Oct 05, 2018

Persecution & Marginalization of Hmong Women in Laos

On Thursday 4 October 2018, UNPO submitted a report for the 71st session of the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), during which the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LDPR) will be under review. The report focuses on the plight of the Hmong people and highlights both the obstacles Hmong women who have permanently settled in villages, towns and cities face and the extreme conditions under which Hmong women who are forced to live in the Laotian jungles in hiding from the military live. UNPO denounces the continuing discrimination and State-driven violence against this people and expresses its deep concerns over the situation of the Hmong who live in the jungle, in particular the women in those groups.

Belonging to the Hmong ethnic group that still endures retaliation amongst Laotian society for its involvement in the “CIA’s Secret War” during the Vietnam War, Hmong women face not only discrimination for their ethnicity and gender, but are also subjected to systematic persecution and severe human rights violations following the Hmong’s collaboration with the United States of America’s (US) forces in the above-mentioned conflict. As the end of the war led many Hmong to flee Laos, those who stayed and others who have found or still seek refuge in neighbouring countries continue to face persecution and the risk of being deported back to Laos, where further abuses and human rights violations such as torture and arbitrary detention await.

As such, it is important to mention that women in different ethnic groups have distinct experiences and are affected in different ways by government neglect, marginalisation and disregard, while, at the same time, profiting on different levels and to a different extent from efforts made and developments related to gender equality. Likewise, the situation of Hmong women living in villages throughout the country differs in many aspects from that of Hmong women who live in the jungle. In light of this, the Alternative Report submitted by the UNPO analyses the compliance of the LDPR with the CEDAW by highlighting relevant elements for the development of a sensible understanding of Laotian Hmong women’s specific realities, struggles and needs.

The Hmong population at large lives in remote areas, experiencing abject poverty, conditions of undernutrition and food insecurity and no access to medical care. In spite of LDPR government’s efforts and consequent advancements in terms of gender equality, Hmong women still face various obstacles that derive not only from cultural and ethnic factors, but also from governmental failure to extend such advancements to them. Laos’ authorities continue to promote socio-economic development initiatives that, while using a discourse that states that the resettlement of people aims at integrating them to educational and healthcare systems, often resettle people to areas where they cannot undertake their traditional and basic agricultural activities. Furthermore, as many ethnic women do not speak Lao, the official language of the country, and due to the failure to include minorities’ languages in schools, the Hmong often find themselves restrained from having access to education.  Language issues also pose an obstacle for them to have proper access to healthcare, to be economically independent and to engage in decision-making and administrative processes, thus restricting their ability to fully achieve their development and advancement.

The combination of factors such as poverty, difficult work, lack of knowledge and skills, illiteracy, limited access to healthcare, cultural aspects and a limited access to legal information hardens women’s engagement in the educational, social and political spheres, consequently refraining them from being able to enjoy, protect and promote their rights.

This reality is exacerbated in the groups who live in the jungle, forced to live “on the run”, constantly having to move places to keep their location hidden from the military. They have no means of initiating agricultural activities, having to rely on whatever the forest has to offer for their subsistence. In addition, they have limited access to non-food goods such as blankets and clothes, as well as to safe drinkable water and medication, which renders them vulnerable to diseases, while having no means of taking care of wounds derived from the frequent military attacks. Even their temporary structures as well as fruit trees and other crops are constantly destroyed by the military and attempts to forage for food often threaten their security and lead to military attacks. Furthermore, although lacking official verification by independent bodies, there are several indications that chemical weapons are used against Hmong communities, who are exposed to toxins and poisons that have made many lose their teeth, have swelled bellies or even gone blind. Their situation is thus extremely worrying, as they experience constant violations of basic human rights.

Amid this reality, Hmong women are further subjected to considerably difficult conditions during pregnancy, labour and lactation periods. They are not only unable to fulfill basic nutritional needs in these periods, but they also have no access to medical care or medicines, which is reflected in the high rates of maternity, birth and child mortality, both when it comes to Hmong women living in villages throughout the country and to those who live in the jungle. For the latter, additional risks constantly hunt them: that of suffering sexual abuses during military attacks and that of trafficking and sexual enslavement.

In light of these elements, the UNPO urges the Laotian government:

To immediately cease the repeated and continued military attacks on the Hmong community living in the jungle. To grant the UNHCR, other international organisations and independent observers access to returned Hmong people, as well as to the Hmong community living in the jungle. To provide adequate living conditions to Hmong people relocated due to development projects. To allow freedom of movement to forcibly returned refugees. To halt the enslavement of Hmong women and girls who are captured by or surrender themselves to Laos’ forces. To ensure freedom of press and media, as well as the free movement of international observers throughout the country. To extend the implementation of free healthcare systems to remote areas, allowing ethnic minorities to benefit from it, including pregnant women, and see their sexual and reproductive rights guaranteed. To continue making active efforts to promote the inclusion of women in decision-making processes as well as legislative and governmental roles. To disclose the whereabouts of the 21 “missing” girls and young women, as well as those who have disappeared after being forcibly returned to Laos. To cease the blockages of food and medical supplies to Hmong people living in the jungles. To strengthen efforts that aim at the enforcement and implementation of policies on gender equality and at the promotion of the advancement of women. To integrate ethnic minorities’ languages to school curriculums. To extend the implementation of education and healthcare systems to remote areas, rather than investing on the relocation of people to ensure their access to those provisions. To combat widespread stereotypes and discrimination concerning ethnic minorities. To implement adequate economic infrastructures in remote areas and extend loans and credit opportunities to remote areas. To empower and provide adequate knowledge and skills for rural Hmong women to participate in economic and commercial systems, as well as to use more efficient and less time-consuming tools of production.

You can access the report here.


Photo courtesy of Linda de Volder