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Thailand needs urgent debate on female equality

Women have made huge strides forward, but much remains to be done

Bangkok Bank employees pose at a promotional event in the Thai capital. Over 70% of the bank's new recruits last year were women. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Thailand has undergone a dramatic social, cultural, economic and political transformation during the past half century. In particular, educated Thai women have reconfigured traditional conceptions of their private and public roles -- to the point where Thailand now has among the highest proportions of female executives in the world, according to surveys and research by consultants including Grant Thornton and Oliver Wyman.

Many have broken into the top levels of the civil service, such as Juree Wijitwatakarn, former director of the National Institute of Development Administration, or have risen to senior levels in the business world, such as Chadatip Chutiahul, chief executive of Siam Paragon Department Store and Supaluck Umpujh, head of The Mall Group, Thailand's second largest retail chain.

Much remains to be done, however, before Thai women can be said to have achieved true equality. That will require an open and far-reaching debate in Thai society, and official willingness to tackle further reform, especially in government and religious circles. Ultimately, those representing tradition and change in Thai society will have to reach a state of mutual respect and trust through compromise and accommodation if there is to be a meaningful reconciliation, and if tension and conflict are to be modulated.

Even so, much has already been achieved to bring Thailand to the forefront. There have been renowned women professors, lawyers and business leaders for decades, as well as famous women novelists such as D'ok Mai Sot known as "Dawkmai Sot" and K. Surangkanang, who as far back as the late 1930s, challenged sexual double standards and pressed for gender equality. However, women who breached the barriers of male supremacy in those times were relatively few and far between. They were not the norm but the exception.

Five or more decades ago, a "good woman" in Thai culture -- as in most other Asian societies -- was chaste before marriage, then a devoted, dutiful and loyal wife, and a nurturing and caring mother. In more recent decades, educated Thai women have begun to exercise a newly realized freedom to expand their previously restricted role. They have felt free to pursue professional careers, and have come to a realization that they can protect and support themselves. Being more independent, they have felt less obligated to defer to authority figures within and outside the family.

Even in the traditional bastions of bureaucratic power, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the trend toward increasing participation by women is clear. The first Thai woman to be appointed to the civil service rank of governor took up her job only in 1993. By 2016 there had been 10, with more in the pipeline.

Diplomacy and law

In 1985, only one woman in the Thai Foreign Ministry was eligible to be an ambassador. Today there are at least 12, and an increasing number of women in high level positions are or will soon be eligible to join them. Far greater numbers of women than men are entering the ministry each year and a woman now holds the most senior civil service position in the ministry, that of permanent secretary.

A similar pattern can be seen in the judiciary where an overwhelming majority of the newly appointed judges are women. In 1974, there were only eight female judges, all restricted to serving in the Family Court. Today, women are serving in all the courts of first instance, appeals courts and the Supreme Court. And it is expected that the next president of the Thai Supreme Court will be a woman, for the first time.

As for lawyers, the number of women now entering the profession far surpasses the number of men. I remember hearing references when I first came to Thailand in 1955 to Ying Raem Phrommobon, who in 1930 became the first woman in Thai history to pass the Thai Bar Association examination. In the succeeding decades relatively few women followed in her footsteps. However, in the early 1980s women started to join the legal profession and in the last two decades, more women than men have become practicing lawyers.

But the most striking example of the preponderance of women over men in the bureaucratic corridors of power can be found in the Thai Ministry of Commerce. There, women have greatly outnumbered men for some years, and have held the top posts of director-general and permanent secretary, making the top echelons of the ministry an almost exclusive preserve of the "not so weaker" sex.

The dramatic rise of women to the upper levels of Thai bureaucracy follows an explosion in the number of female university students in Bangkok. In 1994, only two of the 19 faculties at Chulalongkorn University had more women than men. Today, that statistic has been reversed. Broadly speaking, selected faculties at Chulalongkorn and other major Bangkok universities are the principal recruiting grounds for the civil service. For example, the faculty of political science at Chulalongkorn funnels some of its brightest students into the foreign and interior ministries. This faculty has had more than twice as many female students as males for the past five years.

The numbers are even more startling in the university's faculty of law, where students must receive degrees as the minimum requirement for careers as lawyers and judges. Over the past decade or so, there have been three times as many women students as men in the law faculty. The same general pattern is echoed in other state universities in Thailand.

