Alleged sex attacks on schoolgirls in Thailand prompt national reckoning on patriarchy, gender bias
BANGKOK: Last month, a grandmother reported to the police that her 14-year-old granddaughter had been raped over the course of more than a year.
The attacks, according to the child, happened several times at her school in northeastern Thailand, where she was reportedly abused by five teachers and two male alumni.
Besides the assaults, the men were also accused of filming the acts and using the video clips to threaten the child, who had kept it a secret since March last year.
Shortly after her story made headlines, another student from the same school reported that she too was raped by some of the suspects. She is 16 and currently acting as a witness in the case involving the 14-year-old.
Their cases have shocked the nation. Anger erupted on social media with calls for severe punishment. There have been talks about chemical castration, capital punishment and life without parole for sex offenders.
Even Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed maximum punishment if the allegations are proven to be true.
"Regarding the case involving teachers and students, it proceeds according to the law. Maximum punishment as stipulated by the law will be given if the offence was committed and there is clear evidence, given that educational personnel are involved," he said in a press conference on May 12.
"They have to be role models for society and youths. If they had behaved as alleged, that'd be unacceptable and seriously damaging."
According to data from the Royal Thai Police, 1,965 rape complaints were filed nationwide between Jan 1 and Dec 31, 2019, and 1,893 people were arrested as a result.
In the same year, the Pavena Foundation for Children and Women alone recorded 786 cases of rape and indecent assaults. Since 1999, it has assisted more than 9,000 victims of sexual attacks and according to its records, these cases have been on the rise.
“Since the start of this year until May 5, we’ve already received 293 complaints about rape and indecent assaults. These are victims who approached our foundation alone, not to mention others who filed complaints to the police,” the foundation’s chairwoman Pavena Hongsakul told CNA.
“Many victims are children aged below 10 and the attacks took place at home or at school,” she added.
Last year, our youngest victim was three years old. One of the abusers was a school-bus driver, who assaulted her in the vehicle. The other is her nanny’s husband.
Based on the foundation’s data, rape can happen to victims of any age and gender.
Elderly people have also been sexually assaulted in Thailand. The oldest person to have sought help from the Pavena foundation was 90 years old. Her perpetrator was a 14-year-old male neighbour.
“Age and gender doesn’t really matter when it comes to rape,” Pavena said. “It’s more about opportunity.”
READ: Commentary - Male victims of rape deserve support and understanding, not ridicule and disbelief
PATRIARCHY AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Almost one in three women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner, or sexual violence by someone else in their lifetime, according to WHO. In most of the cases, it added, that violence is committed by a partner in their home.
In Thailand, convicted sexual offenders face serious punishment. They could be sentenced to death or life in prison.
If the offence is committed against a child aged 15 or younger who is not the offender’s wife or husband – with or without their consent – the offender could face up to 20 years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht to 400,000 baht (US$3,140 to US$12,600).
The criminal code also stipulates the sentence can increase by one-third if the assault was recorded on video for exploitation, or by half if the clip was forwarded to others.
Still, rape cases continue to make headlines in the country. And according to prominent sexual rights advocate Jaded Chouwilai, more people will become victims as long as society is still dominated by men.
In an interview with CNA, Jaded said the root cause of rape in Thailand is the traditionally superior power men exert on women and children. Although there have been instances of sexual assaults on men, the majority of the victims are female, he noted.
“This is because Thai society is patriarchal, where men enjoy more leadership roles. Moreover, when they grew up, men were often taught not to control their sexual urge but to visit entertainment venues or sleep with their girlfriends if they have one," said Jaded, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation.
According to Jaded, these social values have been ingrained in Thai society – a belief that men are superior and women are sexual objects they can do anything to.
“The perpetrators would often say they did it because they couldn’t control their sexual urge," he added.
Men enjoy a higher social status than women, given their career and roles in society.
Jaded's organisation advocates gender equality and protects the rights of women and men who experience sexual violence caused by sexism. It also collects data related to sexual crimes reported by local news outlets.
