Ethnic women 'losing out'

Ethnic women 'losing out'

Inequality also hits disabled hard: forum

The battle waged by women against gender inequality is even tougher when the women in question are from ethnic minorities or have disabilities, a forum to mark Sunday's International Women's Day was told yesterday.

The event was held under the theme "I Am Generation Equality: Realising Women's Rights" at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok.

"Being a woman is already difficult, but being an indigenous woman is worse," said Pirawan Wongnithisathaporn, Karen environment officer at the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

Her Karen ancestors lived in the forest for generations before the government designated the land for Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. The Karen lack titles to their ancestral land, meaning officials can evict them at any time, Ms Pirawan said.

For ethnic Karen women, the precarious existence is made worse by an invisible challenge -- the lack of opportunities. Most of them are not educated and cannot speak Thai or other languages.

"Our culture entitles men to many opportunities, including education, because they have to take care of families. Meanwhile women are expected to get married," she told the Bangkok Post on the forum's sidelines.

Ms Pirawan said the language barrier remains an obstacle to realising ethnic women's rights, especially in terms of justice, because they have no access to interpreters.

"Learning another language is challenging. We have community schools, but teachers come once a week or once a month. … It is also difficult to talk to doctors because they don't understand our Karen language. These are examples of how the language barrier blocks basic rights when we can't speak Thai. You are not even recognised as a citizen because you can't speak Thai. I think we have to recognise diversity. Being Thai does not mean only those who can speak Thai," she said.

Ms Pirawan said free education should be accessible to everybody, including ethnic minorities. "It should be a policy to make us [Karen] equal to everyone else."

Nantanoot Suwannawut, a blind researcher at the Education Ministry's Bureau of Special Education Administration, has been working on projects to educate disabled girls about their rights.

"When I travel on my own, people often exploit me. They touch here [other parts of the body] when they should touch the back of my hand. These are some examples of what education we can give them."

However, Ms Nantanoot, who has a PhD in Information Science from Indiana University, said the gap between policy and implementation remains an obstacle to improving disabled rights.

"We need to raise awareness about people with disabilities, especially girls and women. Also, [authorities] have to open up opportunities for us, such as access to justice. As an example, a deaf woman was convicted of a crime, when she was actually a victim who could not communicate with the judge. We must provide accessible ways of communicating," she said.

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