FAMILIES, MEN AND WOMEN IN LAOS

FAMILIES IN LAOS

The Lao have large close-knit families. Often with three generations living together. The eldest man is the patriarch of the family and represents the household at village meetings. The Lao have great respect for parents and elders. The family unit for the Laos is usually a nuclear family but may include grandparents or siblings or other relatives, usually on the wife’s side. The average household has six to eight members. Sometimes two or more families may farm together and share grain in a common granary.

Lowland Lao households average between six and eight persons, but may reach twelve or so in exceptional cases. The family structure is typically nuclear or stem: a married couple and their unmarried children, or an older married couple together with one married child and his or her spouse plus unmarried children and grandchildren. Because kinship is reckoned bilaterally and flexibly, Lao Loum may maintain close social relationships with kin who are only distantly related by blood. Terms of address for persons in an older generation distinguish whether the relationship is through the father's or mother's side and elder from younger siblings. *

The oldest working man in a household makes decisions about rice production and represents the family in temple rituals and villages councils. Kin relationships are defined partly by choice. Siblings and immediate maternal and paternal relatives are recognized by everyone, but more distant relations between uncles, aunts and cousins and so forth are only established if they are pursued. Kin relations are reinforced through sharing goods, swapping labor and participating in family and religious rituals. These relations are defined by gender, relative age ad by side of the family.

Sons and daughter have traditionally received relatively equal shares of the inheritance. The daughter who takes care of the parents and her husband often receive the house after the parents die. Property is often handed over when a child gets married or establishes a household.

In Laos there is no social security or other welfare, such as homes for the elderly provided by the government. However, as our family bonds are strong and everyone in the family helps everyone out it is an important part of our culture to take care of our aging parents and grandparents. This might change in the future because the Lao simple life is slowly being replaced by modern lifestyles and the extended families are gradually being replaced by nuclear ones as people have fewer children these days.

Family Life in Laos

Lao people typically socialise as families, and most live in extended families with three or sometimes more generations sharing one house or compound. The family cooks and eats together sitting on the floor with sticky rice and dishes shared by all. Sometimes when someone pays a visit unexpectedly at meal time we automatically invite them to join us without any hesitation. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The fact that most Lao people were brought up in extended families that required a high level of harmony, kindness, patience and readiness to help each other has made the Lao a generous, kind and soft hearted, tolerant and socialized people. Lao people tend to value privacy less highly than foreigners, partly because it’s a normal way of life in extended families, especially in the countryside where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sometimes for those foreigners living here this can be a surprise, especially with what they might find are slightly personal questions and the fact everyone in their village knows all about their lives. ==

When the couple has children, the stay-at-home parents or grandparents usually help raise their grandchildren before they reach school age. Grown-up children usually also live in until they get married and sometimes even until after they have their own children so that the grandparents can help raise them or sometimes until they save enough money to build their own house. However, one of the children (usually the youngest daughter in big families) lives with the parents, inherits the main house, and takes the responsibility of taking care of aging parents. The moved-out children support their parents by sending money back if they live far away, otherwise they come to visit and eat together as a family very often. ==

One Lao man told the Vientiane Times, “Where I lived, aunts were the ones who looked after their nieces and nephews because our parents had no time. We slept in the same room as them and they entertained and taught us at bedtime. As I was falling asleep, I sometimes woke to find my aunt still telling a story or softly singing.” His main source of knowledge was his aunt, whom he says was his “radio and television” of yesteryear. Every evening before he went to sleep his aunt would tell a story and sing a folk song. [Source: Vientiane Times, December 2, 2007]

Men and Women in Laos

In traditional Lao society, certain tasks are associated with members of each sex but the division of labor is not rigid. Women and girls are usually responsible for cooking, carrying water, maintaining the household and taking care of small domestic animals. Men are in charge if caring for buffalo and oxen, hunting, plowing paddy fields and clearing slash and burn fields. Both men and women plant, harvest, thresh, carry rice and work in gardens. Most small time Lao traders are women.

Both sexes cut and carry firewood. Women and children traditionally carry water for household use and to cultivate kitchen gardens. Women do most of the cooking, household cleaning, and washing and serve as primary caretakers for small children. They are the main marketers of surplus household food and other petty production, and women are usually the commercial marketers for vegetables, fruit, fish, poultry, and basic household dry goods. Men typically market cattle, buffalo, or pigs and are responsible for the purchase of any mechanical items. Intrafamily decision making usually requires discussions between husband and wife, but the husband usually acts as the family representative in village meetings or other official functions. In farming work, men traditionally plow and harrow the rice fields, while women uproot the seedlings before transplanting them. Both sexes transplant, harvest, thresh, and carry rice. [Source: Library of Congress]

Women generally have pretty high status. They inherit property, own land and work and enjoy man of the same rights as men. But still it is hard to say that are treated equally. In Theravada Buddhism there is a belief that women must be reborn as men to achieve nirvana. There is an often quoted Lao saying: Men are the front legs of an elephant and women are the hind legs.

