'Bleach mum' exposes welfare failure
Had not the doctors intervened, a two-year-old toddler may have been poisoned to death by his mother. They could not save the boy's four-year-old sister, however. She was already dead from the same malady.
Both children suffered similar symptoms; burnt lips, vomiting of blood, and damaged digestive tracts.
The mother, 29-year-old Nittha Wongwan, asserted her kids' painful symptoms derived from a rare genetic disorder that required costly treatment.
She posted her family's difficulties on social media. Public sympathy poured in as she constantly kept her social media followers abreast of the children's conditions. She even shared with them the moment her daughter died.
According to press reports, Ms Nittha received more than 20 million baht from online sympathisers.
After her daughter died, her son who seemed previously healthy developed the same symptoms. Doctors at Thammasat University Hospital became suspicious when the toddler's recovery after medical treatment stopped improving every time he was fed by his mother. After a thorough medical examination, the doctors pressed charges against her for poisoning the boy with toxic chemicals.
The so-called "bleach mum" has been arrested but she denied the premeditated murder allegations. The boy is now staying with social workers at a state shelter.
The shocking news occupied the headlines and fed the public with drama and distraction for a week during the political and economic doldrums from the pandemic. Ms Nittha was the target of public outrage while the media tried to extend the news' lifespan by digging into her life and online chat history to find what caused the woman's unimaginable cruelty.
The DNA tests revealed that the boy was her son, but the little girl who was dead was not. She adopted the baby girl from a desperate teenage mom who used social media to seek someone to take care of her baby girl from an unplanned pregnancy. The media then started hounding the girl's biological mother who, understandably, felt scared and fled her home.
I wonder what the media would have asked her. Most probably insensitive questions to draw emotional answers and increase readership. For example: Why didn't you practise protected sex to avoid unplanned pregnancy? Didn't you feel anything giving up your baby? How do you feel now that the baby is dead?
Like other sensational news, the "bleach mum" tragedy would soon fade from public attention. The problem of potential human trafficking and child abuse will continue because society is intent on blaming individuals instead of tacking the failed system while the media cannot see beyond sensationalism.
Ms Nittha must be punished if she poisoned her adopted daughter and her biological son. But if we want to prevent future tragedies, we need to tackle the cracks in the system that allows such crimes to occur easily.
No, not the strict rules and regulations on online donations to prevent abuses of people's kindness as many suggested. Bureaucratic red tape is already a gigantic problem hindering structural change. Why give the autocratic state mechanisms more power when community oversight can better ensure transparency?
We should honour the spirit of giving. During these trying times, it is uplifting to see the surge of kindness from all sectors. But we should not lose sight of this grim fact either: Had there been a comprehensive welfare system in place to support the populace, there would not have been such an immense need for handouts.
Giving away handouts, though admirable, underscores a social hierarchy and contains a subtle appeal for gratefulness. Importantly, it highlights the state's failure to serve the populace.
To live with dignity, people need a universal welfare system that respects rights, not charities.
Back to the "bleach mum" crime. Had the government made legal and safe abortion available as routine medical services, the biological mother of the four-year-old girl would not have had to go through the stress and strain of having to take care of a baby she was not ready for.
Also, had the government made adoption services easily accessible and responsive to the mother's needs, her baby would have been raised by ready and responsible adoptive parents by now.
But the reality is distressing. Patriarchy and religious beliefs prevent abortion from being legal medical services. Sexual double standards also punish women who choose abortion with lifetime social stigma and guilt while leaving the male partner intact.
Ironically, if women choose not to terminate their pregnancies as demanded by social norms, they are left to struggle on their own. Despite calls from civic groups for financial support for children up to six years old across the board, the military-run government keeps saying the country cannot afford it as the arms budgets keep rising.
To ease public pressure, the government finally agreed to give 600-baht monthly child support, but only to "poor" mothers. However, only one-third of children under six in the country receive such support due to extremely strict screening and bureaucratic red tape.
Meanwhile, the mothers who cannot cope are facing a brick wall accessing state adoption services. Apart from the lack of information and limited facilities, the top-down and heartless bureaucratic procedures without understanding nor respect for privacy end up pushing away women in distress.
This is why most adoptions are done informally -- as happened in the "bleach mum" case -- enabling child abuse to occur easily.
And no, we don't want any more state orphanages that treat children like objects without love and caring.
Run like factories, the orphanages move children from one home to another according to their ages, destroying their sense of security. After 18, they are pushed out of the shelters with no more support.
What we want are the law and reproductive health services that empower women to decide freely about their pregnancies.
We want abortion services that are easily accessible and friendly to women in distress to help them make well-informed decisions.
We want an adoption system that responds to the mothers' diverse needs and offers them a wide range of choices from temporary foster care for their babies to adoption services.
To achieve that, the officialdom must end fragmented operations and the silo mentality so they can work in unity to serve women and children instead of using red tape to strengthen their top-down power as is the case now.
In a nutshell, we want policy change and bureaucratic reform. We also need society to give up sexism to increase women's choices and protect children's well-being. But this is not possible under the current dictatorship in the guise of democracy which further strengthens patriarchy and autocratic bureaucracy.
The personal is political. Women's rights over their bodies are possible only in an open, democratic political system.
It is good to give and to help women and children in distress. But if the givers still condone military and bureaucratic dictatorship, they are part of the problem, not the solution.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.