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3. National context

Lao PDR is a landlocked country situated in the centre of Indo-China and is surrounded by Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam. The total land area is 236 800 km2, of which approximately 87 percent is mountainous with sloping hills ranging from 100 m above sea level to 2 800 m above sea level; only 16 percent of the total area is below 200 m (CIA, 2005; MOAF, 2002).

Source: Laos-travel

Figure 3.1: Map of Lao PDR

Lao PDR has a population of 6 217 141, which gives a population density of 26 persons/km2. The population growth is estimated at 2.42 percent (July 2005 estimate, CIA, 2005).

The Laotian population is demographically classified as young. One estimate, as shown in Table 3.1, indicates that 41.6 percent of the population is aged between birth and 14 years, and that only 3.2 percent of the total population is 65 or older.

Table 3.1: Age structure in Lao PDR

Age structure

Total in percent



0-14 years


1 300 094

1 289 227

15-64 years


1 693 494

1 737 196

65+ years


88 744

108 386

Source: CIA, 2005

The Government and the UN estimate that more than 60 percent of the population is younger than 25 (2004), which also reflects a low proportion of adults who are older than 65. Life expectancy is 55.08 years for the total population. Men have a life expectancy of 53.07 years, whereas women's life expectancy is 57.17 years (CIA, 2005).

The average fertility rate in Lao PDR is 4.77 children born per female (2003), with an infant mortality rate of 85.2 deaths/1 000 live births. Women living in Phongsaly and Vientiane provinces have, on average, 5.6 children and 4.1 children, respectively (Ministry of Health, 2000).

Some 43 percent of the population has access to piped water or protected wells; 38 percent of the rural population and 66 percent of the urban population have piped water or a protected well. Around 24 percent of the total population uses adequate sanitation facilities; 61 percent of the population living in urban areas has access to adequate sanitation facilities, while this figure falls to only 14 percent of the rural population. Some 98 percent of urban populations have access to primary health care compared to only 71 percent of the rural populations (UNICEF, 2005; CIA, 2005; UNDP, 2001).

The country has considerable diversity in its ethnicity, with 47 recognized ethnic groups divided into four ethno-linguistic family groups that have very different cultures, traditions and livelihood systems. Other studies have identified more than 200 ethnic groups (ADB, 2004). Across the country, ethnic and gender differences are reflected in inequities in access to fertile land, basic social services, transport and communications.

Lao PDR is one of the poorest countries in the world and is classified by the United Nations as "a least-developed country" with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of US$375 and with 26.3 percent of the population living on less than US$1 per day4 (NGPES, 2003). In 2005, Lao PDR ranked 133 out a total of 177 countries in the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Index.5 Lao PDR ranks 102 in the UNDP Gender-Related Development Index (2005).

Around 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and is dependent upon agriculture and the rearing of livestock as their main income sources (Government of Lao PDR (GOL) and UN, 2004). The Government estimates that 620 000 households depend on agriculture, of which 490 000 rely on subsistence farming (2003). Agriculture accounts for 49.5 percent of the GDP, with rice production as the main agricultural activity, either upland rice production or lowland rice production.

Upland farmers used to rely heavily on the cultivation of opium, for which Lao PDR remains the fourth largest producer worldwide (Colombia is number three, Myanmar number two and Afghanistan number one).6 In addition to income from agriculture, many rural upland households rely on the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Collecting NTFPs plays a significant role across the country, especially as a way to counteract rice deficiencies during the year and to help people purchase consumer goods. NTFPs collected for sale are sold in other areas of Lao PDR or are exported,7 without any local processing (UNDP, 2001).

Although there are indications that poverty levels are decreasing, poverty remains widespread with many households unable to meet daily food requirements and satisfy basic human needs. On average, 40 percent of the Lao population live in poverty; in rural areas this figure jumps to 53 percent of the rural population, compared with 24 percent of the urban population. The rural northern areas and ethnic minorities in remote areas are most associated with poverty. Approximately 30 percent of the total population suffers from food shortages for more than six months a year (Danida, 1999; WFP, 2005).

National development policies

The Government's overall development priorities aspire "towards total eradication of mass poverty" (Committee for Planning Co-operation 2002). The development of the Government's objectives and guidelines for poverty eradication and sustainable economic growth began in 1996 with the aim of reaching the overall goal of graduating out of the least-developed country status by 2020 through sustainable and equitable development. The Government has devised two strategies for its development policies (UN, 2000):

These two strategies are to be achieved through the eight National Socio-Economic Priority Programmes for: 1) food production, 2) commercial production, 3) stabilization and reduction of shifting cultivation, 4) rural development, 5) infrastructure development, 6) improved socio-economic management and foreign economic relations, 7) human resource development and 8) services development.

