Sexual abuse in school: Endless problem with difficult solutions

Story by Viyada Nokjaisua
Illustration by Kittiya On-in

In November 2020, a picture of a girl went viral on social media.  She was standing among a crowd, wearing a student uniform, her lips were taped shut and and she was holding a sign saying “I was abused by a teacher. School is not a safe place”.

The photo was taken at a protest organised by the education reform activist group Bad Student. After it was released, the photo generated a public discussion about sexual abuse in schools.

On 27 January 2022, there were reports of a student protest in a school in Bueng Kan calling for the expulsion the school principal. The protest stemmed from the principal’s attempts to peep at a female teacher while she was having a shower, but nothing was done to ensure justice for the teacher.

Around 5 months later, the Facebook page “อยากดังเดี๋ยวจัดให้ รีเทริน์ part 3” (If you want to be famous, I can do it for you, Return, Part 3) revealed that a girl at a Samut Prakan school was sexually abused by her teacher. Although her parents reported it to the police, the case soon went quiet.

In June 2022, it was reported that a 6th-grade student raped a 5th-grade student in a school in Phetchabun. This news triggered criticism on social media, because the school principal told the girl not to tell her parents that she was raped at school since it would damage their reputation and because she would not get pregnant. Thairath Online later reported that the case ended after the boy’s family paid 10,000 baht to the girl’s family, while the principal was transferred to another school.

These are only a few of the cases of sexual abuse in schools covered by the media. Many remain unreported. They show that sexual abuse remains an ongoing problem in Thai schools, and lack of awareness and a social structure that does not support the victims play a role in perpetuating the problem.

Protesters gathering under the Siam BTS Station during the November 2020 protest for education reform

According to the Thai Police Central Information Technology Centre , from 2016 to 2021 the police received a total of 12,431 rape complaints. The highest reported annual number was in 2017 with a total of 2,003 cases. 2021 has the lowest number with 1,341 cases.

Although the number of rape cases as reported by the police shows the number decreasing over the years, this does not reflect the actual number of sexual abuse cases since victims tend to stay quiet.

The 2011 report Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice by UN Women stated that crime surveys across 57 countries show that an average of 10% of women report that they have experienced sexual assault, yet only 11% of these women reported it.

The Student Protection Centre of the Office of the Basic Education Commission has compiled statistics on child sexual abuse cases between 2013 to 2017, showing a total of 727 cases, 53 of which were committed by educational personnel.

Statistics on sexual abuse cases in schools are like statistics on sexual abuse in general. The number reported is less than the reality. According to the 10th panel discussion, “Problems or Lust: Good Governance and Sex in Thai Schools” organized by Chulalongkorn University in 2018, sexual abuse in school occurs every year, but only 5% is publicly reported.

Prachatai English spoke to teachers and advocates for sexual abuse survivors about sexual abuse in schools and why this problem is being allowed to continue.

Sexual abuse and awareness

Sexual abuse covers not only intercourse, but also verbal harassment or actions that suggest indecency. Most people tend to assume that what the abuser does is normal, saying, for example, that it is normal for men to look at women’s breasts or to feel sexual desire when they see bare skin on a woman.

This mindset demonstrates how people still lack awareness about what sexual harassment is, how it occurs, and people's right to safety.

Watcharamon (last name withheld for security reasons), teaches at a girls’ school in Bang Rak District, Bangkok. She says that awareness of sexual abuse is a key factor in solving the problem in schools. 

She said people are unaware of the abuse they commit, which results in the problem being perpetuated. She explained that a person's lack of awareness comes from the habit of perceiving sexual abuse as normal or as a joke, and the education system rarely teaches people to be aware of their own rights. Women are taught to be patient, and, if they are abused, that they are guilty for not being careful.

Orawee Yafu, a social worker at the Hug Project, a non-governmental organization that helps victims of child sexual abuse, said that one of the factors that contribute to sexual abuse in an educational institution is the educators' lack of understanding of abuse/sexual violence.

“They are still not aware of their students being abused in their own schools. Sometimes they still put their reputation first and do not look at how much the students are harmed or abused,” said Orawee.

