Gender equality and democracy must go hand-in-hand, says activist group

Women and the LGBT community have joined pro-democracy protests campaigning to abolish patriarchy, gender stereotypes and social norms that marginalize gender equality. They are also collecting signatures for petitions to decriminalize abortion and sex work.

Protesters carry the 15-metre-long Pride flag across Sanam Luang

The protest on 19 September 2020 became a place where people from different groups in society joined to voice their problems, to collect support and to ask the authorities to take serious action. A booth, organized by the Women for Freedom and Democracy group and other women’s rights and LGBT rights groups, highlighted the campaign for gender equality.

There were many activities relating to cultural stereotypes and social norms that devalue women. People could participate in a ‘Pussy Gallery’ by painting a vagina to resist the stereotype that the vagina is not always as pink as in a porn video and to raise awareness that the colour of a vagina does not value women. Also, people were encouraged to wear what they want under the ‘My Body, My Choice’ campaign to eradicate stereotypes of how women should dress. Another exhibit was the ‘Sanitary Pad Gallery’ allowing participants to paint pads to encourage the idea that menstruation is not something to be embarrassed about. People were given the pads for free to deliver the message that the tax on sanitary pads must be removed as only women spend money on this unchosen choice. It is an index of gender inequality, so the government should provide sanitary pads as social welfare.

The "Pussy Gallery," where vagina paintings made by protesters are displayed. 

Moreover, as safety in protests is important, the group set up their “Anonymous Meeting Point,” where people who came to the protest alone could find company. They also had a service for those who were harassed in the protest and those who are facing harassment due to their political activities. They provided both legal and psychological consultation. They also provided funds of 2,000-8,000 baht to young feminists who need financial aid for gender and political campaigns.

During the afternoon, as the main stage was being set up, the group also placed a 15-metre-long Pride flag in the middle of Sanam Luang, giving speeches calling for a pro-democracy movement that goes hand-in-hand with the movement for gender equality while playing music and inviting protesters to dance on the flag. There was also another parade in the evening with participants carrying the Pride flag to celebrate gender diversity and call for equality, as well as a campaign for people to carry a red umbrella to support sex workers’ rights.

Kornkanok Khumta

When asked to respond to people who say gender equality is not an urgent issue, Kornkanok Khumta from the Women for Freedom and Democracy group said “there are no minor issues, especially an issue that risks people’s lives like abortion, which is an issue that cannot wait because this law causes death among women and it could be ended because the Constitutional Court has already interpreted this law as unconstitutional. This means that gender issues cannot wait because they have an immediate on the body, life and death and the lives of people, children, women, and LGBT people. Therefore, we want democracy; we also want rights over our bodies and we want both now, simultaneously. We want to amend the Constitution now. We want to repeal Section 301 of the Criminal Code now. We want to amend Section 1448 of the Civil and Commercial Code now so that same-sex couples will be able to marry. These issues cannot wait because they affect the heart and soul of humans.  So Thai people have no minor issues and no major issues. They need to be together and the democratic movement will be bigger and Thailand will move forward to become a fully democratic country.”

Chumaporn “Waddao” Taengkliang, a gender equality and LGBT rights activist, also gave a speech on the main stage of the protest during the night, stressing the importance of listening to women’s and LGBT people’s voices and seeing them as equal to those of men.

She talked about stereotypes, harassment and injustice in society that exclude women and LGBT people from the rights they deserve, such as how LGBT people have been portrayed in the media as comic relief, while Northeastern women who marry foreigners have been seen as loving comfort. She emphasized that men could be victimized by gender inequality as well.

Chumaporn Taengkliang, carrying a Pride flag, spoke on the main stage of the protest.

She urged that women of any social status should not be humiliated. People excused violence against women in the palace on the grounds that they were just concubines who have no rights and voices. This kind of issue became a joke in public. “This is called injustice. This is called injustice under a patriarchal structure, and this is called injustice under a patriarchal structure where our country is a democracy with the King as head of the state,” said Waddao.

