Fight for equality – women’s rights in Thailand

Thailand in 2021. Risking their freedoms, a young generation demands democratic rights from a system that imprisons everyone simply defaming the king. Yet, more and more women and girls are standing up for their rights fighting for gender equality in the Southeast-Asian country.

In defiance of potential consequences, the younger generation and their ideal of a more equal and freer world is growing more vocal and more visible in Thailand. One of the groups at the forefront of the movement for women’s rights is Women for Freedom and Democracy, a pressure group from Bangkok. Aiming to dismantle the existing patriarchy in Thailand, the group plays a leading role at protests and has developed an online platform to report sexual harassment.[1] Their large-scale activities including their initiative “pussy painting” have attracted great attention by breaking taboos and questioning existing social structures. Yet, gender discrimination and inequality in Thailand is and remains a challenge in everyday life for many girls and women.

Figure 1. Protestors in Bangkok breaking social taboos by taking part in “pussy painting” initiated by the interest group Women for Freedom and Democracy (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2020).

But how to achieve gender parity in a system that has for so long supressed the self-determination of women?

In order to understand the motivation behind these women campaigning, one would have to reflect back on the past and current role of women and girls in Thailand.

Traditionally, Thai girls have been expected to behave like a “poo-dee” which means a good person belonging to the upper class of Thailand’s social hierarchy[2]. Prestige foremost in terms of presentation and appearance is still considered one of the main indicators to be viewed as such as “good person”. While the importance of maintaining a good image accounts for all genders, the expectations towards girls with regards to achievements different to being a wife and mother are limited. In a survey conducted by the organization “Thailand’s Women”, 60% of men in Thailand still consider household work as the duty of women.[3]

Instead of pursuing an own career, Thai girls are expected “to make sacrifices, to take the back seat and to say the right thing, which is either agreeing or complimenting, usually agreeing and then complimenting” as put forward by Rosalyn Bejrsuwana, a 16-year old student protesting for change.[4] Therefore, confrontation, questioning but also ambition are traditionally characteristics not attributed to girls and women. Contrary, Thai men are expected to be masculine and authoritarian and show physical as well as emotional strength.[5]

Considering these traditional norms, women in Thailand ascribe rather low prioritization to themselves by following their own path or speaking up for themselves. The roots of this social construct can also be found in the country’s main belief Buddhism which considers women as inferior to men.[6] Given their expected authoritarian position in a relationship, Thai men are viewed as the ones with sexual prowess. From this cultural context, it becomes apparent that a link is likely to exist between the socially deprived role of women and the thriving sex industry and exploitation of women across Thailand including domestic violence.[7]

Figure 2. Women in Thailand cannot become monks in Thailand and are even prohibited from entering certain temples as they menstruate (Unpacking Thailand, 2017).

In particular the voices of girls and women in the country have become louder also more and more frequently joined by young men. This clearly also goes along with the technological advancements and globalization of today’s world. People in Thailand especially from rural areas have a widened access to information even beyond geographical barriers and can more easily connect themselves with likeminded people.[8] Also, social media platforms play a key role in learning about women’s rights in other contexts and expressing concerns with regards to gender equality to a wider audience[9]. However, according to the chief executive of NGO Plan International “activists, including those campaigning for gender equality […], were often targeted particularly viciously, and their lives and families threatened”.[10] Hence, social media can similarly be an accelerator for harassment against women with harassers hiding behind anonymous identities.

  • Abusive and insulting language 59% 59%
  • Purposeful embarrassment 41% 41%
  • Threats of sexual violence 39% 39%
  • Sexual harassment 37% 37%
  • Threats of physical violence 21% 21%

Figure 3. Results of the survey conducted by Plan International showing the percentage of girls and young women facing online harassment (Plan International, 2020).

Reacting to social changes, Thailand’s government has introduced certain efforts in supporting women’s rights. These include the Gender Equality Act from 2015 as well as the ‘Women Development Strategy’ by to advance development in women’s rights. Nevertheless, not all actions are being implemented to the extent as promised with women remaining unequally effected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation and their role in society. Besides, especially older women still often lack an understanding towards their personal rights. Therefore, older generations are less likely for instance to speak up on experienced abuse or violence and access and claim the required protection for themselves[11].

In many cases, the status of gender (in)equality becomes evident when comparing women and men in employment. Looking at South-East Asia and the Pacific, the region accounts for 9.1 million of 67.1 million domestic workers worldwide. More importantly in this context is the share of women which accounts for 83% of all domestic workers in South-East Asia[12]. Domestic work has been identified as particularly vulnerable to economic exploitation as well as physical and sexual abuse especially for female migrants coming to Thailand[13]. Since domestic work is traditionally considered as a natural extension of women’s household work, the employment is typically valued as informal and unskilled. For this reason, workers are often not protected by labor legislation and experience discrimination based on gender stereotypes including low wages or noncompliance with labor and human rights. Until this day and despite the steady increase in worker numbers, Thailand has not ratified the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 yet and is currently taking no efforts in improving the situation.[14]

Figure 4. Nan Zar Ni Myint from UN Women is working to raise the awareness of domestic workers with regard to their rights (UN Women, 2021)

