Field, Forest, and Family: Women's Work and Power in Rural Laos

By Carol J. Ireson | Go to book overview

In short, while traditional family patterns are still intact, a number of factors seem to be affecting family and kin relations. Laws affecting polygynous marriage and girls' increasing literacy and school attendance seem likely to have a positive effect on women's domestic power. Socialist ideology about the "ideal socialist family" and economic opportunities that may affect geographical mobility and the division of labor by gender may have had both positive and negative effects on women's access to resources in the family. Finally, land registration practices that appear to disenfranchise female heirs and the diversion of girls' time from family labor to schooling may negatively affect the domestic power of adult women.


Conclusion

Women's domestic power as decision makers or as directors of domestic activities is often a reflection of their activities and resources in other arenas. Child-bearing and domestic activities are essential to household continuity and functioning, and require much of women's time and energy. But in all ethnic groups these activities are devalued and do not contribute to women's autonomy, power, or authority in or out of the domestic sphere. Traditional family organization and kin networks can subordinate or support women's control of domestic resources.

While ethnic Lao men are still the formal heads of households, temples, and villages, some level of female authority and even extra-household leadership is currently evident in many households and villages, as it has been traditionally. It is still the case, though, that Lao women exercising more intra-household (and even extra-household) power are often those living in their natal communities and older women in established and prosperous families.

Khmu women still have few areas of autonomy or power that might enable them to exercise domestic power and decision making. The involvement of some Khmu women in development projects, education or literacy training, and sales of their own or others' production may eventually enable more of these women to function with some level of autonomy within the household. Most Khmu women, however, are hampered by their weak position as inmarrying spouses and by a level of poverty that requires them to devote all of their energy to day-to-day subsistence. It may be possible for a few Khmu women leaders to emerge from traditional sources: female shamans or female relatives of Lao-assimilated Khmu leaders.

The authority of men over women continues to be a constant theme in Hmong social organization. Men's monopoly on power is so complete that even women's union projects meant to empower women are often channeled through the village head (see Chapter 8 for an example). Girls' power still seems limited to one or two years of sexual autonomy. A Hmong woman's powerlessness in her household after marriage is reinforced by her position as

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Field, Forest, and Family: Women's Work and Power in Rural Laos
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Tables and Illustrations xi
  • Preface xv
  • Acknowledgments xxi
  • 1 - Women: Power, Subordination, And Development 1
  • 2 - Laos: History, Society, And the Situation of Women 27
  • 3 - Traditional Sources of Power In Rural Women's Lives 55
  • 4 - Women of Luang Prabang 109
  • Notes 145
  • 5 - Women's Changing Agricultural Activities 149
  • Notes 176
  • 6 - Forest Gathering, Crafts, and Marketing 179
  • 7 - Family, Home, and Children 207
  • Notes 231
  • 8 - Politics of Gender and Development: Transformation of the Lao Women's Union 235
  • 9 - Rural Laotian Women: Work, Power, and Development 259
  • References 263
  • Index 279
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