WOMEN IN THAILAND: STATUS, ROLES, ABUSE AND RIGHTS ISSUES AND PROBLEMS WITH THAI WIVES

WOMEN IN THAILAND

Thai Women generally have pretty high status. They retain property rights and can own land. They have freedom of movement and work in many fields, enjoying many of the same rights as men. Article 38 of the Thai constitution states that all citizens should enjoy equal protection under the law regardless of origin, sex or religion. An expression still heard in Thailand refers to women as “The hind legs of an elephant”—meaning they play a big role behind the scenes supporting men and being productive members of the economy.

Despite all this it is hard to say that women are treated equally in Thailand. There are cultural barriers that have to be overcome. In Theravada Buddhism, for example, there is a belief that women must be reborn as men to achieve nirvana. By one estimate one percent of women in Thailand have been prostitutes at some point in their lives. Prostitution is considered by some as an easy way to make money, and is a commercial industry for Thailand that draws a significant number of foreign men. If a village woman goes to work in a large city or resort when she was in her late teens and twenties and sends home reasonably large chunks of money and returns when she in her thirties with enough money to live comfortably it is at least implied that she worked s a prostitute while she was away from her village.

Birth Control and Abortion, See Population

Traditional Views of Women in Thailand

In spite of Thailand’s reputation for being a center of sex tourism and prostitution, views about women are actually quite conservative. Displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon and, in some circles women are expected to be virgins when they get married. Although Western-style dating is very common among some Thais direct meetings between men and women who are not family members are only carried out according to certain rules: the main one being that a man and woman shall not meet alone in an enclosed place. Even today if a female student meets with a male professor she brings along a friend, who does nothing at the meeting, as a matter of propriety. Business meeting with men and women are no problem.

In his “Maxim for the Conduct of Ladies,”Sunthorn Phu, the “Thai Shakespeare,” wrote in 1855: “Take small, graceful steps when walking outside.” Do not “swing your arms back and forth” or “allow your breasts to swing or raise your shawl as you go.” When speaking with others, “do not raise your voice or rasp.” He also said: “Do not run fingers through your hair...Do not stare at anything, particularly a man, to the point where he can tell what’s going on in your mind.”

On married life Sunthorn Phu advised women:

Love and be faithful to your husband
Be humble in front of your husband
When you husband goes to bed, wai him at his feet very night without fail.
When he aches and pains, massage him, then you may go to sleep
Get up before your husband and prepare water for him to wash
While your husband is eating, sit and watch him near by so that when he needs something he does not have to raise his voice. Wait until he finishes before you eat.

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Gender

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand: “ Despite the rigidity of Thai gender-role manifestations, it is interesting to note that Thai people perceive transience in gender identity. In Buddhist philosophy, the notion of individual “personality” is false, because a being differs upon each incarnation. Gender differs in every life, with social position, fortune or misfortune, mental and physical dispositions, life events, and even the species (human, animal, ghost, or deity) and location of rebirth (strata of heavens or hells), all of which depend on the being's fund of merit accumulated through committing good deeds in past lives. In the Thai interpretation, women are commonly seen as lower on the hierarchy of merit because they cannot be ordained. Khin Thitsa observed that according to the Theravada view, “a being is born as a woman because of bad karma or lack of sufficient good merit.” [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 Susanne Thorbek's study, a woman illustrates her frustration with being a woman: In a minor domestic crisis, she shouts, “Oh, it's my evil fate to have been born a woman!” Somewhat more reservedly, a pious young woman in Penny Van Esterik's study, also admitted her desire to be reborn as a male in order to become a monk. Yet another more “worldly” woman, seemingly satisfied with her female gender and hoping to be reborn as a deity of the sensuous heavens, argued that those who desired a specific gender upon rebirth would be born of indeterminate sex. Even within a lifespan, men's transitions between the Sangha and the laity demonstrates the transient nature of gender as the two masculine gender roles are abruptly switched. As serious as they are in observing the gender codes, Thai men and women accept gender identities as important yet temporary. Even those in frustration learn to think life will be “better off the next time around,” especially as long as they do not question the inequity of their sometimes arduous, yet transient, states. [Ibid]

