Strengthening the Lao Women's Union
and Preparing for a National Women's Machinery

UNIFEM support for the women of Laos has led to the creation of the country’s first national machinery for women. The National Commission for the Advancement of Women in Lao (NCAW Lao), formally approved by the Prime Minister in early 2002, will be the focal point for gender mainstreaming in government. It will work alongside the Lao Women’s Union, a mass organization that supports women across the country as well as with government line ministries in Laos.


The Lao Women’s Union (LWU) was originally established in 1955 to mobilize women for the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Over forty years later, it has a membership of some 600,000 women nation-wide. In 1991 the LWU was recognized under the Constitution of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) as having responsibility for:

  • responding to women’s development needs;
  • promoting the status and role of women; and
  • promoting unity amongst women of different ethnic groups and social strata throughout the country.

As the only institution in Laos then formally recognized as having responsibility for advocating for women’s rights and gender concerns, the LWU had a unique opportunity to influence policies, plans and practices of both government and non-government organizations with respect to the needs and status of women in Lao PDR.

UNIFEM’s involvement with the LWU spans 13 years (1990-2003) starting with support for Lao Cotton, the marketing arm for cotton and silk garments produced by women. Sensing new opportunities in 1991, UNIFEM started the first of two projects to strengthen the LWU’s capacity as an advocate for women’s issues, to influence policies and programmes of the government. In preparation for the drafting of the first Development Plan for Women, training workshops were held in 1994.

The Development Plan for Women of Laos (1995-2000) was completed in 1995 and became the Lao women’s contribution to the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA). One part of the DPWL stated that there should be a national women’s machinery. UNIFEM and LWU together worked through an inclusive process to make this women’s machinery a reality. In fact the process itself was an exercise in gender mainstreaming, where senior male members of line ministries, together with the women, formed the Ad-Hoc Committee for the Establishment of the National Commission for the Advancement of Women of Laos. A third UNIFEM project, approved in 2000, sent 40 senior members of the LWU and other government agencies to study the role and functions of the different types of women’s machineries in Viet Nam and the Philippines. The follow-up workshop recommended the establishment of the National Commission for the Advancement of Women in Lao PDR.

NCAW Lao became a reality in early 2002, when the Office of the Prime Minister of Laos announced its approval. An official decree is expected to follow once members of the Commission have been finalized. NCAW Lao will then be the focal point for gender mainstreaming in government, and also to monitor implementation of CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, and other government commitments on equal rights between men and women. The LWU continues its work on behalf of Lao women.

Details of the three projects follow.

Strengthening the Capacity of Lao Women's Union

This project strengthened the LWU through a participatory process of strategic planning.

During the project, the senior management of the Union identified the main issues confronting the women of Lao, defined the main business of the organization and its specific objectives for the next five years, and produced a draft Strategic Plan.

The first project activity was a study tour by members of the LWU to Bangkok. Following the study tour, the LWU undertook a comprehensive review of the status and role of the LWU in light of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), with the assistance of a management consultant, Kathy Tannous. The study entitled ‘Strengthening of the Lao Women’s Union: An Economic Review’ was completed in December 1994.

The next phase of the project was the drafting of a Strategic Plan facilitated by a Thai/Lao speaking international organizational management consultant and a national management consultant, Dr. Bounthavey. This was followed by a series of drafts, with the LWU taking a stronger role each time in its preparation, until they were confident enough to present a final draft to the Lao Government in 1997.

The project had a marked impact on the capacity of the LWU to identify appropriate and feasible objectives and strategic interventions for their work in advancing the status and position of Lao women. A major outcome of the participatory approach of the project was that the Union gradually took over the lead of the project from the international consultant. While the consultant was largely responsible for the preparation of the first draft of the Strategic Plan, the LWU was able to prepare the final draft. In claiming ownership of the Plan, the LWU produced a document that accurately represented both LWU priorities and concerns, and the LWU’s understanding of, and capacity to, undertake strategic planning.

A main focus of the Draft Strategic Plan was the establishment of a new, national machinery for women with a clear mandate to lead mainstreaming within government.

It was felt that the creation of a national machinery would clarify the role of the LWU, which had been essentially a collaborative one, representing the interests and needs of women and assisting mainstream agencies and programmes to effectively meet these needs. As a mass organization, it has often been described as an NGO which has led to confusion over its role in mainstreaming women and gender within government.

Strengthening the Lao Women's Union

This project provided assistance to the LWU in revising and submitting the Five Year Strategic Plan to the Lao Government for approval, and negotiating with mainstream government departments to identify specific areas for joint implementation.

