Marriage is popular in Laos, and Lao people from most ethnic groups, particularly women, tend to get married young. A much more restrictive attitude is taken by the authorities towards Lao people marrying foreigners and this happens much more rarely than in neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.
About Marriage in Laos
The Lao Government does not provide reliable figures on the average at which women get married in Laos. A United Nations survey of Lao women aged 20 to 49 found that 37% had been married by the age of 18. This practice of marrying young is facilitated by the legal system. In Laos the legal age of marriage is 15 years old. The practice is also supported by local custom.
In many rural communities early marriage is seen as a way of stopping pregnancies out of wedlock, which is important in a society that has strong traditional values. However, marrying that early has a number of negative consequences particularly for young women, but also for the country as a whole and it contributes to the cycle of poverty in Laos:
- After marriage women normally cease full time education in favour of working, child care and care of the family.
- Having children young is a major health risk. Women aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from child birth, including death, than older women.
- Marriage of younger women is believed to facilitate hum trafficking of Lao people. Estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of Lao people are trafficked each year, and that 90% of those are females aged 12 to 18. A common story is that the girls who are trafficked are taken by the men by they have married.
In the Lao the practice of marrying young stops women getting educated and contributing more to the development of their country. It also leads to the exploitation of women and health complications, putting pressure on health systems which are poorly resourced.
Issues with the age at which Lao girls end up getting wed aside, marriage is an important institution and a joyous occasion for most Lao families. The marriage practices and traditions vary among ethnic groups in Laos.
The customs around marriage for the majority ethnic group in Laos, the Lao Lum who are characterised by their shared language which is similar to Thai, are very similar to those of people of the North Eastern Region of Thailand:
- Men, or more accurately their families, must pay a dowry to the family of the bride shortly before the wedding ceremony takes place. The amount varies according to desirability of the female in question and the relative wealth of the two families.
- The family of the bride will typically meet with the family of the bride at their house to agree to and arrange the terms of the marry.
- Before the wedding takes place, the most important and lively spectacle of a traditional Lao wedding is a procession to the bride’s house where the groom must pay money to pass through gates into the home of the bride. The groom is traditionally accompanied by their family, musicians and pretty much everyone in the village.
- The ceremony itself will normally take place in the biggest room of the bride’s house. The ceremony typically involves an older relative chanting, and the tying of string around the wrists of the bride and bridegroom by the family and other guests. The practice is related to traditional beliefs in Satsana Phi, which is ancient folk religion centred around spirit worship. Christians in Laos will typically also have a Christian ceremony in addition to the traditional wedding.
Marriage in Laos for Foreigners
In Laos it’s a criminal offence for a Lao person and a foreigner to have a physical relationship unless they are married. The law isn’t proactively enforced but it can be if the parents of the Lao person disapproves of the relationship or someone else in authority, such as the senior teacher in a school or university, decided to complain to the police.
Actually getting married to a Lao person legally in Laos is difficult and expensive for foreigners and not many people attempt it. You need to get all kinds of forms completed by various government agencies and the active approval of local and provincial authorities. The logic is that all these checks will stop the aforementioned trafficking problem, which clearly given the numbers they don’t, but they will effectively stop more genuine couples getting married in Laos.
A common way around this problem is for the Lao person to marry with a foreigner in another country such as Thailand where the rules are less strict.