Thai women tackle gender inequity
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Thai women tackle gender inequity

Twenty years have passed since the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. Then, a parallel NGO Forum -- entitled "Look at the World through Women's Eyes" -- was also held during the official conference. Over ten thousand women from all over the world, including over 70 women from Thailand, participated. It was the first time Thai women from the grassroots level took part in an international conference.

There, they found that they share common problems with many groups of women from different corners of the world. Their problems ranged from violence in the home to structural violence in society. Others included poverty, conflict over resources, destruction of natural resources and the environment, changing patterns in women's work, massive lay-offs, subcontracted housework and the informalisation of the formal labour sector.

Several issues were new to the Thai women's movement at that time, such as economic globalisation, structural adjustment programme, human security, militarisation and the arms trade.

Initially, the Beijing Platform for Action identified 12 major obstacles to gender equality and women's empowerment. A global review five years later added seven new critical areas of concerns -- globalisation, science and technology, labour migration, old age, the Aids epidemic, natural disasters and the gender-based division of labour.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the world has been bombarded by economic, energy and food crises as well as armed conflicts which have broken out in multitudes across the globe. The Sept 11 attacks and the inception of the war on terrorism were particularly devastating. As part of an increasingly globalised world, Thailand was not spared.

Thailand has also seen massive social, economic and political upheaval in the past 100 years. How is Thailand doing in various areas of concern that affect gender equality? What new emerging issues should the Thai women's movement focus on now? This is what the Foundation for Women and Social Agenda Working Group seek to discover in their joint effort to assess women's progress in accordance with the goals set by the Beijing Platform of Action.

On women's participation in politics, a number of academics believe it no longer suffices for the women's movement to focus only on the number of women in key political and legislative positions.

Women have long been key actors in politics at different levels, be they as vote canvassers for political parties or as food suppliers for grassroots movements during political protests. Increasing women's political participation should therefore focus on expanding their already-active and meaningful roles, based on their existing capabilities in their respective organisations.

There is also need to pay more attention to the roles women play in society and the problems working women face in certain sectors, such as agricultural production, small-scale businesses and subcontracted production. More often than not, increasing economic needs force women to shoulder a double workload as both breadwinners and carers, which demands policy solutions.

Despite much progress, women are still trapped in society's entrenched system of patriarchal power. Many still do not have freedom of choice. While gender roles have been transformed over the past two decades, we still need to look at how women are held back from reaching their full potential by old power structures.

It is also important to recognise women's diverse needs in a more pluralistic and fragmented society. For some, the main issue is political equality and legal rights. For others, it is the need to break the glass ceiling to climb the ranks at work on par with their male counterparts. For women at the grassroots levels, fair wages and safety are paramount.

Class and ethnicity also play a vital role in determining the different needs of women. The women's movement should therefore ponder how to make space for such diversity to emerge and be integrated into the agenda.

Unfortunately, the ongoing political conflict in the past decade has overshadowed other important issues in society, including gender equality. How the women's movement can contribute to political reform remains a challenge.

One of the key questions is how political structures and political community organisations should be reformed. The women's movement could contribute by ensuring that there is space for women from diverse backgrounds to express their needs, so their voices are heard and recognised in the political sphere.

It is very important that women from different classes and cultural groups are given a forum to exchange opinions and seek common ground on which to work together. This will reflect the progress and maturity of the women's movement.

Women's groups have worked continuously on only some issues, while neglecting to follow up or update information on others, where a systematic body of knowledge is absent.

Women's groups thus need to strengthen themselves on the knowledge front and ensure that their activism truly works to create better lives for other women, in tune with the rapid changes taking place in society.

Ranee Hassarungsee is senior co-ordinator of Social Agenda Working Group (Social Watch Thailand), Chulalongkorn Social Research Institute.

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