POPULATION OF THAILAND: DEMOGRAPHY, FERTILITY, GROWTH AND BIRTH CONTROL

POPULATION OF THAILAND

Population: 67,091,089 (2012). Male (2009)– 31,293,096. Female (2009)– 32,231,966. Thailand is the 20th most populous country in the world. [Source: Population Reference Bureau, United Nations,CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

As in most Southeast Asian nations, the population is youthful and agrarian. In 2005 about 68 percent of the population lived in rural areas and 32 percent in urban areas. Population under 15: 19.5 percent (male 6,697,165/ female 6,386,840), compared to 48 percent in Kenya and 16 percent in Japan. Population over 65: 9.5 percent (male 2,870,445/ female 3,489,030) (2012 est.), compared to 3 percent in Kenya and 14 percent in Japan. Median age: total: 34.7 years; male: 33.7 years; female: 35.6 years (2012 est.) [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The largest population, according to 2000 census data, was in the northeast, with 20.7 million inhabitants and a population density of 122.9 persons per square kilometer. The central region, excluding Bangkok, had the next largest population in 2000, with 14 million inhabitants and a density of 137.8 persons per square kilometer. Bangkok itself had a population of 6.3 million inhabitants and a population density of 4,038 persons per square kilometer. The mountainous north had nearly 11.4 million people, with a density of 67 persons per square kilometer, while the south had 8 million people and a density of 113.9 persons per square kilometer. [Source: Library of Congress]

In 2006, the life expectancy was estimated at 74.6 years for women and 69.9 years for men, or nearly 72.2 years total. The infant mortality rate was estimated at nearly 19.4 per 1,000 live births in 2006. Population estimates for Thailand take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher death rates, lower population growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected. [Ibid]

Demography and Population Trends in Thailand

Since 1911 Thailand has taken frequent national censuses, and its National Statistical Office, working closely with a number of international agencies. It is one of the most extensive sources of statistical information in Asia. Thailand had about 53 million people in 1987. The regional breakdown at that time was approximately 16.7 million in the Center (which included the Bangkok metropolitan area), 17.8 million in the Northeast, 11.3 million in the North, and 6.8 million in the South. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the decades after World War II, however, the percentage of agricultural population declined; it decreased from 79.3 percent to 72.3 percent of the population between 1970 and 1980, for example. The shrinking of the rural population resulted in part from internal migration to the capital and provincial centers. In 1987 about 10 percent of the population lived in Bangkok, which had 3,292 persons per square kilometer. The 9 largest cities after Bangkok ranged in population from 80,000 to 110,000. They were Khon Kaen, Hat Yai, Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan, Nakhon Ratchasima, Krabi, Udon Thani, and Songkhla.

Rapid urbanization in the 1980s changed not only where Thais lived but also how they lived. Separate private houses were located in high-density areas or out in new sprawling suburbs. The Thai also moved into townhouses and condominiums; by 1984 sixty-nine residential condominium communities had been built or were in the final phase of construction. A family compound along a tree-shaded khlong (canal) was a rare sight.Although ferries continued to ply the Chao Phraya, the boat was no longer the main mode of transportation. Bangkok had about 900,000 registered motor vehicles and a new superhighway system partially completed in the late 1980s; massive traffic jams, noise, and air pollution had become part of everyday life. Most of the canals in the "Venice of the East" had been replaced with roads; this replacement was in part causing the city to sink. Annual flooding in the city and growing slums such as Khlong Toei often made city services rather than politics the key issue in metropolitan elections. Bangkok had 10 percent of the national population, but the capital required a disproportionate percentage of the national budget to maintain basic city services. [Source: Library of Congress]

See Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Other Cities Under Places.

Population Growth and Declining Birthrate in Thailand

Great strides have been made in family planning and now the population is only growing at the rate of 0.5 percent a year (compared to -0.01 percent in Japan and 2.5 percent in Kenya). The average life expectancy is 71.5 years for males and 76.3 years for females; about 19.5 percent of all Thais are under 15, and 9.5 percent are over 65.

