Culture of shame silences abuse victims
The scandal involving the former deputy leader of a political party accused of sex crimes against multiple women and the child human trafficking case in Surat Thani province in which a suspect is a local politician's son share one distinct similarity -- both men have faced similar accusations in the past.
The implication is, of course, that a combination of Thailand's justice system and social values continue to put sex-crime survivors at a disadvantage in more than one way.
Let's start with reporting. Patriarchal values that shame women with sexual experience, regardless of whether consent was given, continue to prevent many victims from reporting crimes of a sexual nature.
When they do, the police frequently require demonstrable evidence that the victim was actually violated. There have been cases where women have experienced verbal or gestural harassment, such as being stalked or receiving texts, but police declined to file a complaint since no actual harm was caused. All too often, harassment such as hugging or touching are laughed off as trivial teasing -- or even natural traits for men to exhibit.
A weighted justice system and prevalent hostile attitudes toward women shut out all consideration of pursuing legal recourse for many, if not most, victims of sexual harassment and assault. According to the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation's annual survey last year, at least 70% of Thai women have experienced sexual harassment or assault but chose not to report it. Therefore, it is both courageous and admirable that so many women were prepared to take a stand against the deputy party leader by coming forward and taking legal action.
Limited personnel is another cause of underreporting. In 2021, there were about 700 female inquiry officials in Thailand, or less than 10% of the total number of officers employed in the role (there are approximately 10,000 inquiry officials across the country). Not every police station has a female inquiry official. Sexual encounters are a sensitive issue that is difficult to share with strangers. The victims, almost always women, may not feel comfortable submitting complaints to male police officers. In addition, women migrant workers who are considered one of the most vulnerable groups, face additional barriers to filing a complaint because interpreters at police stations are very hard to find. A 2021 ILO report states that many female migrant workers experience sexual harassment/assault in Thailand, but the number of prosecutions is very low.
The next step is investigation and evidence collection. In many cases, the victims have to return to the crime scene to show the police what happened, which is both humiliating and traumatic. Moreover, the offenders often try to use circumstantial evidence, such as intimate texts, or the victims' non-denial of acts of pressure, including violence to claim consent. This is because the law stipulates that if the alleged offence is consensual, it shall not be deemed that such a person has the right to sue or file a complaint.
Proving consent is complex and can have negative consequences for the victim, especially when society expects a "good woman" must behave accordingly, regardless of the male-predominant power structure. For example, victims do not deny verbal abuse because the offenders are their superiors or influential people. Not to mention that Thai society does not encourage women to express their feelings openly, let alone stiffly say "no".
Then, if a complainant is determined and brave enough, we reach court proceedings. Trials of this nature adopt an accusatorial system where the victim bears the burden of proving that the offender is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This is challenging for victims who often face a barrage of victim-blaming questions such as, "how were you dressed?" or "why did you meet him so late at night?". It may be impossible for a woman to describe what happened due to intoxication, shock or simply blacking out the horrific details.
Finally, there is the question of compensation and support. According to the "Damages for the Injured Person and Compensation and Expense for the Accused in Criminal Case Act 2001 (BE 2544), assaulted women can claim damages incurred, whether for medical treatment, or physical and mental rehabilitation, or compensation for lost earnings. However, this is available only under Sections 276 to 287 which relate to rape and indecent acts. Victims of shameful acts in public fall under Section 388, while those deemed to have suffered annoyance, bullying or disgrace cannot seek any assistance at all, according to Section 397.
It is apparent that the Thai justice system is weighted against female victims of violence, leaving offenders likely to re-commit similar offences. This can be overcome by increasing the number of women in the system, switching to the inquisitorial format and allowing women who have been attacked to access compensation and support. But for any of this to actually happen, society's stigmas must end, or else sex crimes will never stop.
Chatabut Hayook is a researcher at The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.