The Government of the Lao PDR has announced a renewed focus on addressing violence against children, after a national survey showed more than a third of children in the developing country faced some form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

Laos Deputy Prime Minister Sonxay Siphanhdone (pictured above with youth who participated in the country’s first children’s forum) last Thursday urged the Lao Government, the public, and the private sector to work together to implement stronger child protection and participation systems.

The government’s renewed focus also comes after an inaugural National Children’s Forum was held in Vientiane in May, which revealed children in Laos lacked opportunities and the resources including online safety and sexual and reproductive health information, to help them identify and reduce the risks of violence.

The three-day forum, facilitated by ChildFund Laos and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, provided a space for 90 children across three provinces to voice their needs and share the key challenges they faced on a variety of issues, including violence and abuse.

The Lao Government’s renewed commitment to addressing violence against children has been applauded by the Australian ambassador to Laos, Jean-Bernard Carrasco.

“I am very proud the Australian Government has been able to support the Lao Government in this process, by contributing funding to the national survey,” he said this week in Vientiane, at an event celebrating International Children’s Day.

“I am pleased to acknowledge that both Australia and Laos have recognised children have the same human rights as adults, but that they also require special protection due to their vulnerability.

“Nowhere is protecting the rights of children more important than in Laos, where it is estimated that over 40 per cent of the population are under the age of 18.”

The Australian Government has launched a new initiative to prevent Australian volunteers from inadvertently contributing to child exploitation through the practice of orphanage tourism.

The Smart Volunteering Campaign discourages Australians from any form of short-term, unskilled volunteering in overseas orphanages.

At the launch, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “For decades, thousands of Australians from all backgrounds have given their time and skills selflessly to help communities overseas.

“However, some Australian volunteers have unwittingly contributed to harmful practices by participating in the “voluntourism” industry and engaging in orphanage tourism. This work will help to ensure the good intentions of so many Australians are fulfilled through positive actions that protect them and vulnerable children overseas.”

ChildFund Australia, which has long advocated for an end to orphanage tourism, has welcomed this recognition of the harmful impact institutional care can have on the most vulnerable children.

Mark Kavenagh, child protection advisor at ChildFund Australia, says: “We know that children are best off with their family, or with community-based care. In Australia today, children are very rarely placed in residential care. If they are, it is a last resort and never on a permanent basis.

“In developing communities, many orphanages or children’s homes are unregistered, under-regulated and under-staffed by workers lacking in formal qualifications. Children are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, neglect and sometimes exploitation.

“These risks are only heightened in facilities where volunteering tourists and visitors are permitted to have direct contact with children.”