Birthrates have been declining in Thailand over the years. With the help of an aggressive family planning campaign, the birth rate dropped from around six in the 1960s to 4.6 percent in 1975 to 2.3 percent in 1987, one of the most dramatic declines in the world. It is now below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. The Average number of children per woman today is 1.66 (2012 est.). [Source: CIA World Factbook, National Geographic]

Population growth rate: 0.543 percent (2012 est.) It was estimated in 2006 at 0.68 percent. The net migration rate, also based on a 2006 estimate, is 0 percent. During the 1950s and 60s a big population was equated with national power and women were encouraged to have as many children as possible. Today there are 12.81 births per population (2012 est.). The death rate is 7.38 deaths per 1,000 population (July 2012 est.). [Ibid]

Sex ratio: 1) at birth: 1.05 male(s)/female; 2) under 15 years: 1.05 male(s)/female; 3) 15-64 years: 0.98 male(s)/female; 4) 65 years and over: 0.82 male(s)/female; 5) total population: 0.98 male (s)/female (2011 est.) [Ibid]

Prof. Pramote Prasartkul at the Institute for Population and Social Research of Mahidol University in Bangkok told the Yomiuri Shimbun that in Thailand, more than 1 million babies were born annually for 20 years between 1963 and 1983, when the economy was beginning to take off. This generation is the Thai version of the baby boomers. "Now aged 22 to 42, this generation received a better education and benefited from the nation's economic growth. Because of this, they have adopted a way of thinking that is different from the traditional one," Pramote said. "In short, they don't want to get married and even those who do marry don't have many children." [Source: Hiroaki Hayashida, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 1, 2006]

For example, 79 percent of Thai women aged 25 to 29 were married in 1960. However, the level dropped to 74 percent in 1980 and 66 percent in 2000. In Bangkok, it is believed to be less than 50 percent today, according to Pramote. A Thai assistant at The Yomiuri Shimbun's Bangkok bureau is in her late 30s and still single. "I haven't given up on the idea of marriage," she said. "But I'd feel tied down with a husband and a family if I got married. I'd rather have my independence." [Ibid]

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: “Looking at total fertility, shows that Thailand has made very significant progress (and more so than the other developing countries in East Asia and Pacific) with reducing total fertility during the 1980s, reducing total fertility from 3.4 births per woman in 1980 to 2.1 births per woman in 1990. While total fertility continued to decrease during the 1990s (reducing total fertility to 1.8 births per woman in 2000), fertility rates have remained at about 1.8 births per women during the first ten years of this millennium. While Thailand’s fertility rate is today still lower than the average fertility rate of other developing countries in East Asia and Pacific, the difference has become marginal in recent years, and if trends continue as shown in Figure 9, the difference may soon be eliminated. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Birth Control and Contraception in Thailand

Thailand led the way in Southeast Asia in family planning by making a variety of birth control methods available. But some of its practices raise some issues. Female sterilization is a common form of birth control. The government has considered sterilizing mentally retarded people.

In 1968 the Thai cabinet sanctioned a family-planning service, and by March 1970 a national population policy was announced. The official slogan "Many Children Make You Poor" and the economic arguments for keeping the number of children at two per family found acceptance among both city and rural populations. Successful programs were undertaken by the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand and the Family Planning Services. By 1974 an estimated 25 percent of all married couples of childbearing age were using modern contraceptives, one of the highest percentages for developing countries. The population growth rate, 3.4 percent per annum in the 1960s, had been reduced to 1.9 percent per annum by 1986.

The Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand reported: “Thailand is extremely proud of its relatively high rates of contraceptive use and successful population control. The contraceptive prevalence rates have increased dramatically in the last two decades, from 15 percent to 68 percent among married women. Contraceptive methods are readily available and utilized. Common methods of contraception in Thailand include hormone pills and injections, intrauterine devices (IUDs), vaginal inserts, rhythm, condoms, withdrawal, vasectomy, and female tubal ligation. For women, the contraceptive hormonal pill is by far the more-preferred method. However, the most-prevalent method today is female sterilization, followed by the pill, while the least-popular method is the condom. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand

“The success of contraception in Thailand has been invariably linked to Mechai Viravaidya, the man Time magazine called “a champion of condoms, a pusher of the Pill, a voice for vasectomies.” Launched by Viravaidya in 1974, the private nonprofit organization, Population and Community Development Association (PDA), has tackled overpopulation by promoting family planning and distributing birth control devices. The PDA proactively places temporary birth control clinics where people gather, in bus terminals, village fairs, and buffalo markets. At these unconventional sites, they dispense condoms and the pill; free IUDs and vasectomies are even offered on special occasions. Playful but persuasive jingles promoting family planning punctuate music and soap operas on the radio, reaching every household in Thailand. Helped by his humor, creativity, and charisma, the success of the PDA and Viravaidya can be seen in the growing financial support from the government. Moreover, Thai people now use the term mechai as a slang term for condoms.” [Ibid]

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: “A larger emphasis has been placed on education materials in order to encourage mothers to wait until they are older to have children. Additionally, related to the increased access to protection from getting infected by HIV/AIDS, women are being more careful with getting pregnant. “More women than ever are making choices over their birth spacing. The contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) of married women in reproductive age between 15-44 years continues to increase and was up to 79.2 percent in 2001.” Despite such progress, comparing Thailand with other developing countries in East Asia and Pacific, the limited data available seems to indicate that Thailand is falling behind the progress made in other developing countries in East Asia and Pacific. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Abortion in Thailand

The Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand reported: “Abortion is illegal in Thailand except when performed for medical reasons. Most Thais are strongly anti-abortion, mainly because of the First Precept of Buddhism which prohibits killing of living beings. In general, “living beings” are interpreted as people, animals, and sometimes small creatures, but most Thais also see this Precept as pertaining to the aborting of a fetus as well. Again, premarital or extramarital sex is frowned upon and there is little sympathy for the woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. She is most likely to be viewed as at fault for becoming pregnant, because only women (not men) can control their sexual desire. Thus, abortion has often been associated with a lack of morals and virtue on the woman's part. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand

“In Ford and Kittisuksathit's study (1994), the young women who worked in factories were well aware of the dilemma of premarital pregnancy in the lives of their friends or siblings. Most expressed great concerns about unwanted, premarital pregnancy, which is a clear indicator of “sinful behavior” they have committed. In discussing the consequences of sex, women mostly talked about the feared premarital pregnancy, with allusions to “baby dumping,” infanticide, and abortion, whereas young men focused on issues of STD and HIV. Most women expressed the hope that their partner would care for and marry them, and the child could be kept. Other young women clearly insisted that they would seek an abortion because they were emotionally and financially not ready for having a child. The blame for unwanted pregnancy, as expressed by both the young men and women, was placed on the woman for “allowing” intercourse to occur. [Ibid]

“Apart from the social stigma, there are other important reasons behind Thai women's decision to have abortion. Pregnancy presents a grave problem for women in low-paying jobs in which employers have little tolerance of absenteeism (Pyne 1994). Having a child in urban environments is expensive, and, because few companies offer support for maternal and child care, a woman risks losing her employment due to the additional task of parenting. For rural women who migrate to work in the cities, losing their jobs means jeopardizing their only source of income on which they and their family upcountry depend. [Ibid]

“In curious contrast to the prevailing anti-abortion attitudes, abortion is not rare in practice. Illegal abortion clinics, many of which are run by non-professional women, offer traditional but unsafe techniques of abortion, such as forceful massage or injecting chemicals into the uterus. Thorbek (1988) has documented experiences of women who had undergone such traumatic procedures and the adverse health consequences. A more-pragmatic approach has been developed in recent years, thereby allowing women to have safe, confidential abortion operations in many urban clinics. In these clinics, medically trained professionals use standard medical procedures, such as suction, to remove the fetus. Never advertising openly, these urban clinics rely on word of mouth to draw clients, and fairly large fees are charged. To date, there has not been a Thai-equivalent of the Western movement that has gained recognition of a women's right to choose to have an abortion.” [Ibid]

Illegal Abortion in Thailand

According to Professor Kamheang Chaturachinda—president of the Women's Health and Reproductive Rights Foundation of Thailand and the former president of the Royal Thai College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists—300,000 to 400,000 Thai women undergo abortions performed by untrained people in unhygienic conditions each year. About 12 to 15 percent of them are teenagers. In comparison, France — which has a similar population of 65 million inhabitants and where abortion is legal — has just over 200,000 abortions a year. [Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, January 10, 2011]

Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: In Thailand “abortion is illegal and pregnant teens are stigmatised... Abortions in back-street clinics pose a risk of complications, including infertility and death. "When women go to illegal clinics, often afterwards they feel severe pain from infections, because the mission was not completed," said Montri Pekanan, director of the Family Planning Association of Thailand. He supports the "principle" of a relaxation of the law, while wanting a strict framework to ensure women's safety. Jaded Chouwilai, manager of the Friends of Women Foundation, a counselling group, also called for protection for women who "have no choice" when they take such a decision.

But there is little or no hope of changing the law in a society where abortion is seen as a "sin," say the two activists. "It is related to religion. Buddhism does not say anything about abortion but says killing is forbidden. People are strongly against abortion," said Montri. The government, gearing up for an election that is expected this year, has no intention of changing the abortion laws."To propose a new law, it needs the consensus of society," said Tares Krassanairawiwong, a senior official at Thailand's health ministry. "At the end of the day, I would say we will follow the way the society chooses to go."

Even if abortion was legalised, it might not put an end to operations in back-street clinics, said Professor Kamheang. "The problem is healthcare providers do not want to carry out abortion for personal and religious reasons," he said. Women's rights groups say that, while waiting for society to change, Thailand needs to develop comprehensive sex education programmes.