Gender Roles in Everyday Life in Thailand

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand: “ In general, Thai people are noted for their tender, friendly, and graceful ways of social and public behavior. Despite the clear masculine code of conduct, Thai men display less of the overt “masculine” behavior than men in many other cultures. Since the 1940s, urban middle- and upper-class men have adopted the Western chivalrous and “gentlemanly” social manners of “honoring” women, such as opening doors for women, and the “ladies first” etiquette. In addition, nurturance, as stated above, is a quality expected in Thai men, even among those in the position of power. Therefore, Thai men are often known for their polite, sweet, and caring gestures, as well as their respect for others. [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

“Women are expected to be all of these and more: the code of kulasatrii contains numerous guidance and taboos for the “proper woman.” Thus, the Thai gender-coded rules of conduct seem to place more demands on women than on men, as reflected in an oft-quoted phrase from a poem that “It is hard to be born a woman.” The famous male poet who immortalized this phrase, Soonthon Phuu, in fact wrote “but being a man is actually many times more difficult” as a retort to this phrase, but somehow the complete quote never became as popular. [Ibid]

“Although urban Thais have adopted Western clothing styles since the early 1940s, formal social situations, such as the workplace, school, and university, still demand that trousers are strictly for men, and skirts or dresses are for women. Because motorcycles are one of the most popular means of transportation in urban Thailand, women who work in offices and female students struggle every day in their dresses while commuting to and from work. As a passenger, women must sit facing the side of the motorcycle to avoid an unseemly sitting position, compromising their balance and safety in so doing. Perhaps it is small, everyday things like this that best illustrates how the life of a kulasatrii is not any easier today than it was in Soonthon Phuu's time two hundred years ago. [Ibid]

Taboo on Touching Monks and History of Gender Segregation in Thailand

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand: “In ancient Thailand, acquiring an expertise in certain exclusive areas, such as occultism or martial arts, was seen metaphorically as endowing the apprentice with the mentor spirits, known as mii khruu, or “under mentor-ship.” Among the numerous rules of conduct for the learned men, some suggest a belief that men are superior to women, and others indicate some anxiety and animosity surrounding sex and the female anatomy. For example, some learned men must refrain from having sex with a woman. Many men were also prohibited from socializing with women (occasionally including the sister or mother) or their mentor spirits might be weakened by the “weaker sex.” Certain parts of the female body, such as genitalia, buttocks, or menstrual blood, and anything that contacts these body parts, such as sarongs, were considered sacrilegious and harmful to the learned men. Folklore anecdotes portray a vicious sabotage done by a piece of fabric from a woman's sarong, and a learned man who lost his powers because he had unwittingly walked underneath an elevated house where a woman was physically above him. [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

“Over the years, despite the decline of occultism and superstition, these folk beliefs remain even in those who are not learned men themselves. Tied into the still-popular fatalism (duang), many men today believe their destiny can be jeopardized (choak suay or “bad luck”) by circumstances such as walking under a row of laundry containing women's skirts or underwear, or engaging in cunnilingus. Men are also told not to have sex with a menstruating woman or they might become seriously ill. Even men who are not superstitious keep away from these situations to protect the integrity of their “manhood” or to avoid social disgrace. Even women themselves observe the behavioral restrictions which flow from this idea of symbolic female pollution. A woman who wears a Buddhist amulet is advised to step out of her sarong instead of pulling it over her head, and sarongs are often separated from men's wear or upper garments in laundry.

“Examples of gender segregation abound in Thai society. One of the 227 monastic rules of the monks dictates that in addition to being celibate, monks are not to have any physical contact with women. Women, including the monks' family members, are precluded from certain activities in religious ceremonies to prevent any possibility of ritual purity violation, even accidental con tact such as a slight brush of hands. Interestingly, this practice can also be seen in the way modern, urbane gentlemen act toward women: a proper gentleman does not touch a woman in casual circumstances. If he transgresses this social etiquette, an apology is in order. To Thai people, this decorum is impelled by two remarkably different, yet compatible cultural imperatives: firstly, the chivalrous, gentlemanly manners of “honoring” women adopted from the West, and secondly, the animistic belief which prohibits men from touching an unmarried woman to prevent an offense to her guardian spirits (phii puu yaa). However, one can also discern the prevailing myth of men's boundless sexual desires behind this touch taboo. A man's touching of a woman is assumed to have a sexual intention unless otherwise explained. Gender segregation can also be seen on a more formal, institutionalized level. Thai people are socialized to mingle mostly with members of the same gender from a young age. Single-sex schools are very common. In colleges, all dormitories are men- or women-only, with strict rules prohibiting visitations from the other gender, even the students' family members. [Ibid]

