16 Days: Just say no to sexual violence
This Friday is not only Human Rights Day but also the last day of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign that began on Nov 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
On that same day in Thailand it was revealed that one of the photographers hired by the Miss Universe Thailand (MUT) pageant had sexually harassed a number of contestants. Reporting such an incident while risking their reputations and social scrutiny was indeed a courageous move by the victims and organisers.
Public disclosure of sexual harassment is not common in Thailand. The latest research by the International Labour Organization (ILO) titled, "Who is going to believe us?" Work-related sexual harassment in Thailand, with a focus on women migrant workers, found that sexual harassment here is deeply entrenched in gender norms and predicated ideas about how women and men should act, as well as social and economic interaction for example employment. Thailand has traditionally shown quite a high tolerance for sexual violence, meaning sexual harassment is often treated as a non-serious issue. As a result of that, many such incidents go unreported. Even for those that are, the survivors are often blamed or seen as implicit accomplices rather than victims. Even worse, they are often chided for ruining the reputation of their families and/or organisations.
The research also shows that there are legal, procedural and institutional barriers preventing women from accessing justice. In most cases, court hearings in Thailand embrace the accusatorial system in which complainants must prove that damage has been caused by the defendant. This means a survivor of violence or harassment must bear an extra burden. To prove their accusation, they need to recount their ordeal time and again, reopening emotional wounds that can be highly traumatic. This may also put the survivor at a disadvantage, as they may not be able to remember every detail of the incident due to shock, fear or even having been rendered unconscious.
The ILO paper also shines a spotlight on female migrant workers, one of the most vulnerable groups in society. As migrants, they have to undergo a complex layer of legal, procedural, and social challenges to work in Thailand. As women, many face sexual violence and harassment in the workplace. Not only do they have to suffer the unequal power sharing between employer and employee, as well as a work environment that traditionally favors men, but also the legal requirements that migrant workers must follow. For instance, if a female migrant worker wishes to press charges against her employer for sexual harassment, she risks having her work permit terminated by her employer. In such a case, she must find a new job within 30 days or be deported. In that extremely limited timeframe, she would have to choose between focusing on her complaint or finding a new job, neither of which could be guaranteed.
Furthermore, women migrant workers tend to face language barriers, which can be especially difficult because they may not be able to find the right words when explaining details in court.
Migrant workers must rely on interpreters to deliver the exact details of their ordeal, which means interpreters must be highly skilled and have a deep understanding and sensitivity about their issue, as well as knowledge of all the technical terms related to sexual violence or harassment. Such skilled interpreters are difficult to find.
It should also be noted that the maximum penalty for violating Section 16 of the Labour Protection Act BE 2541 (1998), which prohibits sexual harassment by an employer, a supervisor, or a work inspector against an employee, is a fine of 20,000 baht. The labour protection does not accommodate a criminal charge, meaning victims need to file separate criminal charges.
These difficulties deter women from seeking justice as, apart of risking their reputation and job security, some women may find the penalty too low to be worth the trouble. Moreover, the fine does not go to the victims, but to the employee welfare fund. Survivors of sexual harassment have to file a civil lawsuit with the court for compensation.
Considering the legal process usually incurs high costs, both in time and money, it is no surprise that many survivors of sexual harassment choose not to go down this path.
The ILO study offers 26 recommendations to address the gaps and limitations in the laws and their enforcement relating to sexual harassment in the world of work.
This includes providing gender training for all officials; reviewing all laws in accordance with international standards; defining sexual harassment to include its intersection of gender with other structural social inequalities; supporting knowledge of, and access to, victim-supportive resources and services, including interim measures that can be available, effective, and implemented at any time during pending proceedings.
Sexual harassment is a form of violence and a violation of human rights, and shall not be tolerated. To celebrate the 16 Days of Activism, let us acknowledge and honour those who have braved making their ordeal public, and the condemnation and abuse that can follow, to put sexual harassment and solutions to it firmly on the agenda.
Boonwara Sumano, PhD, is a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and N Aneksomboonphon is an independent contributor. Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.