Thailand has made significant progress in social development over the last few decades, and according to UN Women, it now ranks 92 out of 138 countries on the Gender Inequality Index. On the occasion of International Women's Day on March 8, Muse talked to legal personnel from the Division of Foreign Law, Office of the Council of State to reflect on Thailand's law and gender equality issues that it entails.
Legal personnel from the Division of Foreign Law, Office of the Council of State. PHOTO: SAMILA WENIN
For the first time in our history, in July 2011, Thailand elected a female prime minister, and this significant turn has sparked hope to boost an environment for women's empowerment initiatives, particularly in regards to increasing women representation in decision-making processes.
At present, many countries worldwide are adopting a fixed quota system to make sure women's parliamentary places are secured. For example, in France, a 1999 law has introduced a de facto quota system for women in French politics. Political parties must field equal numbers of men and women candidates, and parties failing to meet this requirement are either ineligible or face financial sanctions. In Kyrgyzstan, 30% of members of parliament must be women. Gender quotas exist throughout Central Asia and in many European countries. But is such a move a good idea for Thailand? The opinion is divided.
Natthanicha Lephilibert said that discrimination can be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, by ensuring representation. "If you look at the US, when there was racial discrimination against African-American people, their representation in the government made a big difference. Gradually, their presence helped promote racial equality, and today they even have their first African-American president," said the lady with a master's degree in European Legal Studies from University of Bristol, UK.
However, some argue that political representation should not be gender-based, as the person should be considered for his or her abilities, not gender. Chanthapim Banjongjit, who holds a master's degree in Public Law, voiced her opinion that the adoption a fixed quota system will instead promote discrimination. "By shining the spotlight on gender, it will perpetuate the belief that gender matters a great deal. We should look at a person for who he or she is, and performance rather than gender should be points for consideration. It will be unfair to vote for someone just because she is a woman, not because what she is capable of."
Head of the Division Nattanun Asawalertsak said that instead of pushing for rigid numbers, it is better to empower women. "Women are more accepted as decision makers these days - we even have a female prime minister now - so we just have to increase our own capacity. Education can help, and it is good to see so many women study law now."
Kewalee Manopinivet, who can memorise the exact articles in any Thai legislation, thinks that specifying numbers and percentage in the law will not be practical in the long run. "Laws should be long-lasting as amendment is complicated. Therefore, they need to maintain a certain level of flexibility. It won't make sense to say this percentage of MPs must be female or male, because we are now also faced with the issues about third gender's right. I think keeping it proportionate makes more sense." Pakittah Nipawan, a holder of Master II (Droit International Public) from University Jean Moulin in Lyon, France, agrees with her colleague that in the future, there might be a switch in power. "Who knows? Maybe in the future there might be more women than men in the parliament, and when that time comes, specific quota might hurt women's rights instead of promoting them," said Pakittah.
The 2007 Constitution of Thailand upholds equal rights and protection for women and men. Legislative amendments have been made to improve women's ability to claim their rights. In 2005 the Name Act was amended to allow married women the right to choose a family name as well as retain the Miss title. In 2007, the Penal Code was amended to criminalise marital rape, and the Civil Code amended to provide women and men equal grounds for divorce. The Protection of Victims of Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2007, providing for protection and rehabilitation of victims, requiring members of the public to report alleged abuse, and obliging law enforcement officers to respond to reports of violence. The Prevention and Suppression of Human trafficking Act was passed in 2008. In a way, these movements represent a positive change towards gender equality in our society, as the law amendments reflect changing reality.
"In a way, the law represents our culture. Laws cannot be issued if the society is against them, and they are amended when people feel they are no longer applicable to their lives. We've seen some positive changes over the recent years, such as the amendment of the clause dealing with rape. Before, marital rape was not considered rape, and definition of the word rape was very rigid. Now it has been changed to cover more shades of sexual harassment to offer more protection for victims, which now also extend to men, not just women," said Natthanicha.
However, the laws alone cannot work magic. For instance, despite the Constitution's clear status about gender equality, in many workplaces there is still gender-based discrimination. "Under the labour law, men and women are equal, but the law is just a guideline for the executives, and at the end of the day it is up to them whether they treat men and women equally. Career advancement and pay raise are good indicators - in most cases we see if a man and a woman join a company at the same time, in the end the man is higher on the corporate ladder, with higher salary," said Watthamon Suksai who has a master's degree in International Law from University of Kobe, Japan.
To clarify her point, here are some interesting figures. In 2011, women made up 15% of MPs, 16% of senators, and held only 17% of senior civil service positions despite outnumbering men civil servants. The picture in the private sector is a little better: women made up 35.37% of members of the board of companies registered with the Ministry of Commerce*. This is a prime example that even though the law does not promote gender discrimination, it still exists in practice.
Therefore, alongside the law, social values also need to be adjusted, according to Siriporn Iamthongchai, who is specialised in International Law. "Laws and social values are separate issues. Even when an amended law is in place, changes in people's behaviour will not change immediately. It takes time and effort to make change."
Thiti Saichua, who has a master's's degree on Criminal Law from Thammasart University, said that it is not enough to have non-discriminatory law. Protection and promotion of equal rights should also be enforced to make sure women's rights are not taken advantage of.
Prangthip Rabeab, a young blood with a master's degree from University Paris 1, agreed with that principle. "We used to think that women's rights are about protecting the fairer sex, but in fact we are not fragile. Men and women need to be equally protected, and gender specification should be eliminated in our laws. Men are also victims of human trafficking and rape, not only women. The law should not discriminate who gets protection based on gender."
In conclusion, women or men, everyone has the same basic human rights. No one should receive special treatment based on gender, and women should also respect men's rights in return. "I agree that gender equality is good, but we have to keep balance as well. When raising awareness about women's rights, it doesn't mean women should demand more rights than men, or take advantage of being female," concluded the head of the division.
About the author
- Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Outlook Writer