Challenges to gender equality in Thailand

Challenges to gender equality in Thailand

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a professor emeritus at Chulalongkorn University. He was formerly a UN special rapporteur, UN independent expert, and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on Human Rights. This article is derived from his keynote speech for the conference celebrating International Women's Day, organised by Thailand's National Human Rights Commission this week in Bangkok. (Photo
Vitit Muntarbhorn is a professor emeritus at Chulalongkorn University. He was formerly a UN special rapporteur, UN independent expert, and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on Human Rights. This article is derived from his keynote speech for the conference celebrating International Women's Day, organised by Thailand's National Human Rights Commission this week in Bangkok. (Photo

Thailand's formal commitment to women's rights began in 1985 when it became a party to the key UN treaty on the subject: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The country's record was vetted by the monitoring committee under the treaty -- the CEDAW Committee -- for the first time in 1990 and one of the key impediments was the issue of national security.

How has the situation changed since then? The issue of national security is still very much with us today and it has implications not only for women's rights but also human rights defenders in general.

Before tackling this conundrum, however, it should be recognised that there have been some notable gains since the 1990s. Today, there is little discrimination left on the books and the country's 20th constitution entrenches the principle of non-discrimination. Moreover, the family law has been reformed so that the grounds for divorce are the same for a man or a woman.

The picture is less sanguine in reality. Women's access to high levels of decision making is all too limited, as seen by the few women appointed as ministers. Discrimination, in practice, is ever present, such as in regard to unequal pay. Gender-based violence rears its ugly head such as in the domain of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, forced labour and human trafficking. A study supported by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has found that it is primarily men who commit violence against women, and much of it is due to alcohol abuse.

Strong partnerships need to be built from a young age so that both men and women can take part in preventing such violence.

While it is true that since 2015 the country has enjoyed the presence of the Gender Equality Act, that law suffers from two over-broad exceptions: national security and religion. Lack of access to remedies remains a critical issue.

On another front, the country's Anti-Domestic Violence Act 2007 not only prohibits such violence but also imposes a duty on witnesses to report the situation to the authorities for follow-up action. Yet, it is weakened by the over-use of mediation or conciliation and the failure to punish adequately those who commit crimes against women and children.

The impact of national security law enforcement on human rights, in general, and on women's rights, in particular, deserves analysis.

Firstly, excessive use of various emergency laws, such as the Martial Law Act 1915, the Emergency Decree 2005 and the National Security Act 2008, particularly in the country's southern provinces, opens the door to abuses such as detention without trial for long periods and delayed access to the courts.

Secondly, various Criminal Code provisions, such as sections 112 on lese majeste and 116 on sedition, and the recently expanded Computer Crimes Act 2017 have been criticised internationally for constraining freedom of expression unreasonably. This is exacerbated by various "orders" from the powers-that-be that impose a fiat against public discourse.

Thirdly, the use of the Public Assembly Act 2015 and various "orders" continues to undermine freedom of peaceful assembly.

In the CEDAW Committee's most recent examination of Thailand's implementation of women's rights in 2017, a variety of other issues related to security were raised. The committee was particularly concerned with the plight of widows and female heads of household in various parts of southern Thailand where the violence is endemic; they face stigma and difficulties in earning a living. The committee called for an end to coercive collection of DNA and advocated effective remedies for those who had been subjected to the practice, as well as investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of human rights violations. This reiterates a longstanding challenge facing the country: impunity from accountability. There was also a recommendation to involve more women in the peace negotiations.

More particularly on human rights defenders, a number of women human rights defenders are harassed and intimidated in the exercise of their rights. This is in breach of the UN's Declaration on Human Rights Defenders 1999. And there are many cases pending before the courts. A disquieting development is what the international community calls the spread of the Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation which is used to silence opponents of the powers-that-be. This is intertwined with the offence of sedition and related grounds found in the national security-related provisions of the Criminal Code.

Should the authorities set up a special unit or mechanism to protect human rights defenders? The experience from Central and South America invites caution. In one country, a mechanism set up in this regard turned out to be a tool for national intelligence personnel to collect information on human rights defenders, leading to an even more oppressive atmosphere. This could be aggravated by the fact that attacks on women human rights defenders are rampant around the world where women involved in such work are stereotyped as "home wreckers", and even witches.

Protection of women's rights requires a comprehensive range of actions, including good laws, practices, mechanisms, personnel, monitoring with disaggregated data, education and remedies. Emergency laws should not be enforced, unless they comply with international standards which test such laws on the basis of whether they are necessary and proportionate to the circumstances.

Concomitantly, there is a need for effective checks and balances against abuse of power by the state authorities and related groups. This invites effective, transparent and independent mechanisms such as gender-sensitive judiciaries, national human rights commissions and women's commissions with investigative powers and follow-up action.

There can be no substitute for strong civil society networks. Where the local remedies are weak or deficient, access to UN mechanisms may help to pressure for improved protection and assistance. This includes resort to the various UN special procedures, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, all of whom accept complaints of violations of human rights and human rights defenders. Another channel is the UN's hotline for receiving complaints on reprisals which can then reach up to the higher echelons of the UN system for additional leverage (see

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Professor of law at Chulalongkorn University

Vitit Muntarbhorn is professor emeritus at the Law Faculty, Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN in a various positions, including as UN Special Rapporteur, UN Independent Expert and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on human rights.

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