At the eight Roundtable Meeting in 2003, the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NPEP)8 was presented as the strategy to eradicate mass poverty in the country by 2020. Acknowledging that most of the population is involved in subsistence agriculture, that they have limited education, that they have limited access to health care and that some areas are not accessible by road for some parts of the year, the NPEP targeted agriculture, education, health and infrastructure (especially rural roads and rural electricity). Supporting sectors include rural electrification, agroforestry, tourism, mining and the construction material industries. As well, the NPEP addresses trade facilitation and market linkages in most sectors. Cross-cutting issues included in the strategy cover preservation of the environment, gender, information and culture, population, social security and capacity building (Committee for Planning and Co-operation 2002).

The National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy (NGPES) captures the Government's policies in order to reach its Vision 2020 on Agricultural Development goals and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Further focus is set on development and poverty reduction in the poorest districts; the NGPES is expected to have a big influence on rural livelihoods (GOL and UN, 2004). Some 47 districts have been identified as the poorest districts in the country and will, together with 25 classified as poor districts, be the target areas for the NGPES.

NGPES aims to improve livelihoods through rural development and access to markets, which includes developing the agriculture sector from subsistence to commercial production, with improved access to credit facilities and improved infrastructure (GOL, 2003).

As mentioned, 80 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural production; as such, the development of the agriculture sector with focus on higher productivity is a primary focus for the Government in its poverty-eradication strategy. The NGPES has three priority development objectives for the agriculture sector: 1) to ensure food security; 2) to enhance agricultural production with a focus on modernization and promoting commercial production; and 3) to stabilize shifting cultivation (GOL, 2003).

To facilitate the development of the agriculture sector, several areas are emphasized in the NGPES. Among others, formal education and non-formal education9 are seen as the decisive factors for farmers to gain knowledge about modern agricultural techniques.

The Government wants to encourage rural farmers to diversify their agricultural production through cash crops, horticulture and raising livestock instead of rice cultivation only. The Government will assist farmers with better access to credit and infrastructure, especially road access, for the farmers to intensify production and sell their products. Because these goals are part of the NGPES, all government agencies have an obligation to help implement them; but the main actor will be the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MOAF) and all its subdepartments (GOL, 2003).

However, farmers need training to be more productive and to cultivate new crops. Thus the Government will provide training and capacity building to help them apply modern agricultural techniques for improving yields and horticulture and livestock production. Vocational training and on-the-job training, such as farmer-to-farmer training opportunities. The National Agriculture and Forestry Extension Service will take the lead role.

Provincial and district agriculture staff will facilitate the training and education in agricultural techniques to the rural farmers. However, this will require capacity building of staff in order for them to train and support rural farmers.

Important agricultural policies and strategies

The MOAF has promoted several strategies in line with the objectives of the NGPES. The most important ones are the Vision 2020 on Agricultural Development and the Strategy for the Agriculture sector (2001-2010).

These strategies aim to help farmers move from subsistence agriculture to market-oriented production with cash crops. Because of the dramatic differences between agricultural production in the Mekong Valley and the remote upland farming areas, the agriculture sector will have to be developed via two different strategies and in two tempi. The transition process in the Mekong Valley has started but needs further support to develop fully. When that is completed, the MOAF will shift to the rural uplands in which a very different approach is needed because of the remoteness and the different problems encountered in the sloping areas (UNDP, 2001).

Vision 2020 on Agricultural Development and the Strategy for the Agriculture sector (2001-2010) acknowledge that the present organization within the MOAF is insufficient and understaffed and points to a need for human resource development, especially the staff located in the provinces. Improving their capability is necessary to upgrade the knowledge and skills of the local staff and to ensure their direct contact with ethnic minority groups, which has been an obstacle to developing agricultural practices in upland areas so far. These strategies also represent an acceptance that the top-down approach previously followed has proven to inhibit the development of agricultural practices in these areas (UNDP, 2001).

In 2000, the prime minister issued Order No. 14, which pushed for the eradication of opium production by 2005. This declaration requires that all provinces eradicate opium production. The only exception is that elderly people addicted to opium are allowed to grow opium for personal consumption (UNDP, 2001).

There are no specific youth strategies regarding rural youth. There are provisions to improve the lives of youth in general, as the next section explains.

NGPES and youth issues

The NGPES draws attention to the need for developing the potential of youth as a way to reduce poverty in the country. However, the main focus is on formal education, with improved equity and quality in education through improved access to primary and secondary education and quality improvement of the curriculum.

To fulfil the second goal of the MDGs, achieving universal primary education, the Government has introduced an Education For All (EFA) scheme. Increased access to attend and complete primary school should provide education for all. The scheme also aims to encourage parents to enrol their children, especially girls and children from ethnic minority groups. Because many of the remote villages do not have teachers or even children for each grade level, special training will be provided to teachers to work in these areas and to teach multi-grades.

The Government intends also to establish vocational training schools in poor regions and provinces to improve youth's technical skills and expand vocational, technical and higher education. The NGPES recommends improvement of women's and young girls' educational levels and opportunities for income-generation activities through skills training and microfinance.

