So close and yet so far on sex equality
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So close and yet so far on sex equality

In 1995, Thailand pledged to empower women and make gender equality a reality at the UN's historic conference on women in Beijing. But how are Thai women faring now? What has improved? And what obstacles remain?

Over the past two weeks, three women's rights advocates have asked me exactly those questions. They were all in the process of putting together progress reports reviewing the situation in Thailand, because next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action.

How time flies! I still remember the great excitement the Beijing conference generated here and around the world. Now, I wonder if people here — outside the UN circles and its partners — even still care at all. Is the general lack of interest a sign of success? After all, Thai women have made remarkable achievements in most sectors. Why bother changing when you're already there?

Or is the lack of interest just that — no interest. Not simply because society still looks warily on equal rights for women, but also because women's rights groups have lost steam. Or is it the combination of both? Their questions have forced me to think of where we are today. Here's my two satangs.

The 1974 charter, which institutionalised gender equality, opened the floodgates for female bureaucrats to enter top decision-making positions. They may make up less than 15% of such roles, but it's better than before. It's even more advanced in the private sector where 30-40% of top executives are women. The country also had an elected female prime minister, although the current administration wants to erase that from collective memory.

Laws which many thought impossible have become a reality. For example, women can now use their maiden name after marriage. This gives women the legal right to keep their identity and continue their family line — once just a privilege of men that enshrined their superiority. Marital rape, formerly allowed, is now a crime. 

On educational opportunity, girls do better in university enrolment, although fewer reach top executive jobs due to the stubborn glass ceiling. Job segregation according to gender roles remains. Obstacles exist. Still, we cannot deny the progress made.

Poor girls getting forced into the flesh trade used to be a big problem. Now, free and extended primary education keeps young girls in schools. Yet prostitution persists. Migrant girls are trafficked to replace local girls to answer existing demands.

Meanwhile, school girls face new problems. Teenage pregnancy here is among the highest in the world. Girls' HIV infection rates are rising. Death from abortion complications remain high when society insists on morality and says no to safe and legal abortion.

Old patriarchal values refuse to fade away. But it's not the only reason why progress is hitting a dead-end. The stark disparity between the haves and have-nots is probably the bigger reason.

If behind every man's success is his wife who raises the kids, cooks the food, and does household chores, then behind a woman's success is her maid.

Men's traditional superiority and privileges are not questioned because traditional values and division of labour in the family unit remain intact. Before, poor rural women provided domestic help. Now migrant women do the job. The wife is happy and patriarchy lives on. So does the feudal culture which refuses domestic workers legal labour rights.

If society becomes egalitarian, domestic help will become so expensive that the wife will have to force her man to help with child-rearing and household chores. Men will have to change. Further change will come with this fundamental value shift, I believe.

We need active advocacy to help push for change. Unfortunately, that's not what I see now. Pioneering feminists are getting old and exhausted. There's no new blood to reinvigorate the movement. Meanwhile, women's groups are severely weakened and divided by colour-coded politics. It was why many "feminists" kept mum when Yingluck Shinawatra faced sexist attacks. Or why they don't see how the coup and the rise of militarism is a direct attack on women's freedoms and rights.

We have come a long way. But we shouldn't forget that change in the past two decades occurred within an open environment, politically and economically. With our education system that favours only the rich and aggravates disparity and with our society turning to militarism and conservatism, change for gender equality — for now, sadly — will have to wait.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender and Thai Buddhism.

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