Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and provides for penalties of three to five years’ imprisonment. Sentences are significantly longer and may include capital punishment if the victim is younger than 18 years or is seriously injured or killed. Rape cases tried in court generally resulted in convictions with sentences ranging from three years’ imprisonment to execution. Reports of rape were rare, although observers believed underreporting was likely. The country does not have a central crime database, nor does it release crime statistics.
Domestic violence is illegal, but 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 the detention of persons against their will, may include both fines and imprisonment. The law grants exemption from penal liabilities in cases of physical violence without serious injury or physical damage.
The LWU and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, in cooperation with NGOs, assisted victims of domestic violence. The Counseling and Protection Center for Women and Children in Vientiane operated a countrywide hotline for persons to report incidents of domestic violence and receive telephonic counseling. According to an international NGO operating a shelter for homeless children, domestic violence was a key reason children left home to live on the streets of Vientiane.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not criminalize sexual harassment, but indecent sexual behavior toward another person is illegal and punishable by six months to three years in prison. Victims rarely reported sexual harassment, and its frequency remained difficult to assess.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception was generally available, although contraceptive commodities were not widely available in rural areas and were often too expensive. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that 47 percent of women between 15 and 49 years used a modern method of contraceptives and that 17 percent of women had an unmet need for family planning.
The country decreased the number of maternal deaths since 1990 by 78 percent. Nevertheless, according to 2015 UN estimates, the maternal mortality rate remained high at 197 deaths per 100,000 live births, and the lifetime risk of maternal death was one in 150. Pregnancy and childbirth remained the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age due to a lack of access to antenatal and obstetric care as well as high rates of adolescent pregnancy. According to UNFPA estimates, skilled health personnel attended just 42 percent of births, and very few medical centers were equipped to deal with obstetric emergencies, especially in small, nomadic, and ethnic villages. The adolescent birth rate remained high at 94 births per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years, and UNFPA reported that access to sexual and reproductive health services and information was limited, especially for unmarried young people.
Discrimination: The law provides equal rights for women as for men, but in some areas and at lower socioeconomic levels, traditional attitudes and gender-role stereotyping kept women and girls in subordinate positions and prevented them from equally accessing education, employment, and business opportunities. The law also prohibits discrimination in marriage and inheritance, although varying degrees of cultural-based discrimination against women persisted, with greater discrimination practiced by some ethnic minority groups in remote areas. The law requires equal pay for equal work (see section 7.d.).
The LWU operated countrywide to promote the position of women in society, including conducting programs to strengthen the role of women. The programs were most effective in urban areas. Many women occupied decision-making positions in civil service and private business, and in urban areas their incomes frequently were higher than those of men. Poverty continued to affect women disproportionately, especially in rural and ethnic minority communities. While rural women were responsible for more than half of total agricultural production, the additional burdens of housework and child rearing also fell primarily on women.
Provincial, district, and village subunits of the government’s Commission for the Advancement of Women have a mandate to develop actions to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
Birth Registration: 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. Parents did not register all births immediately. The village chief registers children born in remote areas, and then the local authority adds the name and date of birth of the child in the family registration book. Every family must have a family registration book. If parents failed to register a child at birth, they could request to add the child to the family registration book later.
Education: Education is compulsory, free, and universal through fifth grade, but a shortage of teachers and the expectation children would help their parents with farming in rural areas prevented some children from attending school. There were significant differences among ethnic groups in the educational opportunities available to boys and girls. Although the government’s policy was to inform ethnic groups about the benefits of education for all children, some ethnic groups considered education for girls neither necessary nor beneficial. School enrollment rates for girls were lower than for boys, although the gender disparity continued to decrease. Overall 17 percent of school-age girls, compared to 11 percent of school-age boys, never attended school. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 78.7 percent of women between 15 and 24 years were literate, compared to 89.2 percent of men who were literate within the same age group. In an effort to increase elementary school attendance by ethnic minority children, the government continued to support the establishment of dormitories in rural areas countrywide.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits violence against children, and offenders are subject to re-education programs and unspecified penal measures in more serious cases. According to UNICEF’s Violence against Children Survey in Lao PDR Preliminary Report released in May, approximately 10 percent of children suffered some form of sexual abuse, 17 percent some form of physical abuse, and 21 percent suffered emotional abuse. According to the National Steering Committee on Anti-Human Trafficking, 54 percent of human trafficking victims were female and more than 42 percent were younger than 18 years in 2015. There were fewer than 300 human trafficking victims identified during the year.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for boys and girls is 18 years, but the law allows marriage as young as 15 years with parental consent, often in cases of underage pregnancy. Approximately 35 percent of girls married before they reached 18 years, and 9 percent married before they were 15 years old. This practice was particularly prevalent among certain ethnic groups and among impoverished rural families.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consensual sex is 15 years. The law does not provide penalties for child prostitution, but the penalty for sex with a child (defined as younger than 15 years) is one to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 to three million kip ($62 to $370). The law does not include statutory rape as a crime distinct from sex with a child or rape of any person. Authorities did not treat child pornography differently from pornography in general, for which the penalty is three months to one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 kip ($6 to $24).