Rural youth are only mentioned briefly in the agricultural policies, and the NGPES does not specifically focus on vocational training centres with agricultural development activities or other income-generating activities for rural youth. Nor does it give any immediate guidelines on how to contribute to the improvement of rural youth livelihoods.

International agreements targeting youth

Some of the national policies that are formulated and implemented in Lao PDR are anchored in international conventions of the United Nations or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Government has signed and ratified some of the following UN conventions focusing on children and youth issues:

Within the ASEAN framework, the responsible ministers for youth issues developed "The Yangon 2000 declaration on preparing ASEAN youth for the challenges of globalization", with programmes targeting skills training for out-of-school youth, sustainable development and entrepreneurship (Aseanyouth, 2005).

By signing and ratifying such international and regional conventions, the Government has an obligation to promote and work within the spirit of the conventions, though it has been slow in some areas. For example, regarding the Yangon declaration, senior staff in LYU have not heard of it and therefore cannot incorporate it into their overall union work (personal communication, LYU, 2005).

Institutional setting

The Lao National Assembly is the primary governing institution and elects the president and the prime minister. The prime minister's office has its own secretariat and is responsible for the delegation of assignments to the different ministries. All ministries have the same organizational structure with their own offices and representatives at provincial and district levels. In addition to responsibility for the legislative functions, the National Assembly also has the overall responsibility for the executive functions within the national court system.

The Communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has governed Lao PDR since 1975. Lao PDR is a one-party state with a constitution, which mandates the LPRP as the only political party allowed to exist. The central organization of LPRP is the Central Party Committee, which is in charge of appointing an 11 member Politburo; of these 11 members, none are women. LPRP has an extended organization with party representatives at all administrative levels of the country, from national down to the village level. Thus, LPRP has enormous influence on the election of representatives. As LPRP is the only legal political party and thus controls the National Assembly, it has absolute power of the executive and the legislative functions (UNDP, 2001).

Government ministries

There are a number of government ministries operating in the institutional setting, but the following ministries are the main actors regarding development of rural youth:

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has a specific role in promoting sustainable use of natural resources (soil, forest, water, fish, biodiversity and atmosphere), together with agricultural crop and livestock genetic resources through its network of research and extension. Research is undertaken at the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) and extension services are provided via NAFES. The MOAF is represented at the provincial level by Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Extension Centres (PAFEC) and at the district level by the District Agriculture and Forestry Extension Offices (DAFEO). In 2002/ 2003, government expenditure on agriculture accounted for only 17.66 percent of total public investment (DANIDA, 1999; JICA, 2001; GOL, 2003).

The Ministry of Education (MOE) is responsible for formal and non-formal education at all levels and also shares responsibilities with authorities at the provincial and district levels. The MOE is also responsible for higher education, technical schools and teacher training colleges. Provincial authorities are responsible for secondary and vocational education, whereas district authorities are responsible for preschool, primary and non-formal education. MOE manages the entire budget for public educational activities and decides on curricula and standards for education and training (GOL, 2003; UNDP, 2001). The public expenditure on education in Lao PDR in 2003 was 11 percent of the Government's total expenditure. Some 47 percent of public expenditure on education was spent at preschool and primary education levels, 19 percent for secondary education, with 12.6 percent spent for the tertiary level (UNDP, 2005).10

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has responsibility for managing and implementing health policies and for medical training nationwide. The provincial health authorities manage provincial hospitals and the district health authorities have responsibility for district hospitals and primary health care facilities locally. Drug control programmes also come under the MOH administration. In 2001, health expenditure was 3.1 percent of the Government's total expenditure (WHO, 2005).

The Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) is responsible for labour management and social issues such as human trafficking, people with disabilities and vulnerable children.

National organizations with a focus on rural youth

The Lao People's Revolutionary Youth Union (LPRYU, although LYU is more commonly used) is a mass organization under direct guidance of the ruling LPRP. The LYU has youth member representatives in all government ministries and departments and is active at the national, provincial, district and village levels through LYU youth representatives and youth committees. Today the organization has approximately 270 000 members aged between 15 and 30 years; of them, approximately 80 000 are female. This age group includes 50 percent of the total youth population. The Young Pioneers, youth aged 6-17, are also part of the LYU (LYU no date, Aseanyouth, 2005; personal communication, LYU, 2005).

As an organization, LYU is mainly involved in educational training activities that focus on promoting LPRP's political ideology, including socialism ideals and revolutionary discipline, and is currently working towards the following objectives:

LYU's mandate is to promote the physical, social and economic well-being of young people to promote national polices and youth issues, and to represent youth's views. The LYU is currently involved in nine development projects across Lao PDR, with emphasis on education and promoting sexual and reproductive health education11 (personal communication, LYU, 2005; UN, 2005). None of the projects that the LYU is involved in focus on rural youth in agriculture or rural development.12

The Lao Women's Union (LWU) is a broad organization that includes non-Party members and concentrates on issues regarding the development of women in Lao PDR. The LWU is involved at the national, provincial, district and village levels. LWU's work centres on the development of women's rights and gender equality via skills training, income-generating activities, non-farming activities, health issues, family planning, financial support and awareness raising on women's rights (ADB, 2004). The LWU is also involved in rural development projects with various donors.

