Culture of rape

In Thailand, a deference to authority and strong patriarchy has left children vulnerable to sexual abuse by their teachers

Representatives of 92 organisations submitted a petition to call on the Ministry of Education to come up with policies to protect and solve sexual violence problems within schools. Photo: Chanat Katanyu

A recent rape case in Mukdahan province shocked the entire nation when it was brought to light that two underage female students were raped by five teachers and two school alumni. While the case was devastating on its own, it was all the more enraging when some netizens showed outright support to the perpetrators and shifted blame to the young victims.

A teacher is generally a respected profession in the country. Even more so in rural areas where they play a role in the school and community. Thais are taught to be grateful to teachers for providing them with knowledge. The Mukdahan case has shone an unwanted spotlight on an ugly side of this profession, which experts see as an abuse of the power structure and patriarchy in our institutions and society.

During a recent online panel discussion on the problem of rape and power, it was reported that about 50% of hundreds of rape and sexual violence attacks are on victims aged 11-20 years old, and that the perpetrators in about 5-10% of cases are teachers. These statistics were based on cases of rape and sexual violence as reported in the news from 2013-2017.

But, as panellists pointed out, these numbers are much lower than what's really happening in society.

"This is a structural problem," said Varaporn Chamsanit, from the Women Wellbeing programme. "It's not just about a child being unfortunate and running into bad teachers. These incidents are repeated over and over. However, we never get to know how prevalent it is in reality as some just don't get publicised. Many cases ended with both sides agreeing to a settlement. The perpetrators paid their way out. Some also married the victims."

Jaded Chouwilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, said the authoritarian nature within the bureaucratic system is held above the power of students who don't really have a say in what they want. The structure in educational institutions also gives power to teachers, not students. With their status, teachers are likely to know influential people, especially within rural communities, including policemen, leaders and local politicians, leading to many cases ending in a settlement.

"And when anything bad happens, people would automatically view that teachers -- believed to be virtuous by default -- would never do such a thing. Then, some just turn to attacking young victims instead," said Jaded.

Children are bound to listen to teachers. And as they spend a lot of time together, a chance that teachers may abuse their power is also increased.

"In a way, it's a power bestowed from culture itself, which views that we are indebted to teachers. We don't respect them because of their individual knowledge, performance or behaviour. We just do for the fact that they are teachers, without considering much else. This mindset doesn't just affect children, but also their parents and people within the community," said Varaporn.

Both Jaded and Varaporn said this rape epidemic is related to the patriarchy.

"Thai culture gives more freedom to men when it comes to sex, and urges and coerces them to be experienced. They cheat, have mistresses and pay people for sex, and society sort of compromises that it's acceptable to do so. But women are controlled and taught not to be promiscuous," said Varaporn.

Jaded added that rape incidents happen everywhere with shared factors, including the inability to restrain oneself and the tendency to exercise and abuse one's power. Alcohol also plays a role as a catalyst.

Whenever a rape case is reported, fingers are often pointed at female victims. The way they dress, the time they choose to commute, and even the place they happen to be at have become reasons for people to conclude that the victims were asking for trouble.

With the Mukdahan case, social media erupted when a post made by a fellow teacher cheered for the perpetrators and expressed concerns for their wives and family, while saying the students were ungrateful for making the rape public.

"If you don't want your children to be raped by teachers, then just get them homeschooled," stated the Facebook post.

Varaporn said that for people to show support for rapists and condemn victims, it shows that they accept violence and, in turn, support rape.

"It's like they're joining the perpetrators in raping and hurting victims again," she said.

Thicha Na Nakorn, adviser of the Foundation for Children, Youth and Family, said that she has met with the victims of the Mukdahan case. They, too, have been attacked by their own peers for humiliating the school in their decision to expose the teachers' crimes. Thicha wished to see the Minister of Education himself visit the victims and show admiration for their courage in bringing this story to light. This is to discourage the rapists' supporters, while ensuring society that justice will be served.

In previous rape cases, Thicha said victim blaming was common, which then harms the victim's self-esteem. She said that it's crucial to empower victims as it also influences their fight to prosecute the perpetrators.

"Empowering can be about changing the goal that the victims aren't fighting only for themselves and their family. A victim in a past rape case has said that she must've been chosen by the higher power. She doesn't want to see this happening to others, which was why she chose to proceed with the case. This is an empowered mindset," said Thicha.

"The process of empowerment can change a person from surrendering to being brave. They have a choice whether to stop or to go on," she said.

If the victims choose to fight, Thicha said that the social mechanism must not isolate them and must accommodate and protect them during the entire process. In her experience, she has seen both civil society organisations and state agencies co-operating to help these victims.

"If state agencies can view civil society organisations as allies, we can recognise our individual strengths and work together to help people," said Thicha.

The three panellists called for the Ministry of Education to take this issue seriously. Some of their suggestions include for schools to change their evaluation system and allow students, parents and the community be the ones who evaluate their own teaching staff.

Thicha said students should be taught and empowered about their own rights at the school.

"If children know and can think for themselves, no teacher would be able to make silly threats like not giving them points or failing them in class [to force them to do things]," said Thicha.

Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan responded to the rape case by establishing a centre to protect students who have been sexually violated, with Hotline 1579 available to help victims. Jaded questioned the practicality of this centre and the hotline, suggesting that this mechanism needs to be a neutral space and should involve members from civil society organisations and academics to prevent the perpetrators from being helped by their own people.

The panellists also agreed that the centre is only fixing problems at the end. In a campaign on Change.org, over 8,000 people have requested the Ministry of Education to join the victims as complainant against the perpetrators to protect the welfare of students. The petition was supported by a network of 92 organisations that protect women and children in Thailand. The campaign also asks for severe disciplinary actions for those who are found guilty, and asks the ministry to come up with preventive measures and to educate teachers about child's protection and gender equality. The online petition has since been submitted to the Minister of Education.