Chumaporn also encourages all marginalized people to love, to accept and to embrace their identity and their body so that they can be unconditionally proud of themselves. She said that if the protest did not fight for gender issues along with democracy, then there would not be a true victory.

“If you truly believe that humans are equal, then believe that the voices of women and other genders are as valuable as those of men. And if you want to know how to speak on this stage, this is the last thing I want to say before I leave the stage. If you support all 10 reforms of the monarchy, I ask for one more, which is the need to abolish the patriarchal structure under the monarchy,” said Waddao.

“LGBT people need their pride”

Angele Anang

Angele Anang, an influencer and the winner of Drag Race Thailand Season 2, said that it is new for Thailand to have a pride parade as we still don’t have “pride.” LGBT groups need rights, such as marriage equality.

The most important reason for her to join the protest was that there was no influencer coming out even though they have the same idea. She believed that influencers and actors were a group of people that can impact society and show the people's stance and demands.

“This government is no longer legitimate. They have not provided justice to everyone, whether you are an LGBT person, or whether you are a woman. They are not transparent in every aspect, such as the budget. I am here to be a part to tell them what we want,” said Angele Anang.

A sign campaigning for marriage equality seen at the protest

The government takes advantage of its image regarding same-sex couples to boost the economy. The Go Thai, Be Free campaign by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has been used to promote tourism targeting LGBT travellers. Yet, the LGBT community in Thailand has been treated unequally. There is a lack of legal recognition of non-binary gender; the law still recognizes only men and women which leads to difficulties for LGBT people to define themselves. Moreover, the dress codes in schools and universities do not allow LGBT students to dress according to their identity.

Another fact is that Thailand does not yet allow LGBT couples to marry. Even though the Thai cabinet has approved a Partnership Bill claiming to embrace gender diversity, there are criticisms of this bill among LGBT rights activists and the LGBT community. The Partnership Bill does not provide the same rights, duties and protection as for heterosexual couples, such as the rights relating to property and inheritance, and the right to make medical decisions for the partner or to act on behalf of the partner in criminal proceedings.

Daniel Quasar's Progress Pride flag, seen among the crowd during the protest next to the Black Bauhinia flag of the Hong Kong pro-democrcy movement and the flag of the World Taiwanese Congress. 

The Move Forward Party (MFP) has proposed to amend the law on marriage, Section 1448 of the Civil and Commercial Code, which states “A marriage can take place only when the man and woman have completed their seventeenth year of age. But the Court may, in case of having appropriate reason, allow them to marry before attaining such age.”

MFP proposed to change the wording of the law from ‘man and woman’ to ‘persons’ so LGBT couples would be recognized as being in a marriage, not just a partnership. The MFP also insisted that the Partnership Bill does not include marriage equality.

“Abortion is a human right”

One of the organizers holding two signs saying "Repeal Section 301" and "No woman intentionally get pregnant just to get an abortion."

Signatures were collected for a petition of repeal Section 301 of Criminal Code to decriminalize abortion. As of 16.20 on 26 September 2020, the petition on Change.org hds gained over 35,000 signatures.

Section 301 of  the current Criminal Code has been in force since 1956 and states “Any woman who causes an abortion herself or allows any other person to procure an abortion for her, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding three years or fined not more than six thousand baht, or both.” The organizers believe that this law is one of the main obstacles for women wanting a safe abortion.

Thailand’s first Criminal Code, which came into effect in 1908, prohibited all abortion and punished both the women who had the abortion and any person who performed the abortion even if the women consented to the procedure.

The existing Section 301 of the Criminal Code seems to be in a legal no man’s land. The Constitutional Court ruled in February 2020 that Section 301 is a violation of the 2017 Constitution, namely Section 27, which states that all persons are equal before the law and that men and women have equal rights, and Section 28, which gives a person the right and liberty over their life and body. The Court’s ruling also states that the decision will take effect 360 days after the ruling was issued, meaning that if there is no new legislation within the time limit, Section 301 will immediately become invalid.  