International agencies and INGOs focusing on rural youth

Several international agencies and international non-government organizations (INGOs) work with the rural community and agriculture development throughout the country. Most of the projects do not explicitly target rural youth, but they are implicitly targeted as the activities implemented include agriculture, animal rearing, income generating, primary health care, etc.

The following organizations explicitly target rural youth, with emphasis on education and/or training in agriculture and related areas:

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has developed community learning centres (CLCs), with an emphasis on community development through education in basic literacy, vocational training and income-generating activities in remote areas. The Non-Formal Education Department (NFED) is the implementing agency and has set up, in cooperation with various INGOs and UN agencies, CLCs in 16 provinces to increase literacy and vocational training in rural areas, targeting poor ethnic groups and women. Establishing CLCs is one of the Government's priorities in rural development policies (Hakeem, 2005; UN-Lao, 2005).

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children Alliance are working to provide improved education to all children and youth as part of their effort to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in which education is one of the key components. The cornerstone of this work includes formal and non-formal basic education and skills training for children and youth.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Health Unlimited are each promoting youth reproductive health projects in collaboration with the LYU. The projects aim at promoting sexual and reproductive health awareness among rural youth in selected villages in selected provinces. UNFPA works with the MOE on institutionalizing sexual health education through the formal and non-formal education system in ten provinces (UNDP, 2005; Health Unlimited, 2005).

Church World Service (CWS) engages in non-formal education projects in the provinces of Oudomxay, Phongsaly, Luang Nam Taa and Luang Prabang. Through four boarding training centres, the CWS works with the MOE to offer ethnic minority teenagers nine months of skills training in mathematics, carpentry, weaving and various agricultural activities, such as animal raising, fish farming, fruit tree cultivation, vegetable gardens and others, to use when they return to their home villages (CWS, 2005).

Oxfam Australia and Oxfam Hong Kong jointly implement a Youth Employment and Training project in Vientiane, Saravan and Sekong provinces. Rural youth from Lao Theung and Lao Sung communities are learning new skills, and through these, they are improving their employment opportunities and ability to generate income. Activities include carpentry, mechanics, hairdressing, tailoring and how to process products such as pineapple, bamboo shoots, ginger and banana leaf meat to improve their food security. The training aims for rural youth to sell the processed products to other villages (Oxfam, 2005).

The Burnet Institute collaborates with the LYU in a Lao Youth HIV/AIDS/STI Response project, which currently is carried out in 11 provinces. The LYU members are trained in participatory methods to gather information about sexual and drug use behaviours and to raise awareness about safe sexual practices among youth (Burnet Institute, 2005).

Situation of rural youth

Some 80 percent of the population in Lao PDR engages in agriculture, which includes many young people. Agricultural techniques are traditionally passed on from generation to generation, while modern techniques are difficult to implement or adopt because of poor communication channels and limited education levels of the farmers. This situation suggests that rural young people will, or are very likely to, have the same livelihoods and living standards as their parents - unless they are targeted in rural development and education projects.

Rural youth and education

In general, the education level in Lao PDR is low. Of the total population aged 15 and older, the literacy rate is 66.4 percent. While 77.4 percent of the male population can read and write, only 55.5 percent of the female population are literate. For the youth population, the total literacy rate is 79 percent (CIA, 2005; GOL and UN, 2004). However, there is a noticeable difference between the national level and ethnic minority groups. For instance, the small northern ethnic group of Lahu has a total literacy rate of 1.6 percent; broken down by sex, Lahu men have a literacy rate of 2.9 percent, whereas female Lahu have a literacy rate of only 0.4 percent (UNDP, 2001).

From 1991 to 2002, the primary school enrolment nationwide improved by 25 percent, from 58 to 83 percent. The proportion of students starting grade 1 and who completed grade 5 was 62 percent in 2001. However, there is a big difference between the numbers of boys and girls enrolled and between geographical locations, with a high percentage of youth in school in Vientiane municipality and Vientiane province (95 percent) compared with Phongsaly and Attapeu, where the school enrolment rate was only 56 percent in each province in 2004 (GOL and UN).