Status and Roles of Woman in Thai Society

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand: “There is not much question that Thailand is a male-dominated, patriarchal society, as political and corporate leadership has always been in the hands of men. On the other hand, the power of Thai women, especially in rural societies, lies in their domestic role as the mother-nurturer. Women in Thailand look up to the role of motherhood as an ideal. A woman's status changes to adulthood at the point of her childbirth, after which she is recognized semi-formally as mae or “mother”. In fact, the preparation for this “mother” title takes place informally much earlier, as young girls or unmarried women are often titled mae with an endearing or humorous tone. Thai men refer to the female gender with a sense of reverence as “the gender of mothers” (phayt mae), acknowledging women's burden in childbearing and parenting responsibilities. The ultimate insult for Thai men is yet mae, which literally translates to “motherfucker” in English, indicating the utmost respect that mothers have in Thai culture. [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

“Regarding the nurturer role, women's specialization in economic-type occupations illustrates their powerful role in providing for the well-being of their families. Women's dedication to nurturance is evident in the expression that a good woman “wakes up earlier and goes to sleep later than her husband.” The variety and extent of women's nurturing responsibilities are superbly illustrated in two studies in two vastly different contexts: Penny Van Esterik (1982) depicts the household and religious responsibilities of well-to-do women in western central Thailand; Susanne Thorbek (1988) details the endless household duties of the slum-dwelling women in Khlong Toey, Bangkok. “ [Ibid]

“The mother-nurturer role is also idealized in the female code of social and sexual conduct. Historically, the Thai tradition has defined a kulasatrii (“virtuous woman”) as proficient and sophisticated in household duties; graceful, pleasant, yet unassuming in her appearance and social manners; and conservative in her sexuality. These features bear striking similarities to the traditional “feminine mystique” in other cultures which has come under the criticism of the Western feminist movement. However, the concept of kulasatrii has not been overtly discussed in terms of gender inequality or subordination in Thailand. There has been little dialogue devoted to whether the kulasatrii role has been restrictive or unjust to Thai women. On the contrary, most contemporary Thai women wholeheartedly endorse the kulasatrii notion without resentment, regarding it as a sign of dignity and honor, a sense of cultural identity in which they can take pride. In school, girls are taught what it means to be a kulasatrii, while celebrity figures constantly praise its value in the media. As more and more contemporary women work outside of their homes, the ideal image of a kulasatrii remains a goal for which a woman must strive, while simultaneously attempting to fulfill new responsibilities necessitated by the changing society. [Ibid]

“In the traditional household, Thai women have always excelled at their mother-nurturer role. Outside the household context, women have made tremendous contributions, especially in the areas of the arts, business, and academia. Women are still a long way from achieving equal recognition in the political and religious hierarchies. Today, Thai women struggle with modern realities in the work force while simultaneously striving toward the positive, if difficult, ideal of a kulasatrii.” [Ibid]

“Interestingly, women's indifferent and autonomous attitudes, along the lines of “I am who I am” or “I don't give a damn,” have become fashionable and used in numerous poetry and song lyrics by female pop stars. This image, however, is not a new image for women in Thai society, because the “bad women” image has always been around. Nevertheless, the tough “I-am-who-I-am” statements are urban women's announcement of their moral independence, setting them in contrast with the conventional perceptions that women in the sex industry and “carefree” women are fooled into their positions, and that women in general are helpless abiders of societal values. As more and more contemporary women are becoming dissatisfied with the traditional role or the victim stereotype, these iconoclastic sentiments seem refreshing: Adopting the role opposite to a kulasatrii by choice is an act of liberation. [Ibid]

Problems with Thai Wives and Girlfriends

On Thai wives and girlfriends, Know Phuket reports: “Anyone who has lived in Thailand for a while will have heard stories about farang men and the crazy things their Thai wives or girlfriends get up to. Sometimes it is just bizarrely unreasonable behavior. Other times it is a shocking willingness to totally screw over their farang partners. Some of the things they do just make you laugh but there are other times they take your breath away with the sheer audacity of their actions, their ability to put aside any semblance of morals and just scheme away to their own ends. Of course, there are other times when it is just their plain stupidity that takes the breath away. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 22, 2007]

