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THAILAND: Temple Grounds A Venue for Curbing Domestic Violence

Marwaan Macan-Markar

TRAT, Thailand, Feb 23 2010 (IPS) - When the conversation here shifts to domestic violence, even the way a woman got pregnant becomes an issue of concern, particularly if the price for bearing a child means getting infected with HIV.

That is what happened to 34-year-old Nowares Khlangkamnerd, who only discovered she had got HIV from her husband when she was summoned by a local hospital shortly before giving birth to her first child.

“I got very angry because he didn’t tell me about his status,” reveals Nowares during a conversation here with other women who had suffered a similar plight. “The way I got infected was a form of domestic violence, because if he had revealed his HIV status we could have had safe sex with a condom and I would not have caught the virus.”

But women living with HIV – nearly 400,000 or a third of 1.1 million people with HIV in Thailand are women – are not the only ones being counted among the victims of all shades of domestic violence. Even women who are not infected with the virus have other stories to share, such as being physically abused by their male partners.

The venue for sharing their stories is the calm interior of Buddhist temples here that are being put to another use besides being shelters of spiritual guidance. In this mainly Buddhist South-east Asian country, local officials have turned to these hallowed premises to conduct three-day-long ‘family camps’ aimed at curbing the spread of domestic violence against women.

These annual camps, which have now been held for four years, are conducted in a sprinkling of temples in and around this city, which is close to Thailand’s eastern border with Cambodia. They attract close to 30 families in every session.

Local officials are toying with the idea of holding more camps through the year due to a clamour by more families to continue this experiment in addressing violence against women.

“Many people who have attended the camps want to come again,” says Marasri Poonkasem, head of a community group that works with officials of a sub-district south of Trat. “There are four other sub-districts nearby that have similar camps, but that could increase.”

The chemistry that unfolds in the discussions about domestic violence, held within temple grounds, confirms that this mix of religion and counselling is bearing fruit.

“Family members don’t talk to each other at the beginning, but by the end it is different. They are talking and engaging with each other,” Marasri says of the camps that bring monks and experts on domestic violence together to guide the attendees.

Concerns about the spread of domestic violence in this sleepy rural area, where most people making a living as agriculture farmers, rubber tappers or in the fishing industry, have prompted schools to get into the act as well. In December, local students wrote and produced their own play for a public event, hosted by the provincial government, to raise awareness about domestic violence.

The play featured a husband beginning an evening by going to a karaoke bar, where he gets drunk, and then heading home to physically and verbally abuse his wife.

“We encouraged the students to come up with their own idea about domestic violence,” says Suchada Sirikul, director of the Trat province’s social development and human security office. “Women are the silent victims of domestic violence.”

The pain such women endure is reflected in the profile of patients who seek counselling at the 312-bed state hospital in this city.

“Most people I see in my clinic are those who are depressed and have attempted to commit suicide,” says Dararat Boonpok, the hospital’s psychologist. “Of them, 90 percent are victims of domestic violence. Half of them have suffered from physical abuse.”

“There is a link between suicide attempts and domestic violence,” Dararat confirms of the patients she sees, many of whom are in their teens from 14 to 20 years old, and young adults between 20 and 30 years. “Alcohol is often a factor to understand the abuser. Many times they have used alcohol before violence.”

Trat’s suicide record explains why the psychologist has been busy in recent years. This province has tipped the national average of suicides, which is 6.5 per 100,000 people in most provinces. In Trat, according to hospital records, it is seven successful suicides per 100,000 people.

Women living with HIV are among those who have contemplated taking their lives. “I have thought about suicide many, many times,” says Yuphin Soonthorn, a 32-year-old fruit farmer who is HIV positive. “It is because of the discrimination, the insults I have to face at home and because of my HIV status.”

But if there is any consolation for public health officials in Trat, there is an emerging trend that has been taking root in recent years, both within the community and among hospital and local officials. There is a growing understanding that domestic violence and violence against women are no longer limited, as they have often been, to physical violence, but also includes verbal, mental and emotional abuse.

Among the factors behind this shift is a new law to combat domestic violence that came into force in 2007. It served as a benchmark for authorities and community leaders to use in shaping attitudes and behaviour aimed to protect and guarantee the rights of women.

Women’s groups and non-governmental organisations that had long lobbied for such a law have also used it as a springboard to engage with local communities where violence against women is habitual.

“Through our networks, we have been delivering a message for over two years that violence against women is not a private affair. It is a serious violation (of rights),” says Areerak Uamim, a field officer at Raks Thai Foundation, which works to raise awareness about violence within homes, communities and among officials such as the police.

“We say it covers physical, mental and social abuse. It includes all acts of discrimination and stigmatisation of women,” adds Areerak. “There were some hospitals when we started (two years ago) that said they had no cases of violence against women. They were only interested in physical abuse at that time.”

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