The low rates among rural children are attributed to several factors. Rural youth have to contribute to agricultural production from an early age, especially girls who often must take care of siblings when their mothers go to work in the fields. Boys assist their fathers in ploughing fields and in other farm tasks. These family obligations contribute to a high drop-out rate and result in low literacy and general low educational levels in rural areas, especially among girls. Other reasons for children not attending school is the economic situation of the family, in which parents cannot afford to educate their children because they do not have money for clothing and school supplies. Additional reasons for rural youth not attending school are lack of parental support and understanding regarding education and the opportunities it may lead to, and the great distance or no road access to school facilities. Also, not all villages have a primary or secondary school (Table 3.2).

Table 3.2: Access to primary and secondary schools


Primary school in village

Lower secondary school in village




Urban areas



Rural areas with road access



Rural areas without road access



Phongsaly province



Vientiane province



Source: NSC, 2003

Not all primary schools have instruction covering grades 1 to 5. According to the NGPES, 90 percent of poor villages do not have a fully functional primary school (GOL, 2003).

For rural youth who complete primary school, the likelihood that they continue to secondary education is very low.

Table 3.3: Youth schooling


Rural (%)

Urban (%)







14-16 (lower secondary school) 







17-24 (upper secondary school)

25.0 9.9 16.9 39.6 27.4


Source: UNESCO, 2001

Table 3.3 shows that the proportion of rural youth enrolled in lower and upper secondary schools are quite low compared to the proportion of urban youth. It also shows a general low enrolment rate of both urban and rural youth in upper secondary school. This is particularly true among rural girls where only one out of ten attended upper secondary school in 2001.

This is attributed to the many rural girls who marry and have children at an early age without continuing their education.

Additionally, lack of access to primary and secondary schools can result in a low literacy rate for rural youth. In 2001, rural youth aged 15-24 had a literacy rate of 51 percent, with 45 percent of the females literate (ADB, 2004).

In nine of the country's 18 provinces, youth have the possibility to attend vocational training schools, which offer courses in handicraft making, languages and tourism. Only a few centres currently provide education and training in agriculture and forestry topics (JICA, 2001).

Agriculture and forestry education and training possibilities

There are institutions available for skills training in agriculture and forestry, but they tend to lack teachers in both quantity and quality. In fact, many teachers are unqualified. As well, the facilities are outdated and the academic programmes need improving (JICA, 2001).

There are currently three regional Agriculture and Forestry Technical Schools (AFTS), located in Luang Prabang, Bolikkhamxay and Champassak provinces. However, these schools offer a three-year training programme only for young people who have an upper secondary school degree. A fourth technical school with irrigation technical education was established in 2000 in Vientiane municipality. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry administers these four technical schools while the Ministry of Education has charge of two technical schools that focus on agricultural education and are located in Vientiane municipality and Vientiane province. There are also three agricultural colleges: the Dongdok Faculty of Forestry in Vientiane municipality, the Nabong Faculty of Agriculture in Vientiane province and the Department of Irrigation Engineering in Champassak province. These training institutions provide formal technical agricultural training for rural youth. These other programmes also require an upper secondary school degree for enrolment.

For farmers, the possibility of receiving training in agricultural practices is limited. The MOAF has some 29 training centres across the country with training programmes for its staff and local farmers. However, most of the training is done ad hoc in places other than centres, typically in villages, and in which the training of district extension staff and farmers is mainly done in relation to a district development project (JICA, 2001; personal communication, MOAF, 2005).

Farmers can receive training from extension workers based at the DAFEO; but due to lack of capacity, the DAFEO staff capability to provide extension services to remote areas is limited. Also, there are limited possibilities for DAFEO staff to receive training due to a lack of resources.

Rural youth and employment

Information on agricultural child labour is difficult to obtain as children helping parents in the family business or production is not considered as child labour. However, the International Labour Organization's (ILO) definition of child labour states: "Child labour includes all work that harms children and keeps them out of school. They have no time to learn or play." (Fieldsofhope, 2005)

Approximately 50 percent of rural youth work in the agriculture sector, primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture, where they either are helping the family in the fields or are working their own fields. Other work tasks include collecting water, collecting NTFPs, looking after and feeding animals, cooking and looking after siblings.

As mentioned, Lao people's livelihoods are based on seasonal subsistence agriculture. During the off season, some youth look for jobs elsewhere to support themselves and their families. However, migration is not just reduced to the off season but is taking place all year round due to the general lack of employment opportunities, boredom and influences from the media about the seemingly prosperous or glamorous life in the city. Many youths migrate to urban areas in search of work; boys typically find employment in construction, and girls mostly become employed at garment factories and restaurants. If they do not succeed in the urban area, they might seek work in neighbouring countries. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 181 600 legal Lao migrants and an estimated 80 000 irregular Lao migrants currently work in Thailand. Many are young people mainly from the provinces located closest to the Thai border (especially the provinces of Khammuane, Savannakhet, and Champassak). In order to regularize Lao illegal immigrants working in Thailand, The Government has signed a memorandum of understanding with Thailand to adjust the status of Lao migrants working illegally to that of a regular migrant. Youth migration has hit such proportions that some villages in rural upland areas are inhabited only by the older population (Howell, 2005; ADB, 2004; MOAF, 2005; personal communication).