With regards to this situation, it might even come as a surprise that women present a quite high share in leadership roles. With 37% of all leading positions in Thailand held by women the country surpasses most Asian countries as well as the global average (24%)[15]. A different picture is presented in politics where Thailand ranks among the lowest countries in a global ranking of gender composition in ministerial positions. By 2021, not a single woman can be found in any of the 24 positions leaving gender inequality in the government on the same level as in countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea.[16]

Despite a rather favourable development, women in the workplace still face degradation based on their gender[17]. This links to the expectation of women to conform with gender norms instead of building a career, limited access to employment and education opportunities and social security benefits.[18] To counteract violence and harassment in the context of the workplace, policies are needed as well as significant changes to the culture of victim blaming. Gender-based discrimination and violence is integrated in Thai society in such a way that even government officials continue blaming women for sexual crimes against them.[19] Consequently, victims of discrimination, sexual assault and harassment often do not dare to speak up also considering their lack of legal protection[20].

Considering that female workers in Thailand are by far more represented in unprotected jobs than men, women are disproportionally affected also by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. A study conducted by the International Labour Organization in mid-2020 revealed that about 80% of all domestic workers in Asia and the Pacific were significantly impacted by the pandemic[21]. With missing legal and social protections, many domestic workers have no means of support when losing their jobs due to the economic recession. Left with nothing, the risk to fall into the hands of human traffickers or exploitative circumstances rises dramatically.

In order to achieve gender equality, ultimately both sides women and men would have to find a common ground. Accordingly, for gender inequality to diminish, girls and women would have to claim their rights in the same way as boys and men would have to acknowledge their equal status in terms of self-determination. Gender equality has never happened overnight. A shift in mindset and ultimately attitudes needs time and persistence yet is far from impossible. With new generation raising their voice for equality, there is hope that Thailand’s deep-rooted social construct slowly begins to shift in the future.

Sources

[1] Wongsamuth, N. (2020, November 3). Thai women use pro-democracy protests to challenge sexism. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Thai women use pro-democracy protests to challenge sexism (trust.org)

[2] Bejrsuwana, R. (2020, June 19). Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition. Thisrupt. Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition – Thisrupt

[3] UN Women. (2020, February 24). My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them. My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them | UN Women – Headquarters

[4] Bejrsuwana, R. (2020, June 19). Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition. Thisrupt. Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition – Thisrupt

[5] Xu, X., Kerley, K. R., & Sirisunyaluck, B. (2011). Understanding Gender and Domestic Violence From a Sample of Married Women in Urban Thailand. Journal of Family Issues, 32(6), 791–819. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X10386306

[6] Dewaraja, L. S. (1981). The position of women in Buddhism. Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc. The Position of Women in Buddhism (buddhanet.net)

[7] Bejrsuwana, R. (2020, June 19). Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition. Thisrupt. Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition – Thisrupt

[8] Wong, K. Y., Xynou, M., Filasto, A. (2017). The State of Internet Censorship in Thailand. OONI. The State of Internet Censorship in Thailand | OONI

[9] UN Women. (2020, February 24). My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them. My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them | UN Women – Headquarters

[10] Plan International. (2020). Free to be online? Girls’ and young women’s experiences of online harassment. sotwgr2020-commsreport-en.pdf

[11] UN Women. (2020, February 24). My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them. My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them | UN Women – Headquarters

[12] UN Women. (2021, March 10). This is what leadership looks like: Nan Zar Ni Myint empowers migrant domestic workers in Thailand amidst the pandemic. This is what leadership looks like: Nan Zar Ni Myint empowers migrant domestic workers in Thailand amidst the pandemic | UN Women – Headquarters

[13] International Labour Organization. (2006). Domestic Workers in Southeast Asia: A decent work priority. Decent Work_English_Final.indd (ilo.org)

[14] International Labour Organization. (n.d.). Ratifications of C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). Ratifications of ILO conventions: Ratifications by Convention

[15] International Labour Organization. (2010). Domestic workers in Thailand: their situation, challenges and the way forward. Thailand Women In Politics:  Why Thailand’s Women Are So Successful in Business (But Not Politics) (bloombergquint.com)

[16] UN Women. (2021). Women in Politics: 2021. women-in-politics-2021-en.pdf (unwomen.org)

[17] Tun-Atiruj, C. (2020, August 12). Stigma and Harassment: the life of a female bartender. Thisrupt. Stigma and Harassment: the life of a female bartender – Thisrupt

[18] Togetherness for Equality (TEA). (2017). THAILAND: Discrimination and Violence against Women and LBTI Persons. INT_CEDAW_NGO_THA_27766_E.pdf (ohchr.org)

[19] Madden, L. (2018, September 1). Changing its stripes: Thailand’s culture of victim blaming in the #MeToo era. Citylife Chiang Mai. Changing its stripes: Thailand’s culture of victim blaming in the #MeToo era (chiangmaicitylife.com)

[20] UN Women. (2020, February 24). My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them. My take, your take: Women’s rights in Thailand, and men’s role in advancing them | UN Women – Headquarters

[21] International Labour Organization. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 crisis on loss of jobs and hours among domestic workers. wcms_747961.pdf (ilo.org)

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