Opinion: On Gender, Thailand is still Unequal

It’s difficult not to sound like a broken record when discussing gender inequality in Thailand, but unless the situation improves, it’s a conversation we must keep having. Celebrating International Women’s Day, like we did this Monday, would be meaningless without addressing the reality that many employment, medical, and educational inequalities remain firmly in place.

Mention the phrase “gender inequality” and many will bring up the Gender Equality Act of 2015, an unexpected milestone achieved over five years ago. The law’s lack of meaningful impact, however, means that it joins a series of legislation that aims to uplift women and grant them more equal rights, like the Anti-Domestic Violence Act of 2007, but falls short of implementing any real change in the social fabric of the country. 

Slow bureaucratic processes, compounded with a weak judicial system and negligent authorities, render ground-breaking legislation void in the face of tackling larger stigmas that continue to enforce discrimination against women. That’s not to obscure their importance in any capacity – after all, recognising an issue and addressing it through the law is often the most difficult step in overcoming any social inequality. The problem remains, however, that legislation alone is unable to resolve gender discrimination entirely.

According to the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report, Thailand ranked 80th in the Gender Inequality Index, 11 spots lower than it did almost a decade ago in 2011. Only 14% of parliamentary seats are held by women, and only 43.5% of women had received secondary education compared to the 48.6% of men.

Compared to the 2011 report, most of these statistics are unchanged, especially in regards to the percentage of female seats in parliament. Thailand is charting a steadfast track of unchanging gender inequality, with access to high levels of decision making and other forms of employment still greatly limited. 

In addition to underrepresentation in government, there is the issue of discrimination in the workplace. Employment inequalities act as a double-edged sword: not only is it affected by educational inequalities women face prior to entering the labour force, it also is a place for women to experience further discrimination, from unequal pay to unequal opportunity. 

A study published in 2015 by two professors at Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok noted that while the gender wage gap had narrowed between 1996 and 2013, active discrimination in the workplace has prevented it from closing entirely. Despite an increasing number of women attaining secondary and higher education, and women showing a greater productivity at work when compared to their male counterparts, they are still being paid unfairly. 

Stretching further back from inequalities in the workplace lie the issue of educational discrimination. Chulalongkorn University’s research on gender inequalities within their own institution, published in 2018, revealed that many faculty members and administrators believed there were no inequalities within the university, despite holding quite sexist beliefs themselves.

In one interview, a male lecturer stated that he believed that the university “didn’t block women from advancing their career” as women had no intention to achieve top positions; most women were naturally less ambitious than men and would want more time to devote to their home life. A female lecturer stated in another interview that she believed “gender discrimination does exist but it’s probably not that obvious,” citing how she was asked about her martial status and other questions unrelated to her performance in her job interview.

Discrimination in the educational sphere affect students as much as faculty. In “Stories of Stigma,” a 2020 study about the stigma and discrimination transgender people face in Thailand carried out by the UNDP, numerous trans women recalled how they were verbally harassed by their classmates and their teachers, bullied for expressing their identity. 

For trans women, these structural inequalities are felt much more acutely. Accounts of discrimination range from harassment by their families and friends to being rejected by employers and fearing their doctors.

What can be done to resolve these issues? What does it mean to have an equal society?

These are broad questions with no easy answer. One remedy may satisfy one aspect, but not another; what lies at the core of gender inequality are discriminatory attitudes that persist unrelentingly, unaddressed at large. Thai media, from well-established newspapers to tabloid magazines, often only continue to perpetuate and enable these harmful attitudes, with sexist headlines and even more objectifying reporting. 

However, it is easy to place the blame on others: we must reflect on how we perpetuate these inequalities introspectively. In our day-to-day lives, how do we continue to normalise and exemplify gender inequality, both consciously and subconsciously? How do we react when we witness discrimination from our friends and family, or when our friends and family inform us that our own actions are contributing to worsening these inequalities?

Addressing gender inequality in Thailand also means addressing the fact that it does not exist in isolation. Gender inequality is deeply intertwined with other social concerns, from rape culture to political corruption, and cannot be tackled singularly. From state-sponsored efforts to independent, grass-roots activism, we all must put in the weight to achieve a more equal future. 

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