This issue of
Citylife

Chiang Mai Citylife > Articles > Where Thai Women Stand: the Status of Thai Women Today

Where Thai Women Stand: the Status of Thai Women Today

Virada Somswasdi has been teaching law at Chiang Mai University since 1973. She holds a LL.B. degree from Chulalongkorn University and an LL.M. from Cornell University, USA. In 1986 she established the Women’s Studies Programme (1993 developed as Women’s Studies Centre and 2009 gave birth to Women’s Studies Department) at Chiang Mai University. Her teaching subjects include Family Law, Feminist Jurisprudence; Law and Society; Women’s Movement; Sex Crimes and Women’s Human Rights. Among her many accolades she is the President of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Rural Development (APWLD), was awarded ‘Woman of Courage’ by the US Department of State, and in 2002 was awarded Woman of the Year by the prime minister’s office.

Citylife:
What is the status of women’s rights in Thailand today?

Virada:
If you look at the legal side, things are looking good. The constitution ensures our equality with men, many laws have been amended and changed over the past few years, especially during the National Assembly in 2007, a great leap since the Constitution Court promised in 1974 to protect the rights of women – allowing women to be judges and prosecutors, equal minimum wages, etc. – but was destroyed along with the torn constitution after the 1976 coup. In 1995 the constitution added gender equality to it but specified no details until 1997 when they began to ratify it. Since early 2003, a few leaps have been made such as allowing women to retain their status as miss as well as their surnames on their ID card when married, as well as allowing for husbands to adopt their wives’ surnames. This led to an eye raising outcome as many lawmakers who were against this change claimed that there was no interest in women to retain their surnames, hence the decades-long delay. However, within the first week of the law being ratified, over half the newly married women in Thailand kept their surnames rather than changing it to their husbands. While there are not many cases of women who have been married for a length of time changing their names back to their old surnames, this is more of a practical difficulty rather than a lack of conceptual interest.

That having been said, we need to look at the comprehensive picture. While women can retain their surnames, it is still that of their fathers’, therefore nothing much has changed. It is still a choice between two groups of men: fathers and husbands. If we wish to address the lingering problems, we must look at the roots, and that is that women need recognition and acceptance as a presence in society.

Citylife:
How does one go about changing these perceptions?

Virada:
We have to ask about women’s contributions to society: economically, socially, legally and politically. If we are not recognised, then our status will always be as low as society perceives our contribution to be. As there is a misconception that those with lower income contribute less to society, the same goes for women. The liberal interpretation is that without education, opportunities and representation there is no recognition. Look at education; amongst the poor, there is a large percentage gap between boys and girls in school. When the economy drops, it is the girls who are forced by their parents to drop out first. The workplace reflects education.

Citylife:
To what degree do women contribute to Thai society?

Virada:
Statistics can be misleading and while they show that we do not contribute economically as much as men, much of what we do contribute – housekeeping, child raising, cooking, shopping – are not figured in as an economic value. Think of an ajarn here at Chiang Mai University who pulls in a full day’s work but also has to do all of the above in order to save money for maids or cooks, when in actuality she may be able to contribute more income to her family if she worked. A vast amount of economic contribution is simply not factored in by the National Statistics Bureau, we are trying to change this. Socially, we are the reproducers, caretakers, nurturers, housekeepers, writers, educators, intellectuals…the list goes on. Yet not as many female artists or writers are as famous as their male counterparts. Except sex symbols. The question is not only whether society recognises our contribution, but to what degree? Do we even recognise our own contributions? Patriarchal values in Thailand have not only men as enforcers, but women too. We vote for male politicians, we seem to trust and believe in men more than women.

Citylife:
What are the challenges facing women in Thailand today?

Virada:
Even though things look good legally, there are still some laws which needs to be addressed as they are very biased towards men. For example the law on engagement prescribes that it has to be the man who starts and makes an offer of property, assets or cash to the woman’s family for her hand in marriage. This allows either party to demand compensation when there is a breach of contract. But the annoyance is that men are still legally the ones who make the engagement; this is actually anti constitutional and anti human rights. If a woman asks a man for an engagement then there is no protection against breach of contract.

Another injustice is sinsod (dowry). Giving money to the women’s elders as a form of payment for mothers’ milk…it looks good right? But what it means is that the man is giving money to the woman’s respected elders in exchange for the fact that the woman is marrying him. It is bribery! The older people have the power of influence over the women. And if mothers’ milk is so precious, what about the man’s mother’s milk? Many modern families are now saying no to sinsod; they don’t need it, it is irrelevant and people are beginning to see things clearly. So, there are actually some things which society is learning in terms of perceptions, but the law is not an instrument for change.

Citylife:
Why is it hard to change such laws?

Virada:
The system doesn’t allow for non-governmental agencies to have much say in the change of legislation. And government is dominated by men who lack the will to make the necessary changes.

Citylife:
How is the status of Thai women comparable to women in the rest of the world?