Migration and human trafficking

Approximately one third of global trafficking of women and children occurs in or from Southeast Asia and the Mekong subregion; it is only now that the extent of the problem in Lao PDR is being recognized. A study in 17 provinces by the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) identified three main areas of trafficking: 1) work at factories in urban locations within Lao PDR, 2) domestic service, with a large percentage in Thailand and 3) commercial sexual exploitation. The study also found that 60 percent of the surveyed trafficking victims were girls aged between 12 and 18 years, and that 35 percent of them ended up in forced prostitution.13 All the trafficking victims in the study came from ethnic minorities and from a family or village that recently had been relocated (MLSW and UNICEF, 2004).

An alarming aspect cited by social anthropologist David Feingold is that due to reduced cash income from opium production and decreased rice production in rural upland communities, there is an apparent risk that families will send young girls to work in district towns or in Thailand in order for them to purchase consumer goods to meet households requirements. Improved infrastructure, development projects, modernization and access to knowledge and new ideas also encourages youth migration, which heightens their vulnerability to traffickers (ADB, 2004; Feingold, 2000; Molland, 2005).

Rural youth and health

Health issues of special concern include HIV infection and drug addiction. The country currently has a low prevalence for HIV infection, with reported cases making up only 0.1 percent of the population. However, of the 1 094 people known to be infected, 18 percent are in the 15-24 age group and 37 percent are 10-29 years old, which is a clear indication that young people are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. Also, 1 000 young people returning from seasonal work in Thailand were tested, with a result of a 6 percent HIV infection rate (ADB, 2004). Of particular concern are the young people in rural areas who have a low awareness of issues and facts regarding contraception methods, HIV/AIDS and STDs, compared to with their urban equivalents (Table 3.4).

Table 3.4: Awareness about contraceptive methods, HIV/AIDS and STDs

% of youth who have heard about contraception

% of youth who have heard about STDs

% of youth who have heard about









Source: MOH 2000

Due to socio-economic behaviour, such as rural youth migrating to towns and across the border to Thailand, the risk of an increasing HIV infection rate is apparent. The NGPES specifies awareness raising through sex education regarding prevention of HIV infection among youth, migrant workers, pregnant mothers, newborns, drug users and ethnic minorities (GOL, 2003).

Because of the reality of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls, addressing HIV and AIDS is becoming a very important concern in Lao PDR.

Even though many international organizations, such as the UNFPA, UNICEF and CARE International, have programmes that focus on providing youth with information about reproductive and sexual health issues, the numbers in Table 3.4 clearly indicate that youth lack sufficient knowledge. This highlights the continuing need for greater dissemination of information on reproductive and sexual issues and to provide youth with health services. This deficiency of knowledge and information is prevalent in rural areas and especially areas that are targeted in rural development and major infrastructure projects. These projects facilitate a tighter connection with surrounding communities and thereby a risk of exposure to new illnesses and health risks, such as STDs.

That ethnic minority youth are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers begs for even more attention towards, and awareness about, protection against HIV infection in the rural areas.

Drug addiction has become an increasing problem among school-aged children and young people in general during the past five years. The main drug of consumption among youth is amphetamine-type substances (ATS), also more commonly known as ya baa. Abuse of ATS is no longer an urban problem as it is slowly spreading to the rural areas. Where it is a problem, there are varied reasons for its popularity: Curiosity, desire for "fun" or peer pressure has a lot to do with the expanding use. Family problems also have been mentioned as a major reason for trying the drug. There is no evidence indicating opium addicts have switched to the amphetamines; considering that opium use is largely found among older people and that ATS is a drug mainly used by young people, this seems logical. The Government's strategy regarding illicit drug use dwells on opium production while efforts against ATS abuse are limited to counselling and rehabilitation.


In theory, rural youth have many opportunities to improve their livelihoods. In practice, many obstacles pose barriers or dire challenges to rural youth:

1a. Obstacles regarding rural youth and education

Access is a primary obstacle for young people. There are not enough primary schools in Lao PDR to accommodate all school-aged children, and only 35 percent of all primary schools can provide teaching for grades 1 to 5. In many villages, the schools are located far away and children cannot attend unless they stay with relatives or in a dormitory. As well, primary schools are under-facilitated, which means they lack teachers in general, especially qualified teachers, and they cannot provide textbooks.

The situation is much worse regarding secondary education where there are fewer schools compared with primary schools. These schools also are located some distance from most villages, and there is a lack of teachers, especially in rural upland areas. There is also a significantly higher percentage of boys than girls who continue their education to secondary levels.

Another issue is the lack of parents' support towards educating their children. They do not recognize education as necessary and thus do not give it any priority. Many poor families cannot support their children's education financially given that they have to pay for school fees, uniforms and stationery supplies.