A placard calling for the decriminalization of abortion placed on a Pride flag in front of the Women for Freedom and Demcoracy group's tent.

Other than a draft of the amendments released by the Office of the Council of State, which has been criticized by the civil society sector as abortion after the gestation age of 12 weeks still carries charges, the sections relating to abortion and their amendments have not been discussed in parliament.  

Section 301 is also the only section in the Criminal Code in which the person violating the law is specifically referred to as “woman” instead of “person,” therefore placing the legal responsibilities entirely on the women with no mention of the men involved. 

Pon, 19, who signed the petition, said that she supports this campaign because women should have choice rather than unsafe abortion. She understood that many people still have moral views about this, but she believed that giving birth to a child without the prospect of proper child-rearing might be more sinful than abortion. “I understand that there are some people who think that abortion is child murder but I think a mother should have the right to choose what she wants to do because it may have more effect on her life,” said Pon.

Recently, Choices Network Thailand, the Tamtang Group, the 1663 unwanted pregnancy hotline, the Women for Freedom and Democracy Group, and other partner organizations submitted a demand to the Council of State calling for the repeal of Section 301, extending public consultation, avoiding personal bias and providing space for women with unwanted pregnancies and those who work in this field to express their opinions. Even though the Council of State has drafted amendments to Sections 301 and 305 of Criminal Code, they believe that the draft does not respond to the real situation because it still criminalizes abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy.

Abortion is often seen as taboo in Thailand, and the stigmatization has caused many women to resort to unsafe abortion, leading to injury and death. According to the Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Foundation (WHRRF), 300,000 women have abortions each year while 300 of every 100,000 abortions are unsafe.

At the 2019 National Conference on Sexual Health organized by Thai Health Promotion Foundation, Prof Viboonpan Thitadilok, a former President of the Royal Thai College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that refusal by a doctor to provide medical services is one factor that pushes women to have unsafe abortions. She asked all doctors to change their perspective on such cases from women with unwanted pregnancies to patients who need safe medical help.

Section 5 of the Act for Prevention and Solution of the Adolescent Pregnancy Problem, B.E. 2559 (2016) states “An adolescent has the right to make a decision by himself [sic] and has the right to information and knowledge, right to reproductive health service, right to confidentiality and privacy, and right to social welfare provision, that are equal and non-discriminative, and is entitled to any other rights for the purpose of this Act accurately, completely and adequately.”

This means that the law allows pregnant adolescent women to decide what they want to do relating to issues of their personal reproductive health.

“Sex work is not a crime”

A red t-shirt hanging from the umbrella pole at the table where the group is taking signatures for the petition to decriminalize sex work.

As part of the Red Umbrella movement to support sex worker rights, people were also invited to sign a petition organized by the Empower Foundation calling for the decriminalization of sex work. 10,000 signatures are needed in order to place the petition before parliament. The organizers said that this career was legal until 1960 and is now criminalized under Thailand’s Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996), which the Foundation is petitioning to have repealed. The organizers said that the repeal of this Act would allow sex workers to be protected and they would not be stigmatized.

Tanis Werasakwong, a 29-year-old cartoonist who uses the pseudonym Sa-ard, signed the petition and told Prachatai that this industry could benefit the country financially and sex workers could have honour and dignity in their job. He said that we have to accept that this business exists in society and it is globally popular but is not culturally accepted, resulting in a huge corruption. The petition would make this business more effective.

One of the organizers holding a sign for the Women for Freedom and Democracy Group

Tanis also said that sex workers have less cultural capital to call for any legal or political rights. An example is that the Covid-19 situation has affected them financially because they lost their foreign customers but they could not claim compensation from the government. Also, they cannot go back home for economic safety because neighbours might not accept their work.

“I don’t really understand those who think that it should be in a grey area. They may see it from a Buddhist perspective that it will be a sin. However, I think that, viewed in the long term, on a positive social note, if it is brought into the light, it will more efficient. Eventually, there should be a platform to discuss this gender issue,” said Tanis.