Women in Laos

Traditional attitudes and gender role stereotyping kept women and girls in a subordinate position, preventing them from equally accessing education and business opportunities, and there was little government effort to redress this. Women continued to be disproportionately affected by poverty, especially in rural and ethnic minority communities. While rural women carried out more than half of total agricultural production in every field, the additional workloads of housework and child rearing also fell primarily on women. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011]

Because prostitution is not as widespread in Laos as it is in Thailand Laotian women are much freer to do what they want in public without having to worry about being accused of prostitution. For example they are much more likely to drink beer and lao lao in public than Thai women are. Smoking is generally acceptable for men, but not for women. For women, smoking seems to be associated with prostitution or promiscuity.

One rule for which here are no exceptions is that women must always ride on the inside of river boats, trucks and buses. Unlike men they are not allowed to ride on the roof. This custom is based partly on concerns for their safety and partly on the belief that women should not occupy a position above men.

According to Culture Crossing: “Gender issues tend to differ a bit on the urban-rural divide, but women are still seen primarily as caretakers and homemakers. That being said, there are various opportunities for women and many do work and hold positions of power in various industries. [Source:Culture Crossing]

Most small time Lao traders are women. Much of the long distance trade in northwest Laos is conducted by women who cross the borders into China and Thailand and stock up on goods there and transport them on the Mekong River and by buses to trading centers like Luang Prabang and Udomxai. These women have earned relatively high incomes and have status at home and surprising sexual and social freedom when they are traveling.

The anthropologist Andrew Waker wrote these women entrepreneurs have a “distinctive appearance—make-up, nail polish, gold jewelry, fake leather handbags and baseball caps—gives the rustic and muddly Lao trading system an unmistakable feminine character.”

Women, Human Rights and Abuse

Rape was reportedly rare, although, like most crime, it was likely underreported. The country does not have a central database of crime, nor does it provide statistics on crime. The law criminalizes rape, with punishment set at three to five years' imprisonment. Sentences are significantly longer and may include capital punishment if the victim is under age 18 or is seriously injured or killed. In rape cases that were tried in court, defendants generally were convicted with sentences ranging from three years' imprisonment to execution. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Domestic violence is illegal; however, there is no law against marital rape, and domestic violence often went unreported due to social stigma. Penalties for domestic violence, including battery, torture, and detaining persons against their will, may include both fines and imprisonment. The criminal law granted exemption from penal liabilities in cases of physical violence without serious injury or physical damage. LWU centers and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), in cooperation with NGOs, assisted victims of domestic violence. Statistics were unavailable on the number of abusers prosecuted, convicted, or punished.^^

Sexual harassment was rarely reported and its extent was difficult to assess. Although sexual harassment was not illegal, "indecent sexual behavior" toward another person is illegal and punishable by six months to three years in prison. Women and men were given equal access to diagnostic services and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.^^

The law provides for equal rights for women, and the LWU operated nationally to promote the position of women in society. The law prohibits legal discrimination in marriage and inheritance; however, varying degrees of culturally based discrimination against women persisted, with greater discrimination practiced by some hill tribes. The LWU conducted several programs to strengthen the role of women. The programs were most effective in the urban areas. Many women occupied decision-making positions in the civil service and private business, and in urban areas their incomes were often higher than those of men.^^

See Human Rights, Human Trafficking, China

Children and the Elderly in Laos

Regardless of where they are born, children acquire citizenship if both parents are citizens. Children born of one citizen parent acquire citizenship if born in the country or, when born outside the country's territory, if one parent has a permanent in-country address. Not all births were immediately registered. The law prohibits violence against children, and violators were subject to stiff punishments. Reports of the physical abuse of children were rare. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Young children are indulged; older children are expected t obey their elders and help with family chores. Beginning around the age of five, girls help with household chores. At nine, boys begin caring for cattle and buffalo. By adolescence children are proficient in all the activities that adults do. They generally learn by observation and direct instruction.

A favorite past time among Laotian children is shooting down insects with a sling shot. As you can imagine it is a difficult skill to master, one that takes a lot of concentration...and a lot of insects which is no problem during the rainy season. Then the insects are so thick you can aim in the sky randomly bring down an entire swarm. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

The elderly enjoy high status. Respect is something earned with age. There isn’t the emphasis on youth as there often is in the West. Respect for the elderly is manifested through the custom of allowing the elderly people to go first and young people deferring to them and helping them out.

see Education, School

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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