When people asked what I did in Thailand, after realizing I was not a tourist, I was astonished how many times they responded with surprise that women’s rights were even an issue in the country. “Well I thought women in Thailand had it pretty good,” they would say, nodding their heads to smiling waitresses nearby or women preparing dishes at roadside food stalls. “They have jobs and look happy.”
Perhaps these beach tourists took the “Thailand- Land of Smiles” promotional signs at immigration to heart, burying their heads, along with their toes, in the sand.
While Thailand has seen development success, with a growing middle class and a higher GDP than other developing countries in East Asia and the Pacific, women still face discrimination and marginalization. Thailand is the 7th most dangerous nation for women, with 44% of women reporting they have been a victim of violence. Domestic violence is a major issue, with a conservative culture preventing frank discussion of what is happening in homes around the country. Less than a quarter of women hold leadership roles in civil service and only 35% have managerial roles in the corporate sector. And while the country is headed by a woman prime minister, this doesn’t automatically mean that women’s rights issues are being pushed to the top of the country agenda and women are underrepresented in other levels of government. Sadly, research shows that women leaders from family dynasties are not as likely to focus on building women’s rights, compared to leaders who have fought their way to leadership positions on their own.
In addition to grim stats for Thai women, 40% of indigenous or hilltribe groups in the country don’t have citizenship. This means they have no political rights, nor access to healthcare or education or protection from discrimination. According to UNESCO, lack of proof of citizenship is “the single greatest risk factor for a hill tribe girl or woman to be trafficked or otherwise exploited”. As well, there are over 92,000 refugees in Thailand and 54,000 unregistered asylum seekers. Over 500,000 “migrants” have crossed over land borders from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, many fleeing violence, ethnic targeting and severe poverty. For displaced people and especially women and children, leaving their communities often brings only temporary safety. As refugees in camps along the Thai-Burma border, or migrant workers doing day labour, research shows they are especially vulnerable to job exploitation, sexual violence, and trafficking.
There are however, determined advocacy groups and activists making real progress for women’s rights in Thailand, and it’s been documented that a women’s movement and strong NGO force emerged from seeing the glaring violations of human rights for ethnic women. Social change can be seen in protections of fair pay for migrant workers, sexual and reproductive health and economic empowerment for refugee and migrant women.
I’m all for people having a little R&R and appreciating the great hospitality Thailand and other tourist destinations offer, but I hope that idyllic beaches, swim up bars and cheap shopping don’t deter the valuable opportunity for travelers to learn what life is really like in the places they visit.
Want to learn more? Get involved and volunteer!
Dwight Turner started the fantastic In Search of Sanuk, an on-the-ground org providing direct support to asylum seekers and refugees in Bangkok, with a rent & food program, a school program and a women’s shelter. This page also has links to other orgs to volunteer at.
My friend Casey Hynes wrote a helpful article on voluntourism in northern Thailand.
Also, check out these orgs for short-term volunteer stints (usually minimum of 3 months):
If you have a medical background, Mae Tao Clinic is a highly-respected and needed facility on the Thai-Burma border