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RIGHTS-THAILAND: Battered Women, No Longer Alone

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK , Nov 24 2005 (IPS) - The frequent telephone calls that a women’s rights group in Bangkok receives are one of the many indicators of a dark side of this country known for its smiling, hospitable people.

One out of every five female callers, who dial the numbers of the Foundation for Women, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), do so out of desperation, seeking assistance as victims of domestic violence.

”That was the average this year; there are signs that calls about domestic violence have increased from last year,” says Usa Lerdsrisuntad, programme director of the foundation whose work, helping out battered women, has resulted in its helplines being swamped by victims from across the country.

Some weeks, there is a spike in the number of battered wives or girl friends over women who call to find answers to other problems, such as unwanted pregnancies or sexual abuse at the work place. ”It happens when there are media reports about domestic violence, like a high profile case or a campaign,” Usa explained in an IPS interview.

Troubling as they are, such telephone calls reveal something more for women’s rights activists here-that the disturbing issue of domestic violence is no more concealed behind the walls of homes, by community pressure or tradition.

Indeed, it is a subject openly discussed at seminars arranged by women’s groups in cities, hospitals in the provinces and at the grassroots. An ongoing debate in the newspapers, about a planned ‘Domestic Violence Bill’ against this evil, also mirrors the prevailing climate.

This draft bill has ”various loopholes” detrimental to women, wrote Sanitsuda Ekachai in Thursday’s edition of the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper. ”By emphasising the importance of the family, even above the welfare of the victim, the law gives too much authority to the police, the court and the victim’s relatives in deciding the victim’s future, without taking into account (the victim’s) needs or wants.”

Such openness was missing six years ago, when academics and women’s rights activists were in the process of gathering information for Thailand’s first evidence-based study on domestic violence in this South-east Asian country.

”A large number of women we interviewed said it was the first time they were discussing this issue. Some cried as they spoke,” says Wassana Im-em, associate professor at Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research.

It was as bad in the mid-1980s, when Thailand’s first shelter for battered women was opened in Bangkok. The NGO behind that initiative was criticised for attempting to impose a Western concept into an Eastern society.

”Violence against women was considered a private, family issue and you were not supposed to talk about it,” says Usa, whose foundation opened that first centre for battered women. Currently, there are 25 shelters for victims of domestic violence, run by both the government and NGOs across the country.

The increasing rise in the number shelters offering to protect women is in keeping with an increase in the number of reports of the physical abuse that Thai wives and girl friends are subject to by their husbands or male partners.

Some 23 percent of women in Bangkok and 34 percent of women in the province of Nakhonsawan ”reported physical violence by their intimate partner at some point in their life,” a World Health Organisation (WHO) study on women’s health and domestic violence revealed Thursday.

Of the 1,536 women, between 15 and 49 years, interviewed for this Bangkok study, over half revealed they had been injured by the abuse. In Nakhonsawan, 44 percent of the 1,282 women surveyed admitted to similar abuse.

”Injuries ranged from abrasions and bruises, sprains and dislocations, ear and eye injuries, cuts, punctures, and bites to fractures,” states the study. ”In Bangkok, 31 percent of women who had been injured were so badly injured that they needed medical care. In Nakhonsawan, this percentage was 23 percent.”

Yet, at the same time, 37 percent of physically abused women in Bangkok and 46 percent in Nakhonsawan ”never told anyone about the violence they had experienced,” the WHO researchers point out. ”Women who sought help did so because they could not endure the situation any longer, or because they had been badly injured.”

There were over a third of women from both areas surveyed that sought help from abuse that had become unbearable.

Such revelations come at a time when Thai society is grappling with increasing instances of rape in the country. ”The number of reported rape cases in Thailand has increased every year,” declared a report, ‘Thai Health 2005,” released in April this year.

”In 1997, 3,741 cases were reported to the police, while in 2004 there were 5,052 cases, an increase of 35 percent in only eight years,’’ the report said.

According to Usa, greater awareness and more government policies will do little to stop this disturbing tide of abuse if direct community participation is kept out of the equation. ”Without activity at the community level, the problem (of domestic violence against women) will not be solved,” she said. ”This is not just a social problem but a human rights problem.”

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