Lack of school support for abuse victims

Schools have an important role in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. Boonpitag Chairangsi, another social worker at the Hug Project, said that most successful cases, meaning that the survivors receive appropriate remedies and are able to return to normal life, are assisted by their schools. Schools were also responsible for the unsuccessful cases.

When sexual abuse occurs in a school, some schools will coordinate with related agencies to help the victims and punish the abusers. Some schools, however, choose to ignore the abuse or penalize the victims instead, such as by expelling them, to maintain the school’s reputation.

Lack of support from the schools may affect the mental state of the victims, causing them to be less motivated to fight for themselves or give information to the police. In the end, no one can prosecute the abusers, since the victims choose to not speak about what happened to them.

Watcharamon said that when sexual abuse takes place in a school, the administration will follow its protocol for disciplinary action. She explained that a committee will be set up to investigate the offense, but the details of the investigation are not released.

“I don’t know about the process in there, what they investigate, since there is a series of steps in disciplinary action, but I just don’t know the details. I only know that they allow reports in a meeting that something like this happened,” said Watcharamon.

Her answer is the result of the school administration’s attempt to hide the incident. Even their own personnel, if they are not involved in the case, will not know the details of the investigation. Watcharamon revealed that schools try to cover up the details to prevent future exposure. Since a school is an institution that must have a good image, if something bad happens, it damages its reputation.

“Reputation, once it goes bad, is hard to get back,” said Watcharamon.

Watcharamon said a school with a bad reputation will be targeted by the Educational Service Area that the school belongs to, with negative effects on the administrator's managerial prospects.  Most importantly, it affects students who will study there in the future.

She also mentioned the disadvantages of the Thai bureaucratic system where it is difficult to impose the most severe punishments.

According to Watcharamon, the most that happens is a transfer to another school. However, since teachers at Thai public schools already have the option of requesting a transfer without having broken any rule, this is not considered a penalty. This method is used to separate the abuser from the victim and may work to the abuser's advantage by protecting them from a more severe penalty.

Watcharamon said in the worst case, the abuser might be removed from teaching and transferred to work in the Ministry of Education. This disciplinary action is regarded as a severe penalty but not as severe as being fired.

In her experience growing up with parents who are also teachers, until she became a teacher herself, Watcharamon said she has never seen a teacher fired for sexual abuse, even in cases where the teacher got a student pregnant, because sexual abuse cases often end at mediation that excludes the child, with victim or abuser moving to another school.

However, if the teacher is prosecuted and receives a court sentence, they will immediately lose their teaching position; the absence of a criminal record is one of the requirements to be a teacher. A teacher may also be discharged if the victim has strong evidence and prosecutes with the support of their parents , but this may still be subject to mediation since not all cases are resolved in the same way.

Based on her experience, Watcharamon said it is difficult to get teachers fired for sexual abuse, and that she has never seen anyone fired for it.

School is a second home

“As a case worker, I know that Thai schools have no policy to prevent sexual abuse in schools at all,” said Jomtien Jansomrag, who currently works as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.

Jomtien said that the only mechanism that can be used to prosecute sexual abusers in the school system is the Code of Ethics of the Teaching Profession, established by the Teachers' Council of Thailand (Khurusapha), where sexual abuse by teachers, whether against a student or a co-worker, is considered a violation of the Code.

However, Watcharamon stated that in fact, the Code of Ethics cannot be used to inflict serious punish on anyone in the education system, unless the unethical behaviour of the teacher is also against the law, in which case they may get a severe penalty, such as dismissal.

In Thailand, only the schools run by the Catholic Church have a policy on sexual abuse. This policy concerns the pastoral care of minors, and includes protection against sexual abuse in all church organizations. The policy is called “A Protocol of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand (CBCT) for Addressing Sexual Abuse of Minors and Vulnerable Persons in the Church in Thailand”

The protocol clearly states that the church does not tolerate any form of sexual abuse. If it occurs, the abuser will be investigated by people from the church. There are different levels of penalty in proportion to the offence, the most severe being expulsion from their position in the church. Also, the church must provide full support and protection for the victim after the abuse is reported.

Jomtien commented that neither the Code of Ethics nor the church policy support victims. She said that Thai schools that are not connected to the church are not able to help victims at all, as they have no connection with organizations that provide support for abuse victims and teachers often do not know how to seek outside help.