For example: “A young European guy and his Thai girlfriend have lived in the house opposite me for the last three months. They are both very sociable and quickly introduced themselves. We sometimes share a few drinks in the garden He seems like an easy-going guy. She is very chatty and usually happy. She doesn't drink, smoke, gamble or take drugs which is a promising start for Thai girlfriend material. The problem is she regularly goes completely off the rails. Every two or three days they have a huge argument. I say argument, but in fact it is usually only her voice you can hear screaming abuse. She throws things, windows get broken and then there are tears and drama in the street. [Ibid]

“The upshot is usually that she packs her bags and declares she is leaving for good. A big show is made of this. She comes to say goodbye to us because she is not going to see us again. She calls a taxi and then stands outside her house shouting to her boyfriend that she is going and he will never see her again. He quietly stays inside and ignores the whole charade. The thing is we all know she isn't leaving. She may be back the same day. If not, she will return the next day somehow looking triumphant. In fact, this pretence of leaving has become so shallow that instead of taking her packed bags, she now makes a habit of hiding them in our house so she doesn't have the hassle of carrying them. [Ibid]

“What were the arguments about? Some of them were the usual accusation that he was playing around with other women. Often, it was that he spent money on something she thinks is wasteful. But it is HIS money! He pays her a generous allowance. When Thai women do this routine of trying to stop their farang boyfriends spending their money, I always think there is a simple ulterior motive. If their farang boyfriend is spending his money, then there is less leftover for the girl to squeeze out of him for herself. [Ibid]

“This girl has already told my wife she has three other farang boyfriends. This is one of the things us westerners just don't get. It is not only that they play these games and deceive their boyfriends. They think it is something to boast about and if they can boast about it right under their boyfriend's nose, all the better. Why she thought my wife wouldn't tell me, I don't know. She probably assumes all Thai women deceive their farang partners and that my wife would be impressed at her cunning.” [Ibid]

Gambling Addiction Among Thai Women

On another problem involving a Thai women, Know Phuket reported: The previous occupants of this same house were a European guy and his Thai wife. He worked in Europe for six months a year and lived in Phuket for the other six months. He had been doing this for years and when he was in Phuket, they always seemed to have a good relationship. The problem was that for the six months he was away, his wife had to entertain herself. And her vice was gambling. Gambling really does seem to be a major problem for some Thai women. I know several of the Thai wives on our estate play a regular card game. They all say the same thing. It is just a bit of fun for small money. I have seen them play and it is not for fun. They get very intense, there is little conversation and although the stakes start small, they quickly grow. I have heard of women winning or losing as much as 30,000 baht in these 'fun' games. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 22, 2007]

There seems to be something in the Thai mentality that leaves them very open to gambling addiction. Perhaps it is their belief in lucky numbers and fate. Whatever it is, there is good reason why gambling is illegal in Thailand. It is an endless source of problems, especially for Thai women with money and time on their hands such as wives of farang. So every morning this Thai woman set off for her local card game. Sometimes she would be gone for two or three days - they really can play that long. She had been doing this for years and I guess she wasn't losing too much. But then the problems started.

The first sign was when she started asking to borrow money. At first, it was only small sums that we were happy to give her. But then she wanted 10,000 baht. I knew this was a sign of a serious problem. She was chasing her losses. The only way she could repay the money was if she got lucky at cards so I refused her the loan.

Of course, there are other ways to borrow money in Thailand. Once one of these girls is on the slope she will keep sliding. Soon there were rough looking Thai men appearing on her doorstep demanding repayment. She sold their motorbike and started renting one instead. She sold jewelry and furniture but used the money to chase her losses and the loan sharks kept appearing. She started disappearing for a week at a time. It was obvious her situation was out of control. Then she was gone.

I don't think the loan sharks got her. She packed her bags in the middle of the night and ran. There were rumours about how much she owed and for those sorts of sums she would have to do a good job of disappearing. There were calls from her husband asking why he could not contact his wife. When he returned to Phuket, there was no sign of her. She had not returned to her family, or at least not that they would admit. She just ran away from it all, the debts and the marriage.