For ethnic communities, language poses another critical barrier. In most cases, teaching takes place in the Lao language; having limited or no Lao language skills, the children's ability to learn is hampered. Lack of teachers is especially profound in the rural ethnic areas as it is difficult to find qualified teachers willing to live remotely. Here also parents' support for sending their children to school is low, but even lower compared to other areas. This relates to traditions in which ethnic communities do not send their children to school or in which boys go to school and girls generally are kept at home.

When rural young people do complete secondary school, they have limited options to continue their education. There is a lack of technical and vocational training schools; and few vocational training centres or schools offer training in agricultural subjects targeting rural youth.

There is potential for the MOAF's local departments at the provincial and district extension offices, including their training stations, to provide training and development of agricultural practices in upland areas. Unfortunately, they struggle with the same difficulties as other educational facilities in terms of insufficient resources, both financial and human, to train youth, especially ethnic minorities, regarding technological advances and knowledge and skills relevant to local needs. The limited capacity of the DAFEO staff is a major obstacle, and they need help in building up their capabilities to develop appropriate agricultural practices for rural areas (MOAF, personal communication, 2005).

1b. Opportunities regarding rural youth in education

As a large workforce, rural youth have the potential to contribute tremendously to the country's development. However, due to their limited education, there is a need for them to pursue training in practical as well as entrepreneurial skills through vocational training schools. But that requires them to at least complete their primary education.

Certainly a higher formal educational level improves the possibility for higher-paying employment and a better life. But through improved access to vocational training schools, especially with a focus on agricultural knowledge and techniques included in the curriculum, youth can learn methods to intensify the agricultural production and improve their living conditions. Training in other practical skills, such as weaving techniques or silk production, also offers opportunities for rural youth. In the absence of formal education, alternative instruction is possible. In particular, on-the-job training through farmer-to-student or farmer-to-farmer training, allows rural youth to experience and learn from other farmers' agricultural practices beyond that learned from working with their family.

2a. Obstacles regarding rural youth and employment

Employment opportunities for those who have graduated formal or vocational school as well as those with limited or no education is a concern for rural youth. They worry about ending up unemployed, even though almost everyone is working, such as in the family rice field. But they do not consider subsistence agriculture as gainful employment because it does not provide a salary or regular income.

One obstacle for rural youth to enhance their agricultural or forestry production or start a business is the lack of access to financial support or credit. When asked, youth always mention lack of capital as a bottleneck in their attempt to start a business or an innovation process. In some cases, it forces or encourages them to migrate to urban areas where there are more chances of finding counterparts to assist them with their businesses aspirations and interests.

Another threat is the limited infrastructure and limited market access in rural areas, as well as the lack of employment opportunities for youth who have finished formal or non-formal education. Additionally, if a graduate decides to stay in the local community, he or she risks ending up in a job where the skills gained from the education are not used due to lack of job opportunities.

Employment for qualified candidates is possible via the MOAF. For instance, the Government aims to provide financial support to DAFEO to recruit more staff. Thus, graduates can be employed by DAFEO. The numbers of recruits would, however, be small.

Another issue of concern is that graduates from technical schools located in urban areas often do not want to return to their village because of the poor living conditions and because they prefer life in an urban area (MOAF, personal communication, 2005).

Limited agricultural production and limited business skills among rural youth are other obstacles. Even though their family can pass on traditional production skills, they still end up with a lack of contemporary skills. Without knowledge and skills in modern agricultural technology, rural youth are at a disadvantage. And their development is affected.

There also exists a language barrier that needs to be addressed. Staff from the MOAF and the national and provincial extension offices are mainly Lao Loum who only speak the Lao Loum language. They are thus not able to communicate effectively with farmers from other ethnic groups. This means that farmers from other ethnic groups will lag behind or miss out in training, knowledge and skills of new techniques. Also, there is often not an equal inclusion of women and men in training and skills-development activities, leaving women lagging behind or missing out.

2b. Opportunities regarding rural youth and employment

Youth involvement in agriculture can be improved through greater attention to job training possibilities. Youth are open-minded, interested in new techniques and quicker in adapting to new methods. One recommended approach is to have youth work as volunteers in villages in cooperation with DAFEO. In doing so, they receive practical training through demonstration plots, pilot projects, etc. They then can transfer the knowledge and skills to the rest of their village. This concept responds to the reality that people's willingness and commitment to be trained and then transfer the new knowledge and skills is greater if the instruction comes from someone they know from the community instead of being taught or passed to them from strangers. Having youth work as volunteers also can ease the language barrier with older farmers, as youth in general are better at reading, writing and understanding Lao language compared to the older generation. It is thus recommended to include male and female upland ethnic group members in the NAFES staff to reduce the language and cultural barriers.

