The first comprehensive national population census of Laos was taken in 1985; it recorded a population of 3.57 million. Annual population growth was estimated at between 2.6 and 3.0 percent, and the 1991 population was estimated at 4.25 million. The national crude birth rate was estimated at about forty-five per 1,000, while the crude death rate was about sixteen per 1,000. Fertility rates were consistently high from ages twenty through forty, reflecting a lack of contraceptive use. Each woman bore an average of 6.8 children.
Birth control techniques were not generally available to the population before the late 1980s, although there was limited use of oral contraceptives from the late 1960s through 1975. The government took a pronatalist stance, believing that the country was underpopulated. The overall population density was only eighteen persons per square kilometer, and in many districts, the density was fewer than ten persons per square kilometer. Population density per cultivated hectare was considerably higher, however, ranging from 3.3 to 7.8 persons per hectare. Because high fertility and poor nutrition contributed to the poor health of women and high infant and child mortality, the Federation of Women's Union since the late 1980s has advocated a policy of birth spacing to improve the health of women and their children. Official prohibitions on contraceptive technology were relaxed, but use of contraception was still low as of mid-1994 and virtually nonexistent in villages distant from provincial capitals or the Thai border. Regional differences in birth rates as of late 1988--forty per 1,000 in Vientiane and Bolikhamxai provinces versus forty-eight per 1,000 in other provinces--reflected uneven access to contraception.
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