In a first for the region, parliamentarians in Laos are addressing domestic violence by hosting a conference for regional lawmakers on 25 November in the capital, Vientiane.
The Laotian government - and most sectors of society - have been slow to acknowledge domestic violence, said Douangdy Outhachak, who heads the National Assembly's socio-cultural affairs committee and the Lao Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development.
"People consider violence in the home an internal affair, not to be discussed. It is important to protect a family's reputation. Violence is an unsuitable tradition that has been practised for many years. It is hard to change tradition."
Eighty percent of women in a national 2006 survey said a husband was justified in hitting them if they went out without telling him, neglected the children, argued with him, refused sex or burnt a meal.
The government has ratified major conventions to protect women and children, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
But a 1992 criminal law makes no mention of domestic violence, marital rape is not a crime and "less harmful acts between close relatives" carry little or no penalties.
A 2004 Law on the Development and Protection of Women mentions domestic violence, but relies on the 1992 penal code for punishment, which does not protect women before a case goes to trial, such as by issuing a restraining order against the alleged offender.
Laws have not translated into better protection, said Outhachak.
"It [domestic violence] already is a crime in our country, but women are too shy to report for fear of shame. There is much education to be done because violence is accepted as a casual occurrence [in the home]."
The main group that offers counselling and shelter to survivors of domestic violence, the Lao Women's Union, reported 110 complainants from 2006-2010.
Village mediation units focus mostly on reconciliation rather than prosecution and staff are often untrained, according to the UN Population Fund.
Outhachak attributes often unreported domestic violence to women's lower level of education and economic dependence on partners, as well as drugs and alcohol. "The men get drunk and go home to beat their wives, who remain silent," said the lawmaker.
Of 967 women surveyed in 2004 by a local umbrella civil society association, Gender Development Group, 31 percent of those who reported domestic abuse listed drunkenness as the cause.
When asked why the Laotian National Assembly was breaking its silence in publicly addressing domestic violence, Outhachak replied: "Ban Ki-moon and the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]."
The UN Secretary-General, who visited Vientiane in April 2009, has spoken widely about the "scourge of violence against women". Laos is lagging on the MDGs to eliminate gender disparity at all levels of education, boost the percentage of women in non-agricultural jobs and improve maternal health.
The National Assembly is expecting some 100 participants for the UN-sponsored conference, mostly parliamentarians from neighbouring Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. On the schedule are sessions concerning the economic cost of violence, the situation and responses in the region and the role of parliamentarians in fighting gender-based violence.
Outhachak said the National Assembly would start discussions after the conference to broaden legal protection against gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence; conduct outreach to parliamentarians who are then responsible for carrying the anti-violence message to their constituents, and create survivor associations countrywide.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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