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Lao PDR: Progress and challenges in delivering rights and choices for all from Cairo to Nairobi and beyond

12 November marks the start of the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, when world leaders will review the progress made in ensuring rights and choices for all since the adoption of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (PoA, ICPD) in 1994 in Cairo. It will lead to renewed commitments to place the reproductive health and rights of people at the center of national and global development, a promise made 25 years at ICPD in Cairo.

In Lao PDR, we have seen significant advances, 2019 was marked by the Ministry of Planning and Investment leading the celebration of ICPD25 and committing with many partners to accelerate the unfinished business of ICPD in Lao PDR.

Lao PDR is home to 7.1 million people from 50 ethnic groups, with two-thirds of the population living in rural areas. Fifty-eight percent of Lao people are under the age of 25 years old, and among them, over 700,000 are girls aged 10-19. While still being a Least Developed Country (LDC), Lao PDR has achieved high economic growth of over 6 percent for many years, as well as overall improvements in social sector development. Lao PDR is working on a smooth transition strategy and aims to graduate from the LDC status in 2024.

The Government's priority is to ensure equitable access to social services, regardless of economic status, gender, and geographic locations. Equity is the keyword that guides ICPD PoA and will guide strategies beyond Nairobi.

What’s changed in Lao PDR since Cairo?

People in Lao PDR have experienced real changes in their lives as the government and development partners have been advancing the ICPD promises made in Cairo:

  • Safer motherhood: With maternal deaths reduced from 1,100 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 206 per 100,000 in 2015. Lao PDR was one of the three countries that reached the maternal mortality reduction target set in the Millennium Development Goals;
  • Safer childbirth: With over 1,800 trained midwives across the country, 6 out of 10 babies are now delivered with skilled attendance;
  • Better access to modern contraceptives for married women. The unmet need for contraception dropped to 14 percent in 2017 from almost 40 percent in 2000. More women and couples can plan if, when and how many children to have;
  • Increased availability of youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services gradually across the country;
  • Higher national capacity to produce disaggregated data, through Lao National Census 2015, Lao Social Indicator Survey (LSIS II), Gender-Based Violence (GBV) data and other survey instruments;
  • Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) integrated as of 2019 into teaching curriculums for secondary schools and Technical, Vocational and Educational Training systems (TVET);
  • Consensus on increasing investment in adolescent girls and youth from the national government and development partners through the Noi 2030 Framework.

Leaving no one behind: Accelerated actions for remaining challenges  

Challenges around disparities remain with regards to access to information and services due to differences related to geographic, economic, social and cultural factors, compounded by gender disparities.

Taking the family planning programme as an example, its national expansion has led to a decline of fertility from 5.8 children per woman in 1995 to the current level of 2.7.  Almost 75 percent of unmarried women aged 15-19 do not have access to contraception but wish to use it. On average, 1 in 10 girls aged 15-19 have already begun childbearing, and the proportion of teenage mothers is much higher among girls from the poor and less educated communities. 

Compared with boys, young girls face higher burden of household chores, higher secondary school dropouts and consequently tend to be brides and mothers while still in childhood. Violence against women is a concern, with Lao PDR showing the global average of 30 percent of women reporting having experienced violence. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development upholds the principle of leaving no one behind. Equity is a key to empower everyone to make informed choices. Only when the human capital investments are made to unleash the full potential of all men and women, of all boys and girls, can the country reap the demographic dividend in the fullest and sustain high economic growth in the long run.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in partnership with the UN agencies and a growing number of development partners, has supported bold initiatives in support of national efforts to realise the ICPD PoA. These include: 

Linking population dynamics in the planning of the 9th NSEDP

Effective population dynamics linkages are being built in the planning of the 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan for 2021-2025 (9th NSEDP) through the Lao PDR 2030 Study, with comprehensive projection and analyses of population structure and trends and costed interventions in key sectors.

Furthermore, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Lao PDR with support from partners has renewed its commitment to advance the rights of the child and to enable full realization of the  potential of the Lao Generation 2030 through investments in children, adolescents and young people as a key priority and important pillar of the 9th NSEDP and by developing a national and provincial action plan for the Lao Generation 2030 along with a monitoring and accountability framework.

Forging diversified partnerships for innovative solutions

Partnerships with media and the private sector as strategic allies open up new ways to address development, particularly to expand information and services to the most vulnerable. For instance, China Radio International Lao Branch (CRI Lao), the Sinouk Coffee and the Banque Franco-Lao (BFL) have all signed up to boost support for empowering adolescent girls and young people in Lao PDR using their business expertise and networks. 

Engaging Lao youth to act on the SDGs

With 58 percent of the population under 25, youth are a force to advance the SDGs. Youth participation has been progressively increased and the campaign Me, My Body, My Planet, My Future will serve as a vehicle for youth engagement in SDGs, recognising the connection between the individual, the planet and the future. 

Earlier, marathon runners campaigned with UNFPA to end teenage pregnancy, while in Savannakhet Province, a group of girls from remote areas got the chance to engage in a dialogue with national policymakers on ideas for the draft national youth policy.

The recently launched Accelerator Lab Laos, supported by the UN Development Programme, is another platform that empowers youth to take the lead in addressing social issues through innovative and local solutions. Currently, more than 50 students of the National University of Laos are involved in a campaign by Accelerator Lab together with Vientiane City Office for Management and Services, which enables youth to raise awareness at That Luang festival on waste management, understand littering behaviors and find solutions to mitigate single-use plastics, in line with the goals of Me, My Body, My Planet, My Future.

Enhancing national capacity for resilience and response to sexual and reproductive health needs in humanitarian situations

In the tragic flooding in Attapeu Province, within the overall emergency response and recovery, UNFPA was the first agency to provide dignity and clean delivery kits to help ensure safer pregnancy and childbirth and basic hygiene needs of women and girls. Since then training for preparedness and GBV prevention has been imparted to local authorities to improve the quality of services for displaced populations.

What next? Renewed promise at Nairobi Summit and beyond

The national government of Lao PDR has shown their strong commitments to further advance ICPD and SDGs. The delegation of Lao PDR, attending the Nairobi Summit 12-14 November, will make specific measurable time-bound commitments to realise ICPD PoA.

The implementation of these commitments through innovation continued new partnerships and above all accelerated action will serve to move Lao PDR on the path to realising the targets set by the SDGs.


Co-authored by Mariam Khan, UNFPA Representative in Lao PDR and Sara Sekkenes, UN Resident Coordinator in Lao PDR.