Pretend Pregnancies by a Thai Women Involved with a Western Man

“A good friend of mine was very pleased that his wife was expecting their first child,” Know Phuket reported. “His wife's sister was also pleased but for slightly different reasons. She wanted copies of the ultrasound scans of the foetus. She had an Australian boyfriend who she was siphoning like an old banger. She had already twice convinced him she was pregnant and needed medical expenses. Then of course, she had two miscarriages and so needed more medical expenses. Now she was trying the same routine for a third time but he was proving a little harder to convince. He wanted to see the ultrasound scans. So what good fortune that her sister just happened to be pregnant. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 22, 2007]

“My friend absolutely put his foot down. No way would he let his child be used as a tool in a Thai bargirl scam. It is one thing to stand back and watch these girls rip off their farang boyfriends. It is a totally different thing to play an active role in the deception. Without a copy of an ultrasound scan, her bluff was called and she was caught out. The Aussie boyfriend dumped her. All kinds of drama followed. She had a Thai boyfriend and together they were living the high life. Without her benefactor, she quickly ran up huge debts. The Thai boyfriend left her. She got her mother to take out a loan. She defaulted on the loan and her mother spent two days in a cell until my friend paid her bail - after all, she is also the mother of his wife. [Ibid]

“So much drama and heartache that you think she might actually learn her lesson. And then would you believe it - the Aussie boyfriend decided to give her another chance. Now she is spending his money like water again and convinced that everything she did has worked out for the best. Oh yeah, one other thing she hasn't told the Aussie boyfriend. He is very keen to start a family but she cannot have children. She is infertile. [Ibid]

Totally Screwed by a Thai Girlfriend

“All these previous stories kind of fade in significance compared to what happened to this guy,” Know Phuket reported. “I don't know him personally but I know his neighbours. He worked in Bangkok and came to Phuket at weekends to see his wife. Their relationship was already rocky and they were working towards agreeing an amicable split. They owned the house but there was still an outstanding mortgage. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 22, 2007]

“One weekend he returned home to find it deserted. Everything of value was gone. He was confused and started looking for an explanation. He was soon given one by a bank representative who arrived shortly afterwards. The bank has repossessed the house. "That cannot be" said this guy. "I pay the mortgage every month". The bank guy explained - "that mortgage is with a different bank. Your wife took a second mortgage on the property and she has not paid."

The farang realised he was totally stitched. He started looking for a way out but there was none. Can I take over the payments? It is too late. I will get a lawyer! It is too late. We have been taking action for months. It is finished now. In a blind fury, the farang started smashing up the house. The bank called the police and they arrested him. The house was no longer his property and he would have to pay for the damages. Over the next few days, the full extent of his wife's treachery became apparent. She had not only taken a second mortgage on the property but also she had used it as collateral for a loan from the local mafia. She had taken the money and disappeared. There were now two banks and the local mafia arguing over who had claim to his house.

I had met his wife only once a few weeks before. She came around our house asking for a 100,000-baht loan. She said she would write up a contract and pay back 110,000 baht the very next week. Naturally, we refused this generous offer. She must have known even then that she had no intention of paying. She carried on doing the rounds until she found a sucker willing to give the loan. It was actually a local Thai guy she fleeced. It is a small world. Another friend of mine recently met this farang working offshore. He was working all the hours he could get to pay off his debts. The bank with the original mortgage has insisted he must pay it off or they will have him blacklisted from Thailand. He still loves Thailand and his life here and does not want to be blacklisted.

I certainly don't want to generalise and say all Thai women are scheming or crazy. All four of these women had one thing in common; they had all worked in the sex industry. That is not to say that all Thai girls from the sex industry are bad. It is not even that all Thai girls who have never worked in the sex industry are good. However, on the whole this sort of behaviour is much more likely to come from women who have worked in the sex industry. The tourist sector of the sex industry is all about extracting as much money as possible from the customers. The girls learn to lie, scheme and play their customers like a fiddle. They can take the same mentality into their long-term relationships. They are still playing the game and unfortunately, the base of their relationship is how much money they can squeeze from their farang. I do know plenty of guys who have great Thai wives. I would go as far as to say that the sort of stories above are the minority and most men who settle in Thailand find a great woman. The cultural differences will always cause a few difficulties and Thai women certainly do a few things we find strange. As long as both sides are willing to compromise then it can all work out fine.