The faculties of economics and of commerce and accountancy in Chulalongkorn meanwhile also have more female than male students. Many of the women who graduate enter into the private finance and banking sectors, turning the country into what one consultant called the "women CEO capital of the world."

Behind the numbers

Thailand's population of 65 million is 51% female, but this is not a sufficient imbalance to explain the advancement of women in recent years. Some have argued that women are progressing in the law, civil service and business sectors because more women than men enter the arts stream, as opposed to the science stream, at secondary school level, facilitating entry to academic faculties from which graduates entering these professions are drawn. However, there is no barrier to men in either the science or arts streams attempting to compete for university places.

The reality is that women are outdistancing men in academic performance in both secondary schools and university entrance examinations. Sociologists have pointed out that in the traditional Thai family structure, daughters are more closely supervised than sons. Also, daughters are less prone to engage in activities outside the family that are viewed as more appropriate for men rather than women. Thus, in theory, there is more time and focus for study by women.

Thailand's steady march toward female empowerment and an expansion of the parameters of what defines a "good woman" has not been without resistance. Thai men have not found it easy to forego the traditional privileges accorded to them in a hierarchical and patriarchal society. The prospect of shared duties and responsibilities in marriage and partnerships has been daunting, and has been further complicated by the fact that in many such relationships the woman may well be earning more than her mate. This male reluctance, and women's reaction to it, is reflected in the steady rise in the past few decades in divorces and separations, as well as in the rising number of unmarried women.

Social and political pressure have led, during the last two decades, to the enactment of laws safeguarding women's rights that were denied only a decade or more ago. For example, adultery by a husband is now a ground for his wife to seek a divorce; the rape of a wife by her husband is now a criminal act; sexual harassment is a criminal offense.

However, past patriarchal attitudes have resulted in these new rights being largely unenforced by the authorities, and there is also a degree of reluctance among women about pursuing such cases. If formal complaints of marital rape or domestic violence are made, the police will almost always press women to return to their families and resolve the issue through discussion. In the case of sexual harassment, women's rights are limited by the law, which applies only in the workplace.

There are countervailing pressures. The number of nongovernmental organizations committed to furthering women's rights has steadily expanded, and nongovernmental organizations have become more vocal. Women in positions of leadership in the bureaucracy may be expected to join in, with support from the media and academia.

Weak spots

Little support for the further progress of women in Thai society can be expected from parliament, however. In 1990, women held only 3% of the seats in Thai parliament. While their numbers have increased since then, especially during periods of elected government, the proportion of women holding seats has never risen higher than a fifth. In the past three years, under military rule, there have been 13 women in a 250-seat, appointed parliament.

There is also stark evidence of the persistence of male supremacy in the religious sphere. Under a law promulgated in 1928 women are prohibited from being ordained as female Theravada monks, or bhiksuni. Despite the numerous scandals and increased politicization of the Sangha Council of Elders, the governing body of Thai Buddhism, the patriarchal elders remain adamant that ordination and related privileges are the legal right and privilege of men only. Even those women who have been ordained as female monks in other countries are not recognized under Thai law.

Nevertheless, educated Thai women are contributing to the development of the nation in both the private and public sectors -- including those from rural areas. The rise in rural mobility has been largely the result of enhanced educational opportunities afforded by an expansion of public secondary education and the proliferation, over past decades, of provincial universities and technical institutes.

A growing number of rural women now aspire to be part of the capital's urban middle class society, where they find employment as bank workers, secretaries, nurses, hospital technicians and tour guides. But women who remain in their villages have also assumed expanded roles, becoming heads and senior officials of villages and communes.

This trend toward empowering educated women should be welcomed in both the public and private sectors. The military-backed government should enact and promote laws to further protect women's rights. Additional government and private support should be provided for the upgrade and expansion of higher education institutions in the rural areas.

Government agencies should be willing to accept input from NGOs on women's issues and collaborate with them in project implementation. Given the parlous state of the Sangha today, the government and Sangha authorities should provide a legal opportunity for Thai women to be ordained as female monks.

Younger people are clearly more amenable to positive cultural change, especially in regard to women's role in society. That means there should be no need for quotas or positive discrimination. But female equality is an important issue with wide ramifications. Now is the time for Thailand to focus on what has occurred over the last 50 years, examine the implications, and determine what future action is needed.

William J. Klausner is an author and adjunct professor in the faculty of political science and a senior fellow in the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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