“We are the key to peace”, states Htoisan Hpauchyang, an office intern originally from Myanmar and member of the recently formed IWPG Peace Committee in Chiang Mai. She is addressing the audience at the launching ceremony of the first branch of the International Woman’s Peace Group to be based in Thailand.
The International Woman’s Peace Group is a gathering of women whose mission is to achieve world peace and terminate global conflicts. Strongly believing that the mother’s love is “the most powerful force in the world”, they strive to make women worldwide realise their full potential whilst campaigning for gender equality and the cessation of war. Working hand in hand with global female leaders and women’s organisations, the IWPG provides “loving assistance and support” in places that are desperately seeking peace.
Seated in a conference room in the Women’s Studies Department of Chiang Mai University, the conference is hosted by programme co-ordinator for Peace NGO Xiaoyuan Choi, who is originally from South Korea and currently living in Bangkok. We are introduced to three members of the Peace Committee. Each woman gives an empowering speech about what women can achieve for equality here in Thailand, and also for peace all over the world. I can’t help but feel a charge in the atmosphere as each woman stands and speaks confidently to challenge the oppression they face every day. To say enough is enough, and to say “I deserve better”. From European to local, there are women of all ages, races and backgrounds present. I can hear snippets of conversations spoken in languages I don’t understand. Some face battles I couldn’t begin to contemplate – some battles we share. But every woman in the room has something in common – we believe in equal opportunity for all.
Htoisan Hpauchyang highlights that the gender pay gap still exists and affects the lives of women all over the world. “In many situations, women have been discriminated against. For example, women’s wages are less than men’s, even though the working hours are the same”. As of 2008, women’s wages in the manufacturing sector in Thailand were 80% of men’s. But gender discrimination in Thailand doesn’t stop there. Migrant women are victimised daily, which is discussed by the next two speakers and Peace Committee members, Kanchana Di-ut from Thailand and Tin Tin Nyo from Burma. “Migrant women are much more vulnerable to being affected by violence” says Ms Di-ut, who is director of the MAP Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to empower Burmese migrant communities living and working in Thailand. “We are working with women in Burma and local communities in Thailand and we have a special project called the Women Exchange Programme. We support migrant women around the area, in Thailand, to have their own space and to empower themselves, to stand up, to fight for their right.”
It soon becomes evident that there are serious conflicts in Thailand relating to migrant women. Burmese domestic workers in Thailand are not protected by existing domestic legislation, resulting is low wages, long working hours and lack of social services. With around 4,000 registered Burmese migrants in Chiang Mai, many of whom work in the domestic sector, it is safe to assume that there are a large number of people right here in this city being exploited every day. That’s why it’s important that the IWPG has a presence here in Thailand and actively fights against discrimination – for both local and migrant women.
During a recent seminar at Chiang Mai University, the issue of the decline in Women’s Studies was discussed. Women’s studies has been in crisis in Thailand’s universities due to lack of official support, with the subject not being prioritised and often being seen as a financial burden. Ideas for sustainability were brainstormed, and one suggested solution was that Women’s Studies should find more alliances. A significant weakness of Women’s Studies in Thailand is that it is not continually connected with women’s issues between organisations. This is because the issue of gender has not been addressed with an exploration of how sexuality evolves and changes. Women’s studies need to find more relevance in the sharpening of contemporary issues, as it is not relevant or relatable to today’s women. Women’s Studies in Thailand must modernise and promote an expanding alliance.
The International Women’s Peace Group could be this alliance. Their presence in the Chiang Mai community will raise awareness and capture the attention of the public through their projects such as volunteering, Peace Enlightenment, the Peace Network and the Peace Campaign. These are a few of the projects and methods the IWPG implement to systematically work for peace, whilst informing and involving the local community. Female leaders promoting gender equality and world peace in Thailand would mean contemporary issues will be hauled into the spotlight, thus providing a wider platform for women’s issues and conflicts. The presence of the IWPG in Chiang Mai will surely peak interest and spark discussion about women’s studies and gender equality, whilst demonstrating the strength of women and what they can achieve.
A woman activist said who attended the seminar said, “I think that Women’s Studies is an important and essential issue for Thai society. It’s a way of thought helps human beings (of all sexes, not just women) concerning the problems that are happening in relation to unequal power relations. If we are concerned and understand it, social violations will not occur.”
If the issues surrounding women are more prominent in Thai society and are actively campaigned against, people’s understanding of the issue will increase. If Women’s Studies as a movement gains more momentum, Women’s Studies as a field will surely follow the same path as people attempt to gain more knowledge and understanding. The International Women’s Peace Group could provide this understanding and education that Thai society needs in order to move forward and develop in terms of gender equality, and, ultimately, peace.