The main objectives were to develop gender responsive analytical and policy development skills among senior staff from the LWU and key ministries; and develop a project proposal incorporating an action plan to implement the Five Year Strategic Plan.

Representatives from the LWU and potential government partners attended a series of four workshops focusing on:

  • problem solving skills;
  • developing an understanding of basic economic principles related to women’s economic roles in Lao PDR;
  • negotiation and communications skills for policy development; and
  • gender mainstreaming.

The Problem Analysis Skills Workshop was led by international organizational management consultant Annie Kennedy. Participants formed Advisory Groups to identify and prioritize programmes within the Union project proposal that would support the implementation of the Strategic Plan. The workshop proposed that the new project focus on building transformational leadership capacity in the LWU, and promote mainstreaming in two key areas; women’s economic empowerment, and women’s participation in political decision-making.

The proposal was finalized and submitted to UNIFEM for funding, forming the basis of LAO/00/W01 (see project description below).

The Gender Mainstreaming workshop was facilitated by a mainstreaming expert, Rosa Linda Miranda. The workshop clarified the concept of gender mainstreaming, demonstrated how it works, and how the LWU could apply it in their policy, planning and programmes, as well as in the implementation of the Strategic Plan. The Gender Mainstreaming workshop also assisted the Union to identify the key partners within government whose support would be needed to establish the National Commission for the Advancement of Women (NCAW) in Lao PDR.

The results and recommendations of the Gender Mainstreaming Workshop were later presented to a national Orientation workshop held in May 2001, as part of the project to directly support the establishment of NCAW Lao (described below).

This series of workshops enabled UNIFEM, through a participatory process, to help the LWU develop the skills and understanding needed to identify the specific areas of focus in the following UNIFEM project that would oversee the implementation of the key elements of their Five Year Plan.

Preparatory Assistance for Capacity Building and Gender Mainstreaming in Lao PDR

Under previous projects UNIFEM assisted the Lao Women’s Union to develop a Five-Year Strategic Plan for 1998-2002. The Strategic Plan recognized the need for a new national machinery for women, with a clear status and mandate to directly participate in national policy making.

This project responded to that need by sending 22 senior women and 18 men from a national task force to study the national women’s machineries in the Philippines and Viet Nam. The task force included representatives from the LWU and many government bodies including the International Relations Committee, Lao National Front, Lao Youth Union, State Planning Committee, National Assembly, National Statistics Office, and others.

Viet Nam was chosen because of its similarities with the Lao system of government. The Viet Nam study tour examined the role and functions of the National Committee for the Advancement of Women (NCFAW). The Philippines was selected because of its extensive experience in gender mainstreaming and the strength of the national machinery. The Philippines study tour examined the role and functions of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW), particularly the role of the Commission in supporting gender mainstreaming in other government agencies.

Following the study tour, an Orientation Workshop was held to allow members of the study tours to present reports on the lessons learned from other national machineries, and explained the rationale for a similar machinery for Lao PDR, highlighting the different structure and functions of the LWU and the proposed NCAW Lao PDR. During this workshop the LWU presented their now approved Five Year Plan (1998-2002), as well as the outcomes of the earlier Gender Mainstreaming workshop. The Orientation Workshop developed the recognition that, since the LWU is a mass organization funded by the government yet not part of it, Lao needed a specific national machinery with a mandate to promote gender mainstreaming within government.

The value of the participation of senior men from the various mainstream agencies in the study tour was evident during the workshop. For example, one senior official (a man) suggested that there was no need for the new national machinery because its functions overlapped those of the LWU. Since it was for the advancement of women, the LWU was the appropriate body. Immediately, another senior official (also a man, who had joined the Philippines study tour) from Foreign Affairs leapt to his feet. His response provided a clear explanation of: first, gender mainstreaming as the responsibility of the government; second, why the LWU as a mass organization could not lead mainstreaming in government; and third, the benefits of mainstreaming for both women and men, as well as the government by improving the effectiveness of policies and programmes.

At its close, the workshop recommended the establishment of the National Commission for the Advancement of Women in Lao PDR. This would be an official women’s machinery headed by the Prime Minister and located within the Prime Minister’s office. An Executive Committee was established to design and obtain official endorsement for the new body which will become the focal point for gender mainstreaming in government, and also monitor implementation of CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, and other government commitments on equal rights between men and women.

This outcome was a milestone in the work undertaken by UNIFEM in supporting the capacity building of the Lao Women’s Union. The National Commission was formally established in January 2003 upon approval by the Prime Minister. The Commission will begin activities once final membership has been determined.

Dated: 28April2003


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