Virada:
We are not doing great. It may look better in terms of law as well as jobs but when you take in other issues such as trafficking, domestic violence, prostitution, it is very worrying. Prostitution trafficking numbers are much higher than labour trafficking numbers; this is a huge indicator. Violence against women, which cuts across all classes, is very high. Last year a report from all hospitals throughout Thailand showed an average of 70 cases a day of sexual abuse towards women _ only sexual mind you, not physical. And these are only the reported cases, what about the rest? Year on year there is no decline.

Socialist feminists believe that society is classed by capitalism which is dominated by men; they call for a shifting of society towards socialism where women will be more egalitarian. However, radical feminists look at the roots of the problem and according to them, it is that men control sexuality; therefore women’s roles are that of sexual objects. This explains why women have to marry, produce children, nurture a family and all the rest. Things like domestic violence are therefore perceived as personal. The personal is political, radical feminists claim. It affects public order, peaceful coexistence and damages the social fabric more than we think. Radical feminists therefore believe that unless men understand gender power and give us control of our bodies, especially reproductive rights, then women will never be liberated, nor gain gender equality.

Citylife:
Are Thai women entrepreneurial?

Virada:
Yes, you will see more female vendors in the marketplace and many women in the workforce…but what happens at home? Women may work, bring in an income, care for the family, raise children, but who makes the decisions as to how the money is spent? Men are still considered the heads of households here. National Statistics shows that whenever women are the heads of the household, the cost of living for the family is significantly lower than when men are in charge with far less spending on food and alcohol.

Citylife:
What are the problems facing single mothers or divorcees in Thailand?

Virada:
There is alimony by law. They have the right to ask for it, but enforcement is the issue. When there is divorce any guilty party is liable. The law has been amended now because before men could divorce women for one sexual indiscretion, whereas women could only divorce men if they could prove that the man was financially supporting another woman. Thankfully that has been corrected! Yet bigamy is still a huge issue. Some men will simply leave their wives and get married to another woman. There is no centralised information about marital status. On our IDs we have our religion and our blood type but no compulsory marital status. When considering custody of children, the court also only looks at the economic factor, so in a country where men generally earn more than women, this is problematic.

What is widely known is that wives’ legal deeds require husbands’ approval, little known is that men also require their wives’ signature. However, when ID cards don’t say if a man is married or not, more often than not this law is ignored.

Citylife:
What are the more immediate concerns and struggles for women in Thailand?

Virada:
Human and reproductive rights. Gender equality has to be equal in all aspects. While men and women are equal, we are, biologically, different. Women should have control of their bodies when they marry, when they get pregnant, when they have sex (without harming others) and have the choice to choose to have abortions. Legally the civil law states quite clearly that legal status of a person starts once they are born. This really should be the end of the conversation. But in the penal code (criminal law), it is stipulated that abortion is a crime. It has to go back to civil law. A foetus is still a part of a woman’s body without any legal status. That is the law. Even medically they are unable to function without the mother. Of course, for health reasons, abortion should not be allowed after the first twelve weeks, but if you want to talk morality, come on, how moral is it to bring an unwanted, unloved and uncared for child into the world?

Other demands we should make is the end of violence against women and trafficking of women, legalisation of prostitution laws and political representation in all public offices at all levels. The decree on National Commission of Human Rights actually says that there should be equal representation…but note the word ‘should’. There must be a quota and positive action in order to reach it. Even the National Commission on Women’s Affairs is dominated by men!

Citylife:
What would you advise our readers to do to become more aware of these issues?

Virada:
Be gender sensitive. Don’t use gender stereotyping; it is wrong. It all comes from a gender power relation which says that masculinity is such and such and femininity is so and so. Women do not have to be obedient, narak, indecisive and gossip a lot. We can be whoever we want to be. The old stereotypes that men discuss and women gossip, for instance, should be thrown out of the window.

Citylife:
I sometimes hear from expatriate men that the reason they come here is that they have had enough of strong/assertive western women and appreciate the subservient and rieb-roy Thai women. What do you think about this?

Virada:
This is simply racial discrimination. Patriarchy is borderless. It is very effective and easy to exploit women in third world countries. Before men from cities exploited rural women; now it is the same, in some cases, for some western men who come to Thailand. Japanese as well.

Citylife:
What would you say to someone with that attitude?

Virada:
I would say that you do not see her as equal. You are patronising her; it is not a partnership, it is not a good attitude. Who defines happiness? Women may be happy with money and security, but what have they sacrificed? If they had a hot young successful respectful Thai man with money, would they have chosen you?

Citylife:
Why do women need gender equality? What do we get out of it?

Virada:
What is your aspiration in life? That is the main question. If you are happy now, fine, but have you ever had a choice? Have you ever wanted something? Are you settling? If you had a choice of your own income and your own recognition from society would you want it? Some will say that they don’t, but is that ingrained false consciousness?