The continued growth in tourism in the country and a concomitant rise in child sex tourism in the region led authorities to seek to prevent child sex tourism. The government continued efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex through periodic raids and training workshops and to aid victims as part of a multi-year national plan. The government and NGOs hosted seminars to train tourism-sector employees, and many major international hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang displayed posters warning against child sex tourism.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
There was no Jewish community resident in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
Although constitutional protections against discrimination do not apply specifically to persons with disabilities, regulations promulgated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Lao National Commission for the Disabled generally sought to protect such persons against discrimination. A decree covers discrimination in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, and provision of state services. Nonetheless, authorities rarely enforced these regulations.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare has primary responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health is also involved in addressing health-related needs of persons with disabilities. Because of the large number of disabilities resulting from traffic accidents and unexploded ordnance accidents, the Ministry of Health continued to work extensively on the problem, especially in coordination with international NGOs. The nongovernmental Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise supplied prosthetic limbs, corrected clubfeet, and provided education to persons with hearing and vision disabilities.
According to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the law requires construction projects begun after 2009 to provide accessibility for persons with disabilities and the elderly, particularly buildings, roads, and public places. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings built before its enactment or government services for persons with disabilities, but Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare regulations resulted in construction of additional sidewalk ramps in Vientiane. Although there was some progress made on accessibility, a lack of resources for infrastructure slowed the retrofitting of most buildings, and limited government staffing prevented effective implementation.
The government continued to implement its strategic plan to protect the rights of children with disabilities and enable them to study alongside other children in schools countrywide. The nongovernmental Lao Disabled People’s Association noted that in many cases students with disabilities did not have access to separate education.
Little information was available regarding discrimination in the workplace, although persons with disabilities reported it was difficult sometimes to access basic services and obtain employment.
The law provides for equal rights for all minority citizens and bars discrimination against them, including in employment and occupation. Nonetheless, some societal discrimination persisted. Moreover, some critics continued to charge the government’s resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture and opium production with adversely affecting many ethnic minority groups, particularly in the north. The program required resettled persons to adopt paddy rice farming and live in large communities, ignoring the traditional livelihoods and community structures of these minority groups. Some international observers questioned whether the benefits promoted by the government, such as access to markets, schools, and medical care for resettled persons, outweighed the negative impact on traditional cultural practices. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, notably those in remote locations, maintained they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas. In some rural ethnic minority areas, a lack of livelihoods and decent employment contributed to significant migration to urban areas and practices such as illegal logging.
Of the 49 official ethnic groups in the country, the Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent. A number of Hmong officials served in senior ranks of government and the LPRP, including one Politburo member and several members of the LPRP Central Committee. Some Hmong believed their ethnic group could not coexist with ethnic Lao, a belief that fanned their separatist or irredentist political beliefs. Furthermore, government leadership remained suspicious of the political objectives of some Hmong. The government continued to focus limited assistance projects in Hmong areas to address regional and ethnic disparities in income, which helped ameliorate conditions in the poorest districts.
Residual, small, scattered pockets of insurgents and their families remained in rural areas. The government continued to reduce its efforts to combat them actively, while continuing to offer amnesty to refugees from those groups who surrendered. Because of their past activities, however, amnestied insurgents continued to be the focus of official suspicion and scrutiny.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
No law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and there were no reports of discrimination. Nonetheless, observers believed societal stigma and concern about repercussions led some to withhold reporting incidents of abuse.
There were no legal impediments to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizational activities, but the government discouraged such activities.
Within lowland society, despite wide and growing tolerance of LGBTI persons, societal discrimination in employment and housing persisted, and there were no governmental efforts to address it. Local activists explained that most LGBTI persons did not attempt to apply for government or high-level private-sector jobs because there was a tacit understanding that employers were unwilling to hire them. Reports indicated lesbians faced greater societal stigma and discrimination than gay men.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Research conducted in 2012 for the Persons Living with HIV Stigma Index found that stigma forced 14 percent of survey respondents to change their residence, 41 percent were the target of gossip, 27 percent experienced verbal insult, and 5 percent reported physical assault because of their HIV status. Women experienced higher frequencies of stigma than did men for almost all events. Another 18 percent reported they lost a job or income due to stigma against HIV/AIDS. The nongovernmental Association for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS (in Laos) assisted persons infected with HIV/AIDS through 14 self-support groups in 12 provinces. The Ministry of Health actively continued to promote tolerance and understanding of persons with HIV/AIDS through public-awareness campaigns.
The government took steps to include gay men and transgender persons in its National Strategy and Action plan for HIV/AIDS prevention. In 2015 the country hosted its first International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.