In the past week, village heads and kamnan across the country have been staging protests against the government's attempts to limit their tenure to five years instead of retirement at 60. One thing is glaringly missing in their protests _ women.
Yes, theirs are the protests of the old boys' club trying to protect their turf against democratic incursions. Their protests should not only alert us of the need to bring village heads and kamnan in line with the times, but also the urgency of increasing the number of women in local administration.
According to the Office of Gender Equality Promotion, Ministry of Social Development and Social Security, women comprise only 4.5% of village heads and kamnan nationwide.
Obviously, the present retirement age of 60 means new elections are few and far between, which has effectively kept women out.
This lack of women's participation in the village and sub-district levels is not an exception. Sadly, it is part of a national norm in a country where half of the populace, the workforce, and eligible voters are women.
Given the highly visible roles which Thai women play in society, there must be something seriously wrong in the system when there are only 15% of women MPs and 17% of female senators in parliament, lower than the Asian averages.
Women fare even worse in local elections, with only 12% making it at town municipality level, 14% at sub-district municipality level, and just 13% in tambon administration organisations.
It does not have to be this way.
The Gender Development Research Institute says 19 countries have female representation higher than 35% in their parliaments. Sweden, for example, has 44.7% of women MPs in parliament, Finland 42%, and the Netherlands 40%. This did not happen naturally, but by design. If these countries can help increase women's representation in politics through affirmative action, then Thailand can do it too.
The Tambon Councils and Tambon Administration Organisations (TAO) Bill aims to bring about gender balance by setting the women's quota in tambon councils and TAOs at 50%. This people-sponsored amendment has been criticised as reverse discrimination.
This is nonsense. Women have long been subject to many forms of discrimination to keep them from the public sphere. To create a level playing field, some legal mechanisms need to be put in place, which can be removed when gender equality is no longer a problem.
This is called affirmative action, not reverse discrimination, and as a strategy has been endorsed by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Thailand has ratified.
Research in several countries similarly shows the increasing number of women in local administrative bodies results in better welfare programmes and services for children and the elderly. Women also pay more attention to quality of life and environmental concerns while men are mainly concerned with road construction and building projects.
Given Thailand's rapidly greying society, increasing teen problems, and environmental degradation, policy support for more female administrators would be timely.
During her recent trip to the United States, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra proudly told the world how she supports women's empowerment. Here is a chance to prove her commitment.