Facilitating and extending youth's access to credit could be the best starting point to encouraging rural youth to invest in agricultural endeavours such as vegetable production, livestock rearing, chicken raising or other agricultural activities that produce outputs they can sell in their village, at local markets or when buyers visit their village for trading. This extended access to credit also can improve youth's possibilities to engage in alternative income-generating activities.

Currently, all crops and NTFPs are sold without any or very limited processing at the local level. Processing could be a way to raise income from these products, but it requires skills training. And it has to be incorporated into development projects, which, of course, should be undertaken in a sustainable way without overexploitation of NTFPs. This necessitates improved management of NTFPs in villages to avoid overexploitation. Another possibility is to have gardens or fields with certain NTFPs, such as mak neng (cardamom), that can be cultivated outside the forest areas. Processing NTFPs offers considerable potential, as processed items add value to the products before being sold to middlemen (MOAF, personal communication, 2005).

There also exists the TeleFood project opportunity, which FAO manages and which supports small-scale community food-security projects. It offers a possibility for rural youth and rural youth organizations to access funding up to US$10 000 per project to start crop production, animal raising and other enterprises. However, according to the Deputy Chief of Cabinet for the LYU, Lao youth do not know how to fill out the application form or submit project proposals (LYU, personal communication, 2005). There is, thus, a need for FAO to offer training on how to submit applications for the TeleFood project.

Another sector where youth labour can be used is in development and infrastructure projects. Establishing new schools, road construction, water-supply schemes and other projects offer future employment opportunities for youth, as does the maintenance needs once they are built. Also, providing improved access to primary health care will require more health care workers, and if young people are provided appropriate training, that could present employment possibilities.

3a. Obstacles regarding rural youth health

As mentioned previously, rural youth have more limited awareness and less access to information and health care facilities than urban youth. They thus face greater risk of disease infections, which under more urban conditions would be less of a problem because there would be health care facilities providing preventative care. Unfortunately, many rural areas do not even have access to basic sanitary facilities or clean water.

Due to traditions of getting married and giving birth at a young age, rural females are likely to experience more health problems, considering that rural women on average give birth to twice as many children as their urban counterparts. Also, there is a lack of midwife services available in the rural upland areas.

Limited knowledge about health and sexually transmitted diseases heightens rural youth vulnerability to becoming infected with HIV or other STDs. Although the number of HIV infected persons is still low, there is a need for awareness-raising campaigns to prevent the spreading of it.

3b. Opportunities regarding rural youth health

The increasing focus on reproductive health through awareness raising will help safeguard and improve the lives of rural women through a reduction in child births. The improved awareness and knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases will also reduce the risks of young mothers becoming infected. Also, enhancing basic sanitary facilities will improve the health of rural youth and help reduce diseases caused by poor sanitation standards.

Shifting traditional cultivation patterns also can have positive impact. By changing the agricultural production from primarily rice production into a more varied range of crops would provide the rural population with a more varied diet, which will benefit the general state of health in the rural areas. The positive effect of this could be even more enhanced if agricultural development projects promote the cultivation of especially nutritious fruits and vegetables.

4 In this study, the UN definition of poverty (people living on less than US$1 per day) is used.

5 In comparison, Thailand ranks at 73, Cambodia at 130, Viet Nam at 108 and Myanmarat 129 on the list. From 2002 to 2005, Lao PDR moved from 143 to 133 (UNDP, 2005).

6 There was a massive focus on the total eradication of opium poppy cultivation in Lao PDR by the end of 2005. Although Lao PDR remains the fourth largest producer, there are big differences in production per country: Afghanistan is estimated to produce 4 200 metric tons (mt); Myanmar 370 mt; Colombia 73 mt and Lao PDR weighs in at 43 mt.

7 The main markets for NTFPs include China, Thailand and Viet Nam.

8 NPEP was changed to the national growth and poverty eradication strategy (NGPES). NGPES is the Government's blueprint for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

9 Non-formal education: "Learning activities typically organized outside the formal education system. The term is generally contrasted with formal and informal education. In different contexts, non-formal education covers educational activities aimed at imparting adult literacy, basic education for out-of-school children and youth, life skills, work skills, and general culture. Such activities usually have clear learning objectives, but vary in duration, in conferring certification for acquired learning, and in organizational structure." (UNESCO, 2005:421) Vocational training can be formal and non-formal education.

10 Where the remaining 21.6 percent goes is not possible to extract from the data in the UNDP human development report 2005.

11 Child trafficking (Supported by Save the Children Fund U.K.); child labour prevention (Save the Children Fund Norway); UXO awareness (UNICEF); preschool construction (Sweden); magazine (Norway); reproductive health (UNFPA); HIV/AIDS/STD (BURNET Australia); community sanitation (UNICEF); and HIV/AIDS (UNICEF).

12 The LYU collaborated with FAO in conducting a national rural youth workshop on agriculture and food security in 2005, which indicates their awareness of the need to get more involved.

13 The study is based on interviews with 253 victims of human trafficking and their families in 2004.

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