“The sensitive issue has shot up the national agenda... since the discovery in a temple in Bangkok in November of more than 2,000 foetuses from illegal abortion clinics. Police are raiding suspected clinics, the government has suggested banning sex with girls under 20, and lawmakers have proposed relaxing legislation that only allows abortion in cases of rape or when the pregnancy is thought to pose a danger to the mother's physical or mental health. The discovered foetuses, which had been taken to the temple for cremation, were only the "tip of the iceberg", said Professor Kamheang Chaturachinda, president of the Women's Health and Reproductive Rights Foundation of Thailand.

Teenage Pregnancy and Illegal Abortion in Thailand

A UNICEF report released in 2010 said that Thailand has 150,000 mothers under age 20, among the highest in the region.

Describing what happened when his girlfriend got pregnant, 16-year-old Nattawud Daoruang wrote in his blog Thailand Life: “Going to the clinic to visit the doctor is a must thing to do for the pregnant woman. Everytime my girlfriend has to go there, I always go with her. I sometimes see a pregnant woman come into the clinic alone. I say to myself "I'll never let my pregnant girlfriend come here alone, I'll never do that". About the appointments, we sometimes don't go on the exact date because of the cost of the visit. So, we wait a few more days until we have enough money to afford to go. [Source:Nattawud Daoruang Thailand Life ]

This problem just started a few months ago when she was about 6 months pregnant. We then just started to go here every three weeks. Then when she was 7 and a half months pregnant, we had to come to the doctor every two weeks. And you know what, we have to have at least 500 baht in the pocket everytime we go there. At the end of April 2003, the doctor did an aultrasound to find out the sex of our baby. After the doctor finished checking our baby's "thing" (you know ...!), he said that he was 90 percent sure that the baby will be a "Female".

Describing the case of a teenage girl who opted for an illegal abortion, Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: “Nitancha, 17, ended her five-month pregnancy herself, causing severe bleeding. In a Buddhist nation where abortion is illegal and pregnant teens are stigmatised, the young Thai saw no other option. Rejected by the baby's father and frightened at the idea of talking to her family, she sought a solution on the Internet, where suggestions ranged from throwing herself down the stairs to illegal clinics and abortion pills. After saving for several months to scrape together 5,300 baht (175 dollars), Nitancha — who was 16 at the time — last year used a drug against stomach ulcers, because a possible side effect was to cause miscarriage. [Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, January 10, 2011]

It had the desired result -- accompanied by a lot of blood in the toilet of her new boyfriend's house, and an emergency trip to hospital. "I only knew that I had to get rid of the baby. I was about to go to college. I was a high school senior. I had to have a future," said Nitancha, whose name has been changed at her request. Nitancha, who had merely been counting the days of her cycle to avoid pregnancy, has her own message for other teenagers: "There are many ways to protect yourself, like using condoms, but if you know that you are a fun-loving girl who is not ready to be a mother, you'd better use birth control pills."

Lack of Knowledge About Sex Linked to Teenage Pregnancy in Thailand

An ABAC poll of 2,060 young people aged 9-18 — in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Chon Buri, and Songkhla —in January 2010 found 65 per cent said they had no idea about birth control. The analysis said that only 10 per cent of respondents aged 9-12 knew about birth control, Abac Poll Director Noppadol Kannikar said, while 64 per cent had no knowledge about prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STD). [Source: the Nation, February 12, 2010]

Among respondents, 60 per cent believed parents should provide sex education, followed by teachers, and close friends. If they encountered sexual problems, 59 per cent of polled youth would turn to parents, followed by close friends, medical experts, and teachers. The analysis found that the older the young people the greater their tendency to talk with friends. A good sexual consultant was described as a not judgmental or critical person who was able to keep secrets. Media providing sex education should be modern, use language familiar to youngsters, have all answers for their curiosity and provide a channel for questions and opinions, Noppadol said.

ThaiHealth's Sexual Health Promotion Plan manager, Nattaya Boonpakdee, said Thailand did not prepare youth well, especially those going through puberty who were curious about sex. When the young were not prepared and their questions were unanswered, problems would occur. Citing a Unicef finding that Thailand's figure of 150,000 mothers under 20 was among the region's highest, Nattaya said the report also found Thai youth had a poor knowledge of STD prevention and sex. "What we must do is equip our youth with good information to promote a positive attitude towards sex and better access to birth control and STD prevention," Nattaya said.

In response to this the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) and the Education Ministry launched a website to advise young people on sex. ThaiHealth deputy manager Krisada Reungareerat said the new website (talkaboutsex.thaihealth.or.th) offered sex information in easy and familiar language for teenagers, with tests, and a web board for questions and answers. To help parents provide sex education for their families, the website will be available to parental networks at 122 schools in 12 educational zones, he said. The Education Ministry will also promote this new website at www.moe.go.th as well as at 900 public libraries nationwide.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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