Thai Women, Education and Government

A century ago, there were no schools for girls. Thai ladies were educated at home, learning embroidery and cookery, and parents with good connections sought to enroll their daughters at one of the royal courts, so that they could be properly educated and trained by female royals, to be well-versed in the Thai language, flower arranging, court manners, embroidery, and cooking. With such credentials, they became good wives and mothers, in charge of their households. And through them, the fine arts and crafts of the palace became widespread. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: “Educational opportunities for women in Thailand are improving. While there are still less girls than boys attending primary school, the gender gap has decreased considerably from slightly more than 8 percent in 1971 to slightly less than 2 percent in 2009 . With regards to secondary school enrollment, the gender gap had been eliminated by at least 1990 (there is no such data available for 1979-1989). Indeed, for the last three available years (2007-2009), female secondary school enrollment ratios exceeded that of male by slightly more than six percent. A similar trend exists for tertiary school enrollment, where the gender gap had been eliminated by at least 1993 (there is no such data available for 1979-1992) and for the last three available years (2007-2009), female tertiary school enrollment ratios exceeded that of male by about ten percent. As shown in all of the tables above, women are able to access a good education. As a result, more opportunities arise for women in politics and in the work place. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

There is long history of a lack of women’s political participation in the country, “At both the national and local levels, women were excluded from active participation. Indirectly, however, they contributed to political power play, political exchange, alliance formations, and probably behind-the-scene plans and intrigues. Women were offered as tributes to kings and members of the royal family and to high-ranking nobles. Princesses were given in marriage in order to foster alliance and to strengthen political ties.”16 Women were given as trophies in politics because of their sexuality. Now, due to an increased access to educational opportunities and political reform, women are taking their place in Thai politics.

Prior to the 1997 Constitution, women were unable to hold seats in the Thai Parliament. The Thai Parliament is currently divided into upper and lower chambers. There are 650 members total. In 1997, women only held 6 percent of the seats. This number remained steady for a few years, until it slowly increased in recent years. In 2010, women were voted into 13.3 percent of the parliament seats. This is still a small percentage, but it shows at least some progress. Some credit for this progress should be given to the United Nations, who has been working to help facilitate more recognition and activism of women in politics since the 1970s.

In the mid 2000s women held about 10 percent of the seats in parliament. In general elections in February 2005 women won 53 of 500 seats, the biggest election victory for Thai females up to that time. Women held 46 seats after the 2001 election. In 2005, women held 19 of the 200 seats in the Senate and 2 of the 36 Cabinet positions—public health and labor. The first female vice president of the parliament was selected in March 2005.

Working Women in Thailand

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: Thai women “are being given opportunities that they were not provided with before the 1990s. Women are still not being treated as equal to men, but the gap is narrowing. Previously, women were unable to hold the same jobs as many men in Thailand. Historically, it was a women’s job to take care of children, and tend to the household. Since the 1880s, and especially during the Vietnam War, many women have worked as sex slaves. Only within the past few decades had Thai women been present in the formal work place. The heaviest concentration of women at the lower end of the occupational hierarchy is in the service sector as domestic helpers, as restaurant and snack bar workers including cashiers and waitresses, and as entertainers, a euphemism for prostitution. According to the World Bank (2011), in 2008, 45.4 percent of women were employed in the nonagricultural sector. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Now, Thailand is making tracks as female professionals are playing a larger role than ever before in the workplace. The participation rate of women in the Thai workforce is higher than the average Asian participation rate of women. Although women still do not hold many high positions of power, there is excitement when they do. “It is always big and cheering news in the media when a Thai woman comes into a significant work position never before held by a female.” These women are being credited for the growing success of Thailand. “Women have been and continue to be key contributors to Thailand’s remarkable growth. Over the past two decades, women’s activities have expanded in all spheres, owing to robust economic growth, a higher level of education, and a falling fertility rate.” The private sector has really contributed to women’s involvement in the work place. “The rapid expansion of the private sector has opened new opportunities for women. In 2007, 35.8 percent of female workers were private employees.”Overall, Thailand’s great strides of equality in the work place will continue, and hopefully carry over and make an impact in other areas as well.

The book edited by Tim G. Andrews and Sununta Siengthai (2009), which is entitled The Changing Face of Management in Thailand , provides lots of valuable information about women and how their roles are steadily improving within the work place. Especially the chapter by Natenapha Wailerdsak (2009) explores women CEOs and women in power who are now beginning to set an example for the rest of the country. She also provides some interesting statistics and case studies. The country profile for Thailand by the World Health Organization (WHO) (2005) on “Improving Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in the South-East Asia Region” provides detailed information on all of the initiatives undertaken to help prevent the mother and infant mortality in Thailand. It talks about preventative measures being taken against HIV/AIDS, as well as discusses the then recently reformed healthcare laws in Thailand. The 2007 report entitled “Stateless and Vulnerable Human Trafficking in Thailand” by the Washington, DC based non-profit organization Vital Voices Global Partnership does a nice job exploring the dangers of sex trafficking and its effects. It discusses why trafficking is such a big industry in Thailand and how the country has come to rely on it. One of the many news articles covering sex trafficking in Thailand is the one by Christine Gorman (2004), published in Time Magazine . It does an excellent job in explaining the sex trafficking problem in Thailand to the uninformed reader.

