By almost any measure, Laos is one of the world's most impoverished nations. Food intake does not meet basic requirements; there are virtually no sanitary facilities; and contamination of drinking water is widespread. Almost no families own cars, and bicycles and radios are considered luxuries. In general, the lowland Lao have the highest living standards, with lower standards prevailing among the upland tribes. The majority of the population engages in subsistence farming, and the country is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
Although the Constitution establishes equal rights for women, they have traditionally been subservient to men and have generally been discouraged from obtaining an education. However, the government claims that it has encouraged women to assume a larger role in national life, and girls are increasingly attending school. It has been reported that in urban areas, working women have higher incomes than their male counterparts. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is not widespread. The Family Code provides women with equal inheritance and marriage rights.
Minority highland tribes have limited ability to influence government decisions. The highland Hmong tribe, furthermore, reports instances of discrimination and harassment, including at least one disappearance of a prominent Hmong activist in 1993. The 1990 Law on Nationality, which took effect in 1994, grants greater citizenship rights to the Chinese and Vietnamese minorities.
In spite of the adoption of a Constitution in 1991 and National Assembly elections in 1993 and 1997, human rights abuses remain. Overt political dissent is not tolerated, and detention without due process is not uncommon. Prison conditions are harsh, and the government suppresses the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and restricts freedom of religion.