accounted for two of the country’s 20 foreign ambassadors and one of its five heads of consulate generals.  There was no discrimination against women working in the foreign service. 


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, said marital rape should be criminalized because women were not the property of their husbands.  She implored the delegation to reform its laws in accordance with that belief.


Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked for clarification on the nationality of a child of a Lao woman and a foreign man, taking into account that the country did not allow for dual citizenship.


Country Response


A delegate said the child would get dual citizenship in that case, but that it must choose one of the two nationalities when he or she turned 18.


Another delegate said the definition of rape included any person using force or other means to put a woman in a state of unconsciousness, and thus in a state against her will, and then having sexual intercourse with her.  That definition of rape was not narrow. 


Experts’ Comments and Questions


Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, said she was still unclear about the definition of rape, which according to the country report, did not apply to men who raped their wives.  If that was the case, then the definition of rape was too narrow.


Country Response


A delegate thanked Ms. Halperin-Kaddari for her views.


Experts’ Comments and Questions


DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, asked the delegation to elaborate on the impact of the current financial crisis on the economy, particularly as it concerned textile factory workers, who were largely women.  What was the Government doing to ensure that companies complied with international labour laws and standards and that those women, who were largely from rural areas, were not commercially and sexually exploited?  Gender pay gaps were perceived as normal.  What was the Government doing to increase women’s skills so that they could access higher paying jobs?  What steps had been taken since 2005 in that regard, and what results had been achieved?  She noted the difficult situation in which migrant women lived and their susceptibility to abuse.  When migrants who returned home tested positive for HIV, did they have access to antiretroviral therapies and health-care services? 


Country Response


Concerning education, a delegate said the Ministry of Education had developed an education sector development framework, which had been endorsed by the Ministry’s partners.  It focused on education in poor, rural areas and for ethnic minorities, and recruited teachers to return home to their villages to teach there.  Regarding school feeding programmes, they worked to particularly help girls attend schools.  The Government had set a target for girls to account for half of all students in vocational schools, and it supplied education grants and full scholarships to poor girls wishing to attend.  There was no fee for primary education.  The Government was working to strengthen its sector-performance monitoring and review of the education system.  The 2009 education budget was 15.5 per cent of the federal budget.  The Government aimed to increase that to 18 per cent by 2015. 


On health-care access in rural areas and the budget for maternal health-care services, another delegate said providing access for people in rural areas was a daunting challenge, owing to the country’s vast remote areas and poor transport infrastructure network.  The Government had expanded its outreach campaign on breastfeeding, nutrition, maternal health and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases to rural areas.  At the end of 2008, the Government approved a nutrition policy, and it was now in the process of drafting a nutrition action plan.  There were four bills on health care before the National Assembly. 


The Government had provided more than 5,000 medical kits to villages and it had set up hundreds of medical dispensaries throughout rural areas, he said.  It had also set up a national steering committee to fight HIV/AIDS, in coordination with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which conducted an annual evaluation on HIV/AIDS in the country.  The Health Ministry was doing its utmost to distribute condoms and promote their use, and it had launched an HIV/AIDS-prevention campaign among young people.  Sixty per cent of HIV-infected people nationwide had received proper medical treatment.  There was no discrimination against HIV-infected migrant workers upon their return home.  The health budget, apart from official development assistance (ODA), was 0.32 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) for 2005 and 2006, and 14 per cent of the Government’s total federal budget.  There were microcredit schemes for rural, mountainous people.


Another delegate said prostitution was illegal in the country, but hidden or underground prostitution did exist, owing to the impact of the consumer economy.  To counter that, the Government tried to provide education and employment for everyone.  The legal age for marriage had been raised to 18.


Experts’ Comments and Questions  


Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, asked the delegation to elaborate on the divorce process and the length of divorce proceedings, and whether the practice of penalizing the spouse deemed at fault for a divorce might be eliminated when determining divorce settlements.  What was the definition of joint property in divorce settlements?


Country Response


A village chief could grant a divorce.  If a divorce settlement case was brought to a court, the judge would ask the couple to think it over for three months before granting it to them.  A spouse convicted of adultery only received one third of the joint property in a divorce settlement. 


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