Migration of Women in Search of Work in Thailand

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand: “Since the economic climate changed in the 1960s and 1970s, women have accounted for almost half, and sometimes more than half, of the large number of rural Thais who migrate to the cities in order to augment the family income. Today, women account for 80 percent of total employment in the ten largest export industries, and 45 percent of the manufacturing work force. Over the years, Thai women have made significant contributions in the arts, education, and commerce. With higher education, women have also risen to leadership positions in the middle class. The “glass ceiling” exists for women in the academic and corporate settings, as evident in the fact that, although there are many women in high positions, the topmost position of an organization still belongs to a man. Nevertheless, aside from the obvious underrepresentation in areas such as the military, law enforcement, and religion, the status of women in Thailand is perhaps higher than other countries in Asia with the exception of Singapore. [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

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: “Over the last few decades, women are being given more and more opportunities to become a part of the professional work place. As a result, many are moving from rural areas to urban areas. However, not every woman is able to find a job, and therefore, many still continue to being forced into sex trafficking, a still popular industry in Thailand.” Increased opportunities and education levels for women “is causing many women to migrate from rural areas to urban areas to seek jobs. But even before the increase in the education level of Thai women, many Thai women were migrating to urban centers. The main reason for this migration has been due to experiencing different levels of development between rural and urban areas, which started to occur around the time of World War II, when Bangkok was thriving economically and politically. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Often times, the gender of a particular person influences their migration patterns. Men still migrate more often than women, but their patterns are different: females dominate rural-urban migration streams while males dominate urban-to-rural streams. Currently, more and more women are beginning to migrate towards Bangkok. These women tend to be younger, as they are the ones looking for jobs because there is an arising expectation that these women will be able to provide for themselves and their parents. More jobs are also being offered to these women because companies know that they can hire women for slightly less pay. In addition, educational opportunities were not as good for women in rural areas as in urban areas. Since many jobs in the city are hospitality related, they do not require someone with a high educational background. In addition to movement and migration by Thai people within the country, many women migrated to Thailand from poorer neighboring countries as well as politically more oppressed neighbors, especially during the late 1990s from Burma (now Myanmar). Unfortunately, during migration, many Burmese women and girls are highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as they are physically isolated from their communities when working as domestic workers in private houses and in the sex industry. This makes the establishment of safety networks difficult and often dangerous.21 Although many of these women were caught in Thailand illegally and returned to Burma, they began somewhat of a women’s movement with Thai women. Even female students began to get involved as the Thai woman noticed the injustices of the Burmese women. As stated in O’Kane (2006, p. 246), “[f]or most women activists, the Burma-Thailand borderlands provided their first opportunities to engage with each other across barriers of ethnic difference.”

An article by Kanchana Tangchonlatip (2006) provides detailed information on migration and gender-based occupational segregation in Bangkok. Tangchonlatip point out that the sex migration to Bangkok “became more pronounced in the decade after the launching of a new economic development approach of export-oriented growth, and females have been predominant in migration flow to Bangkok for several decades.” This “demand for female workers, especially young workers, was mainly due to their perceived desirable characteristics, which included being docile, non-aggressive, and being predisposed to factory work, on account of their nimble fingers and good eyesight.” While the occupational segregation has declined in some occupations, it is still a widespread phenomenon that contributes to women’s lower pay.

Women’s Issues in Thailand

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: “In the new constitution that was written in 1997, women were granted equality with men. However, despite the new legislation, discrimination is still present and apparent in the role women play in government, at home and at work. Women are highly under-represented, are mistreated at home and discriminated at work. Additionally, sex trafficking is still a prevalent problem among women and children. Sex trafficking became extremely prevalent in Thailand during the time of the Vietnam War and has remained a commercial industry ever since in Thailand. Despite some progress, Thailand has a long way to go before reaching gender equality. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Still, compared to some decades ago, women are now a substantial part of the work place and nearly half of them attend college. The jobs they work and the wages they earn are however gender discriminated. Women are known to have jobs as nurses and teachers. In fact, they are banned from being in the police force or serving in the military. Men also exert their dominance over their wives in the household, and it is not uncommon for some abuse to be present. 45 Additionally, prostitution, although illegalized in the new 2007 constitution, still remains widespread. It has been popular in the country at least since the early 1800s, and grew rapidly during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Today, thousands of women remain trafficked in Thailand.