“In Thai schools, it mainly depends on the shamelessness or shamefulness of the school, how they think, or it depends on whether you are lucky enough that the school has teachers with enough power who agree with the children and can step up to protect them,” said Jomtien.

The teachers and advocates interviewed said that Thai schools tend to prioritize their own reputation over defending the abused victims. Moreover, the rules and regulations implemented in the educational system do not benefit the victims.

During a protest on 1 December 2020, the education reform activist group Bad Student hung a banner saying "The school uniform is unsafe" from the wall around the Ministry of Education. (Photo by Kan Sangtong)

Natta (last name withheld for security reasons), another teacher at the Bang Rak girls’ school, said that solving sexual abuse in schools is limited because the rules (of both the schools and the Ministry of Education) are not well-enforced, and those responsible for enforcing them do not adhere to a single standard.

“Ultimately, directors should consider the students or victims first, because if we (schools) are too weak, this kind of case is always going to happen.”

On school management she commented “If they act correctly, the school’s reputation in the end will be sustained. If they follow procedures correctly, children will also be safer, and the school will gain more credibility among parents and the children themselves, if the judgment is fair and based on the rules that have been set.”

She still insists that the rules are not strongly enforced, and school administrations have not emphasized the rights and freedoms of students as they should.

Orawee made a similar comment that the legal penalties against abusers in schools are not severe enough for deter those people from abusing others.

“The law is still weak to the point where if they do it, it is not like they get fired from teaching or cannot continue in this career. But in the end, the one who gets stigmatized is the child anyway,” said Orawee.

Difficult access to Legal Support

Thailand has laws to protect people who experience sexual abuse, whether indecent acts, harassment, or rape against children under 18. However, it is difficult for victims to go to the police.

“Legal details can be skipped. Let’s see first whether we can file a police report,” said Jomtien.

According to Jomtien, a victim faces many problems when reporting sexual abuse. The police might refuse to take the complaint, or let them file only a “daily report”, which will not lead to an investigation unless the report is filed as a case, meaning that the report is intended as a complaint leading to prosecution of the offender.

“If the person who goes to file a report is not aware of this, they will miss the first step of accessing the legal process.”  

“Thai laws exist, but it’s like they don’t exist. They are just on paper. The police do not take cases, especially cases involving children that are very sensitive and need a social worker to attend the questioning, and social workers for children can’t be found,” said Jomtien

She believes that the government purposely withholds information about the laws on sexual abuse to deprive people from accessing them. The information has never been taught in schools. Even though it can be easily explained to children, the Thai government does not have enough support in this regard.

Although the government or the police are not aware of the importance of dealing with sexual abuse in schools, there are NGOs who are working to help those who have been abused.

For the Hug Project, if the police refuse to take a sexual abuse case, it will coordinate with officers from Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC), a special operations team working with children under 18. TICAC will then work with investigators on accepting the case.

However, NGOs are not as widely known as government agencies, so not all victims can access their help.

Remedies for Victims and Penalties for Offenders

In Jomtien's experience, not a single case she worked on achieved a legal remedy. However, she said that supporting a case goes beyond the courtroom and that each case has different needs; some victims may want the abuse to stop, and some may just want someone to talk to. It is not necessary, she said, for survivors to force themselves to go to the police or participate in a system that always results in secondary victimization.

According to European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), secondary victimization is a term used when the victims suffer further trauma due to the way in which institutions and other people respond to them after they have been the victim of a criminal act. This may be caused by repeated questioning about the same facts, the use of inappropriate language, insensitive comments made by people who contact them, etc.

Jomtien said that the benefits gained by victims from speaking out were having their family on their side, being accepted by society and media, and receiving support from people who have faced the same experience. They can access the Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights, and a free meeting with a psychologist at Siriraj Hospital, but Jomtien did not consider these as remedies since they are basic rights that people should enjoy.

Like Boonpitag, she reported that in most cases, victims are compensated with a small amount of money. And in some cases, they get nothing.

“If the abuser has no money to pay, it's just a piece of paper with digits,” said Boonpitag

Jomtien said that, out of all the cases of school sexual abuse she has worked on, no abusers were prosecuted. They were, at most, transferred to another school, and some were allowed to continue teaching at the school where they abused a student.

