Numnual Yapparat & Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The participation of women in Thai society is reasonably high compared to some other Asian countries. Women have always been part of the workforce in rural and urban areas. Many women can be found in leadership positions in trade unions, social movements and NGOs. Women are also highly active in the modern labour force and in small and medium sized businesses. However, as with most countries throughout the world, despite the constitution stipulating equal gender rights, Thai women are still second-class citizens, subjected to a sexist ideology, subjected to domestic violence and expected to take a dominant role in caring for family members.
The second class status of women is reflected in language. Women are expected to refer to themselves as “Nu”, a term also used by children. It means “little mouse”. In fact the Thai language is extremely hierarchical with different terms used for people depending on their status in the pecking order of society.
The fact that Yingluk Shinawat became Thailand’s first woman Prime Minister was full of contradictions. On the one hand she enjoyed mass popular support from a population who did not think that a woman could not be in such a leadership position. But she was also the sister of Taksin Shinawat and therefore part of his family. There are many such parallels in other Asian countries.
The women’s movement in Thailand is weak and conservative, concentrating on issues that have little impact upon most women such as the number of women members of parliament, irrespective of their politics, or the number of women business leaders. These women’s groups also joined the anti-democracy movement in the past.
In recent times, the trade union movement has had the greatest role in advocating women’s rights and has won important improvements like maternity leave. Some sections of the trade union movement are also campaigning for the right to abortion on demand, something that has been ignored by most middle-class activists.
Abortion severely restricted in Thailand because women have to convince clinicians that their physical or mental health will suffer from an unwanted pregnancy. Many clinicians are conservative and seek to impose their moral judgments on women who need abortions. Even when there are clinics or a few hospital which are willing to perform abortions, workers or the rural poor need to raise large sums of money. It is very difficult for ordinary women to access free and safe abortions. Many women are therefore put at risk from visiting back street abortionists.
In the past there have been attempts to liberalise the Thai abortion law, especially after the 14th October 1973 uprising and later in the 1980s. One of the leaders of the anti-abortion campaign in Thailand was Chamlong Srimuang, a leading yellow shirt activist who called for and supported the military coup which overthrew Taksin’s elected government.
Abortion is about democracy and human rights.
Abortion is a class issue because it is working class and poor women who cannot access free and safe abortions. It is also an issue which affects young people who are more at risk of unwanted pregnancies.
With all the talk about new political parties and the need for a party of the new generation. The inclusion of a policy to liberalise Thailand’s abortion law will be a measure of the real progressive nature of such a party.