In 2017, the statistics showed 60.6 per cent of the victims were between 5 and 20 years old. And within this age group, children aged between 11 and 15 were the most vulnerable.
Years of data collection have also revealed a recurring trend where rapists bear a close relationship with their victims and wield superior power over them.
Sexual offenders include family members such as fathers, step-fathers, uncles and grandfathers. And second to relatives are teachers, supervisors and work colleagues.
“The power of a father or a senior relative, for example, makes the victim trust and fear them. As for teachers, they have power at school. Children have to respect them,” Jaded said.
Compared to adult victims, he added, children are more vulnerable to sexual assaults because they often lack the courage to defend themselves and can thus be tricked or forced by perpetrators easily.
NO SPECIFIC LAW ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Besides the sociocultural elements, a lack of specific law on sexual harassment could be another reason for the problem in Thai society.
According to Police Colonel Paweena Ekkachat who has spent years investigating such cases, more legal clarity and specific punishment for sexual harassment could help reduce the number of rape cases.
"Sexual harassment is not a criminal offence here. So, offenders will only be fined for causing annoyance," said Pol Col Paweena, a superintendent for investigations at the Metropolitan Police Division 8.
She added: "Thailand has no law to criminalise, for instance, verbal harassment of a sexual nature or stalking. If it existed, I believe it'd help decrease rape cases as it'd send a warning to potential offenders.
"The law could make potential offenders realise they can’t do that. As for potential victims, whenever they feel unsafe, they could feel more safe knowing there is a law to protect them and that they can take legal action."
STOP RAPE WITH GENDER EQUALITY: ACTIVISTS
Following the news of rape in the Thai school, the two female students were thrust into the national spotlight. The media interviewed their friends and family members. The school’s location was revealed and the alleged sexual assaults were reported in detail.
More anger erupted on social media when a female colleague of the accused teachers posted a message of her Facebook page to express support.
The post read: "I’m not ashamed of knowing you. You all perform well at work. You’re generous and have done many good things for society and others. But you had lapses in judgement and let slip the fact that you are teachers."
"I'm sending you and your families my support to help you fight to survive in this world. At least, you have me – someone who understands you," she added.
The post is a reflection of gender bias in Thai society, according to human rights activist and 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee for justice Angkhana Neelapaijit.
“The society doesn’t always protect victims of rape or condemn the culprits. Instead, it often asks questions like why they were together or how they dressed,” she told CNA.
In many court cases, the defence lawyers tried to prove to the judges that the offenders and victims were in a relationship, knew each other and were going out together, she said.
"They tried to make it seem like the sexual act wasn’t forced. However, if we look at women’s rights, a husband can’t even engage his wife in any sexual act without her consent.”
The rights to life and body of any woman cannot be relinquished without consent but this concept hasn’t been instilled into Thai society.
Reflecting on her years of working to promote and defend human rights, Angkhana said that many people in Thailand still lack the understanding about gender equality.
Equal representation also remains a missing part in key institutions, including the Thai government, she added. “Look at the various committees set up by the prime minister. How many women are in there? How many female senators do we have?” she said.
To end sexual violence in Thailand, rights advocates believe the solution starts with gender equality and social mechanisms that would help women become more visible and able to direct social change. Still, the concept is not yet widespread in Thai society, where many women are still taught to be submissive and follow instead of lead.
“We have to admit we don’t teach gender equality in the family. At school, the concept isn’t included in the curriculum just yet,” said Jaded, the sexual rights advocate.
Following the allegations, police pressed charges against the seven men accused of repeated sexual assaults. They were released on bail. The five teachers have also been suspended as they are currently under investigation.
As for the two female students, they have been offered assistance by social officers.
“I want to see more actions from the education ministry. I want them to take this problem seriously and find preventive measures such as those that will allow children to feel safe to notify if they have been sexually assaulted. We need a new system, not just suspension from work,” Angkhana said.
Society must join hands to end sexual violence and break social values that suppress any gender, she added.
“We have to keep tearing it down.”