Listen to the women

Listen to the women

As the year draws to a close, I'd like to think it's time for a little assessment. This year has been hailed by many in the United States and in Europe as the year in which women "broke their silence". This belief was recently illustrated by Time's "Person Of The Year" cover, which features six women who spoke out against sexual harassment.

Indeed, in just under 12 months, we have witnessed a large-scale women's march, which not only opposed the policies of US President Donald Trump but also called attention to women's and LGBT rights, as well as the unfolding of several scandals surrounding sexual harassment allegations in Hollywood. The sheer number of such accusations is enough to highlight the systemic nature of the problem.

However, I don't believe this is the first time women have spoken out. It's merely the first time that they were listened to, the first time that actions were taken, the first time that heads rolled as a result of these testimonials (although I'm still wondering how it will all play out in a courtroom).

Once a few women cracked this door open, thousands of others joined them in denouncing the abuse.

But what about Thailand in 2017? It wasn't a particularly good year, nor a particularly bad one for Thai women. But let's not congratulate ourselves for maintaining this status quo.

For the past few years, we have endured a leader who knows how to put a foot in his mouth and listened, becoming more jaded every time, to his patronising remarks -- women are like "candies" best kept "unwrapped" -- and outright misogynistic "jokes" -- "if men and women had equal rights, society as a whole would deteriorate".

The year in Thailand started out with the trial of Dr Nitiwadee "Mor Nim" Pucharoenyos, a woman sentenced to death for the murder of her husband, a sharpshooter and high-profile sportsman who allegedly abused her and threatened her life.

However, the case was merely treated as a murder and the abuse allegations became motives and were quickly relegated to the background.

A death is a death, but had Dr Nitiwadee been listened to earlier, she would have had other options available and lives could have been spared. Had it been the case, perhaps we would have witnessed a trial for domestic abuse rather than cold-blooded murder.

Sadly, Dr Nitiwadee's case is merely one among many others and it hit the headlines due to the fame of the late sportsman Jakkrit Panichpatikum.

How many women die at the hands of their husband before wives can file a complaint? How many more before such complaint is processed? How many women rot in prison for ending their husband's life when laws didn't protect them?

Moving on, since we still have the leisure to do so, the wave of sexual harassment accusations in the US seemingly swept over a large part of the world and triggered countless #MeToo hashtags on social media.

In Thailand however, the movement failed to gain momentum and few perpetrators learned that their actions have consequences.

In a culture so impregnated with sexism and social hierarchy as Thailand's, speaking out against abusers isn't as easy as it seems. A case like the one against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein seems unimaginable here, largely due to the reverence and public credit we blindly give to phu yai or people in positions of power.

In this country, laws tend to favour and protect the rich and the powerful, but so do social norms.

It's likely that most women facing sexual harassment in their work environment in Thailand would be shunned for being "loose" or blamed for "wanting it" rather than given help. This leaves them with few options but to remain silent for the sake of their career or leave their jobs.

One of the few pieces of good news we've had this year was the firing of a senior official at the Ministry of Public Health in November, after a probe found him guilty of sexual abuse. The official (whose name was not disclosed) was caught after one of his victims videotaped their encounter.

Shockingly, despite the amount of evidence piled up against him, he defended himself saying he merely liked to "tease" his co-workers.

Unfortunately though, abuse by men in positions of power isn't the only issue at hand for Thai women. Other men have also displayed their predatory behaviour in public spaces such as transportation systems.

A recent survey by NGOs Action Aid Thailand and Safe Cities for Women found that one in three women had been harassed on buses and trains.

What is alarming is how this kind of behaviour has been internalised as "normal" or merely a "nuisance", as only 14% of the victims responded to such harassment by notifying it to authorities -- while other passengers turn a blind eye.

It shouldn't be the sole responsibility of the victim to speak out against such crass behaviour in any environment, whether it be in public spaces or at the workplace, and even in the private sphere. It's about time that we start to follow up on complaints.

Women have been speaking out for ages. But have you been listening?

Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong is a features writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Ariane Sutthavong

Former features writer

Ariane Sutthavong is a former features writer for the Bangkok Post.

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