Boonpitag said there are several cases in which the abusers were sentenced to prison. For example, in one of the cases the Hug Project worked on, the abuser was sentenced to 8 years and 35 months in prison, which was then halved to 4 years and 16 months. For Boonpitag, this penalty was not appropriate as the offender abused 10 victims.

Shortage of Policewomen and how Investigators Work in Sex Cases

Female police are important in the prosecution of sexual offences since most of the victims are women. Boonpitagtold us that female victims tend to be more comfortable when providing sexual information to other women. And female police tend to understand sensitive topics better than males.

Jomtien said that the lack of female officers contributed to the difficulty of reporting and tackling sexual violence, as Thailand currently has a shortage of women officers due to low salaries and non-existent career paths.

After the Royal Police Cadet Academy stopped accepting applications from females, Jomtien had the chance to talk with the Female Inquiry Officers Club, a network of women working as police inquiry officers, about whether there are now enough female police available for work .

The female police answered that there's not enough and people rarely want the job, because of the hard work They are also forced to work like male police to gain acceptance.

“So, what female police were trained to do, they did not do. They have to do work like a man to be accepted,” said Jomtien

She gave an example of a case she had worked on where the policewoman handled the investigation insensitively, just like some male police.

“How many times did they push in and out?”

“How many minutes?”

"And they keep asking over and over. They asked for details again and again. They did not look to see if [the victim] needed to take a break, or if they were ready or not." said Jomtien.

She said the process was insensitive and the officers had not been trained on how to deal with sex cases.  

From the interview, it can be concluded that female police are useful in sex cases as a way of giving victims the courage to speak out. However, Thailand currently lacks policewomen because they don’t get enough support. Another issue is that some female officers are unaware of the subtleties of sex crimes. This all contributes to the ongoing problem of sexual abuse in Thai society.

Characteristics of Thai Society as Obstruction of Justice

According to Jomtien, the nature of Thai society and socialization is the main reason for the difficulties in solving sexual abuse problems in schools.

She said Thailand has a strong hierarchy and so those in positions of authority are treated as if they are always right, and they are always listened to and believed. This is combined with patriarchy that gives authority to masculinity and suppresses femininity.

This results in the majority of people in positions of authority being men, whether legislators or decision-makers. Jomtien believes that the problem of sexual abuse remains unsolvable because of these authorities, since changes in society or the law depend on them.

“Sometimes the violence never happened to them. They don’t even know what it is like. They do not see it as an important issue, because they’ve never seen it, they’ve never been touched by it, their lives have never been affected by it. So they do not place any importance on enacting the law in a way that is sensitive and really supports the case,” said Jomtien

She also stated that dealing with sexual abuse cases in Thailand is all about "privilege".

She explained that if the abuser is working class, they will be considered as having less authority than the victims and the result will come out different from what we normally see. However, if the abuser is a person with a high profile, people will believe that it is impossible for them to sexually abuse anyone.

The Women for Freedom and Democracy group, now called Feminists for Freedom and Democracy, gave a performance of the Thai version of the Chilean feminist anthem "A Rapist in Your Path" during a protest on 14 November 2020 to raise awareness about gender-based violence. 

The Teachers’ Council of Thailand can help with sexual abuse cases in educational settings. The abuser might be removed from teaching by the Ministry of Education after a complaint is received. However, even if it is possible for teachers to be removed, Jomtien said Ministry officials might not take sexual abuse complaints seriously. If the victim has a connection within the Ministry, the case might progress faster than usual.

On the issue of using authority to sexually abuse minors, Watcharamon responded that authoritarianism has become the idea of old people. And since her school is only for girls, the teachers are always cautious when they have to touch students. She added that different school societies can affect the behaviour of teachers, and she sees that sexual abuse is more likely to occur in co-education schools than in all-girls schools.

Authoritarianism also affects the teacher's behaviour in another way as seen by their reaction when sexual abuse occurs.  Jomtien reasoned that the reason why other teachers do not want to help when students are abused is that they are afraid of being targeted by those in positions of authority in their school.

According to Jomtien, when authority takes an important role in Thai society, the victim’s side needs to use the same strategy as the abusers to fight back, which is to use the power of people who have more authority than the abusers to help the prosecution.

