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Gender Rights Bender

The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has drafted a Gender Equality Bill, to be sent for consideration by the blatantly gender-unequal Cabinet and then for enactment by the similarly gender-biased National Legislative Assembly.

Its proponents are touting its progressive characteristics.  For the first time, it mentions a gender other than male and female.

Whoopee.

However, it has failed to muster much support among the organizations that deal with gender discrimination on a day-to-day basis.  And I fear it amounts to little more than a bit of window-dressing.  Whatever authoritarian regime awaits us in the future will just wave it at any accusations that human rights in Thailand are fast becoming a joke.

The Bill allows exceptions, you see.  There are, it says, some areas of life where gender discrimination will be legal.  This has been a recurrent theme in the struggle between those who support the idea of everyone having an equal chance and those who, being overwhelmingly male, rich and powerful, thinks things are just fine as they are and equality for everyone, all the time, is, well, a bit extreme. 

Equality must be limited.  To certain occasions.  And certain people.

When Thailand first signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it entered a number of ‘reservations’, making something of a mockery of the word ‘All’ in the title.  A reservation means that the government can effectively cross out the bits of the Convention that they don’t like.

As far as the Thai government of the day was concerned (and the day was in 1985 when the Prime Minister was a General, fancy that), Thai women didn’t fully deserve the equality that was granted by Article 7 on political and public life, Article 9 on nationality, Article 10 on education, Article 11 on employment, Article 15 on legal contracts and Article 16 on marriage and the family.  Makes you wonder why they bothered signing.

But having signed, the sniping started.  Successive governments were shamed into progressively abandoning these reservations.  The reservations on Articles 11 and 15 were withdrawn in 1991; Article 9 in 1992; Articles 7 and 10 in 1996; and Article 16 just 2 years ago.  So as far as the UN is concerned, Thailand is now fully compliant, at least on paper.

But not as far as Thailand is concerned.  Despite Section 4 of the current constitution, which says ‘human dignity, rights, freedoms and equality of all Thais … under existing international obligations of Thailand, shall remain protected’, the Gender Equality Bill unconstitutionally ignores Thailand’s obligations under CEDAW and harks back to ‘reservations’.

The Bill says that equality will not apply to education, religion and ‘the public interest’.  This will produce sighs of resignation among all those who have fought against the Neanderthals for real equality over the past 30 years, as loins are girded up and battle joined all over again.

Until you see the reported reasons.  Then incandescent rage takes over.

Religion was always going to be touchy with the Thai sangkha’s face resolutely set against the ordination of women and similar chauvinism among Muslims and Catholics now given the government seal of approval.  And I am not at all sure what iniquities ‘the public interest’ covers, except that it could be everything and the kitchen sink (for the chaining of women to).

But the Bill’s lead drafter, one Kantapong Rangsesawang, Senior Professional Level Legal Officer in the Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development, claims that discrimination must be allowed to ‘protect Thai culture and conventions’.  Especially when these are neo-feudal, misogynistic and inexcusable. 

Years ago, there was a stink raised about the Akha practice of twin infanticide with the wrong-headed wromantics arguing that the right to a pure culture trumped the right to life.  That lunacy cut absolutely no ice with the Thai state. 

But suddenly such ancient Thai traditions as university rules about what you must wear at a graduation ceremony become so sacrosanct that a gaping hole has to be left in the Gender Equity Bill that allows in all manner of discrimination.  

We only need those Victorian Aunties in the Ministry of Culture to invent a few more traditions of dutiful female obedience and Thai women can look forward to the rights of being owned, impregnated and worked to death but without the right to say or do anything about it.

But never mind.  Thailand is a developing democracy, so say the whizzes in charge who couldn’t beat Qatar of the migrant workers slave trade to get Thailand onto the UN Human Rights Council.  All you have to do is make your contrary opinion known by shouting at your MP to get the stupid thing amended in parliament.

Except you won’t have an MP to shout at until after this travesty has become law.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).

Read related article: Thai junta expected to pass Gender Equality bill, strongly opposed by women rights groups