Gender, Land Rights and Culture in Laos: A Study in Vientiane, Districts, Villages and Households
Loes Schenk-Sandbergen Ph.D

Department Sociology/Anthropology
University of Amsterdam
The Netherlands


Laos is going through a rural transition phase of transforming co-operative, communal and traditional land tenure ship to individual land 'ownership' and use. In provinces and districts large-scale land surveys were carried out in 1994 and 1995 in order to issue Land Certificates and Land Tax Bills.

The data we (my counterparts and I) collected in 1994 on these operation, in particular in the rice-growing villages along the Mekong, raised our profound concern as we found that the whole approach and practice was very male-dominant. As a result of a combination of gender aspects, it was found that although land is inherited by women, the name put in land documents was mostly in the name of 'the head of the household': for the majority the men. We warned that the largest threat for the undermining of the relatively high status of the majority of Lao women might be located in the sphere of 'land legislation'. We insisted that awareness raising and action should be taken immediately to safeguard the land rights of women in Laos and to prevent drastic negative effects at all levels of the society. We envisaged that with the male-dominated land registration women may lose, as experience in other Third World countries shows, one of the most basic and vital power resources: the land they have inherited from their parents. This in view of the fact that Laos is one of the very few countries left in the world in which bi-lineal descent and kinship, matrilocal post marriage residence-, and matrilineal inheritance patterns still exist for a large group of women.

As a preparation on the adjudication of land 'ownership' and land use in four provinces, a small Pilot Land Title Project was launched in 1996-1997 in two districts in Vientiane Municipality and in districts of the capitals of four provinces: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Champasak, and in Vientiane Prefecture. With the above considerations in mind, and within the context of the pilot phase, the Australian Agency for International Development and the World Bank agreed that a study on 'Land, Gender and Social Issues' would be useful to examine multi ethnic, and socio cultural aspects related to land titling. We conducted the study in 1997 in a participatory way to involve the implementing responsible staff of the Ministry of Land and Housing, the Lao Women’s Union and NGO members. In total 10 districts were selected in Vientiane Municipality and in the four provinces of the pilot land titling and in each district two villages. In each village women from eight households were interviewed. Interviews were conducted with district- and village heads and authorities, with women's focus groups at the village level (total 221 respondents) and women at the household level (160). My paper will show the participatory methodology, theoretical concepts and findings of the study. Moreover, we searched for evidence to explore if the world-wide 'defeat' of women-friendly societies is also happening in Laos, or, if there are indications for a mild process of Lao Lumisation.