Thai society is steeped in hypocrisy. We pretend to adhere to ultra conservative moral values regarding sex, marriage - and prostitution - while the actual way we live our lives is very different.
Does it really matter that the official version of our society is so out of line with reality? It certainly does, as I will illustrate.
Should we adjust our values to fit with our behaviour, or mould our behaviour to fit in with our values? Well, it's pretty obvious that preaching to people to behave according to traditional moral values simply does not work. I believe we need to adhere to certain basic moral principles such as honesty, responsibility, compassion and respect for others, while relaxing our behaviour codes regarding sex and marriage.
Prostitution has to be accepted as a social reality and resolved through social reforms and respect for the rights of sex workers.
Because of our unrealistic moral codes of behaviour, young people are not prepared by their parents for sexual experiences and do not generally receive proper sex education in school (not counting moral sermons by teachers). They have to learn about sex mainly by themselves or from their peers. They have very limited access to counselling and reproductive health services which could provide them with the knowledge and means necessary for contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.
The result is that our HIV/Aids epidemic is spreading more and more among young men and women involved in casual sexual relationships. Unwanted pregnancies and induced abortions are widespread.
As abortions are illegal, they are both expensive and unsafe, with at least 10% resulting in complications requiring hospitalisation. The occasional raids on abortion clinics where even the young girls having abortions are arrested and possibly face prison sentences, illustrates the lack of justice and compassion in our society.
Pregnant school girls and college students face hard choices. Most schools will require pregnant students to leave, curtailing their educational oppor-tunities. This is blatant discrimination against women, as their boyfriends who had sex with them will be allowed to continue school undisturbed.
Thai women are also at a great disadvantage regarding marriage and raising children. Traditional values require them to remain faithful to their husbands however badly their husbands behave towards them. In reality, a huge number of marriages (both registered and unregistered) break up, and in the vast majority of cases the woman is left bringing up her children by herself, without any financial support from her former husband.
An increasing number of women in this situation start working part-time or full-time in the sex industry so as to ensure sufficient income to give their children some opportunities in life.
Turning a blind eye to reality and pretending to be a morally superior society causes suffering, hardship and injustice. The remedies are obvious but difficult to achieve.
First of all we need good quality life-skills and sex education in schools. The training has to be participatory and non-judgemental, where students can feel comfortable discussing their views and experiences without fear of rebukes from teachers.
Numerous studies have shown that proper sex education in schools reduces the number of early sexual encounters and pregnancies among students.
Nevertheless, our schools also need to be compassionate towards and supportive of pregnant students, allowing them to continue their studies as uninterrupted as possible.
We need to establish free-of-charge reproductive health clinics all over the country, with particular emphasis on services to women, where young people can go for counselling, contraception, advice on pregnancy and abortion, and to obtain condoms for safe sex.
The law needs to be amended to allow abortions to be legally carried out during early pregnancy, based on the informed decision of the pregnant woman after receiving professional counselling.
In the case of under-age women, the informed consent of their parents should also be required.
The law also needs to be amended to allow single mothers and separated parents to effectively receive regular child support maintenance from the fathers of their children or their separated spouses, no matter whether they were in a legally registered relationship or not. State welfare support for single parents should also be available.
These are some very important policies and measures needed to improve the health and well-being of our population, particularly our women.
To achieve these, we need to overcome the moral hypocrisy espoused by many of our social and political leaders, and speak out together for a more compassionate and caring society that caters to the real needs of our people.
Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development. Comments are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org
First Published in Bangkok Post