Amara Pongsapich (2006) wrote a book chapter entitled “Women’s Movements in the Globalizing World: The Case of Thailand” which provides valuable information on how Thai women are trying to increase their activism in politics. She explores how certain issues have made women interested in the political process, in particular, the environment and social movements.

Thai Women, Abuse and Harassment

Sexual harassment of young women by their superiors is regarded as serious problem in Thailand by women’s groups. Harassment ranges from “verbal abuses to patting on their bottoms and touching their breasts to making offers of promotion in exchange for sex.” Many women are afraid to say anything out of fear of losing their jobs. Former Prime Minister Thaksin angered women by saying sexual harassment in the work place was “a small problem that has been blown out of proportion.” Few women take harassment cases to court out of worries about the social backlash of their actions or fear of being labeled a sexual blackmailer.

According to Health Service Support Department director-general Dr Supachai Kunaratanapruk the number of abused women and children seeking help from Peungdai centres across the country was 47 a day in 2007, up from 37 a day in 2006 and 32 a day in 2005. [Source: The Nation, November 21, 2007]

The number of rape cases jumped from 3,741 in 1997 to 5,052 in in 2004, with police only capturing 36 percent of the assailants in 2004 compared to 69 percent in 1997. A report blamed pornographic films and obscene photographs on the Internet and in the media for the increase. Thai newspapers put rape stories, with phonographs of the victims, on their front pages.

It is estimated that only five percent of women who are raped file reports. In many cases the victims do not file reports out of fear or embarrassment or because they know their attackers. For a long time women’s groups have campaigned for a criminal law that recognizes marital rape. Some take the law into their own hands. The number of fatal attacks committed by Thai women against abusive male partners rose from 227 in 1995 to 334 in 2000.

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand : “The Third Precept of Buddhism professes to refrain from sexual misconduct, mostly understood to refer to adultery, rape, sexual abuse of children, and careless sexual activities that result in the harm to others. Rape is a criminal offense but the law is rarely enforced. However, rape crime reports are abundant in mainstream and tabloid journalism, often written in a sensational and graphic style which seems designed to titillate the reader. No data exist regarding the extent of the problem. In a study of northern Thai men conscripted to the army in 1990, 5 percent of the 21-year-old men reported having forced or coerced a woman for sex. The incidence of incest is not known. These matters are rarely discussed or reported. [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

“Young men in Ford and Kittisuksathit's focus groups (1994) made references to the use of violence in order to force women to acquiesce to intercourse. They rationalized that coercion occurred when their sexual desire was provoked by women beyond self-control, and it was mostly directed to women in casual encounters not their fans. Numerous folk music and literature provide a cultural script for courtship and sexual persuasion as apparent in this study. Men see that intercourse involves prior steps of cunning moves, social pressuring, and physical advances, whereas women see intercourse in terms of “submission” or “surrender.” Aside from the cultural script, men perhaps generalize from their own experiences of erotic stimulation and ejaculation to the larger patterns of male sexuality. They, therefore, perceive that sexual arousal in men, once initiated, takes its own course and is not subject to control, as characterized by the term naa meued or a state of “black-out” from lust. [Ibid]

“Social support for women who have been raped or victimized by incest is not widely available. Consistent with the men's rationalization that they are provoked beyond control, a woman is sometimes viewed as provoking rape because of her appearances (e.g., wearing a provocative dress) or her social behavior (e.g., drinking or frequenting potentially unsafe places). Consequently, Thai parents teach their girls not to dress improperly, and not to go alone to unfamiliar places in order to avoid being raped, as if rape is a price one pays for violating the code of kulasatrii. Others, following the cultural script of courtship and sex, see rape as an obscure area where men's coercion and women's surrendering cannot be clearly differentiated. Women who have been raped or experienced incest in Thailand are socially stigmatized based on these attitudes, in addition to the perception that the woman is flawed because she has been “violated.” Understandably, women or their families rarely report these incidents.” [Ibid]

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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