However, this counteraction still causes problems. The use of authority to fight each other in the justice process does not improve the laws or system that is the problem. Instead, it reinforces the continuation of hierarchy in society.

Besides authority, religion is one of the significant factors that play a role in sexual abuse cases in Thailand. Thai society often brings in Buddhism to justify injustice and irrationality in the social system by using a law that people believe is reasonable like the "law of karma."

Jomtien said that because people cannot rely on any secular law, they try to comfort victims with religious beliefs, such as that abusers will eventually have to pay for their crime in their future lives. Sarcastically, she gives an example of what could be said to a victim:

“Oh, how unfortunate, my child. I suspect in your past life, you must have done a lot of sin, so in this life you have to pay for what you have done.”

“So, you should wait for the person who abused you to pay in the next life for what they did,"

These characteristics have dominated people's minds for a long time and finally developed into another culture called “victim blaming,” inducing in the victim self-critical behaviour and a fear of reporting the abusers.

Thai culture has considered sex a forbidden subject in public. Children can perceive the culture through things around them, such as sex education at school, the taboo against discussing sex, or even the personalities of good and bad women presented in the media.

“Every time when I talk with the cases, they always let slip ‘Well, I might be the one who is stupid, I might not have been careful enough.’ They repeat what the teacher or parents always say to them,” said Jomtien 

She noted that the abusers are always aware of this loophole in Thai culture. If they abuse someone, the victim will be less likely to speak out and they will not be punished. They are always aware of the privilege of their status in this society.

“It’s no coincidence that sex cases often have no proof. It’s something the abuser has planned. Even if the planning is just an instinct that took a few minutes, throughout the abuser's life, they’ve always known that there are gaps as a result of socialization,” said Jomtien

The Possibility of Solving the Sexual Abuse Problem in Thai Schools

All the problems mentioned above demonstrate that Thailand has many structural issues that make it difficult to address sexual abuse in schools.  Nevertheless, there is still a possibility of solving these issues.

Watcharamon said that she believes it is possible for Thailand to solve the problem, as people are more aware of sexual abuse today. Even though it might be impossible to change everyone in 10 years, being aware is a good sign towards a solution.

People are formed by society, she said. If people in society are aware of the issue, then those who believe and act differently from the majority will be the ones who are not accepted.

Similarly, Orawee suggested that teacher training programmes should include lessons on child-abuse awareness and student-centred learning for all teachers to learn before they start work. She said if personnel in the schools are aware of the problem and take care of the students in school instead of being the ones abusing them, it can greatly reduce the cases of sexual abuse in educational settings.

Boonpitag added that it will be possible if educational staff and the Ministry of Education, collaborate to prevent the occurrence of sexual abuse in schools. She recommended that the schools or the Ministry should be responsible for educating students about sexual abuse, creating more channels for reporting abuse, protecting the victims, and ensuring their safety after reporting. Relying only on external agencies to organize prevention or help may not cover all schools.

Even though sustainable change must involve the government system, and presently those with power are not that much concerned about this issue, Jomtien is sure that a change for the better will happen soon.

She cited as evidence the fact that nowadays, more people have the courage to speak out about their experience of being abused by using technology and social media to share their stories with the public.

Youth can have greater access to many technologies. Although the Thai government does not disseminate information about sexual abuse or the services available to help, people can access information by using the technologies they have.

Students at a protest on 5 September 2020 flashing the three-finger salute and tying white ribbons to their wrists. Both have become symbols of resistance during the 2020 student-led protests.

Jomtien noted that abusers previously did not have to do much to get away with their crimes, since the norms of the past and the lack of awareness meant survivors tended to keep quiet. However, as people are becoming more aware of sexual violence and more survivors are speaking out about being abused, she said abusers now have to defend themselves to escape the repercussions.

Also, she thinks that political movements show that Thais are becoming more informed about social issues. Even in the movements related to the King, who is supreme in Thailand, people have started to talk about it more publicly. She said when people touch on a taboo topic like criticism of the monarchy, this courage would spread to other taboos as well. So she believes that the pro-democracy movement has an influence on movements relating to other social issues.

“I believe that real democracy will make the right to fight against sexual violence more effective and more democratic.”

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