thailand: taking a stand against sexual harassment

October 1, 2009 Thailand

When a female university student decided to file criminal charges against a lecturer who forced her to have sex, she faced accusations that she had agreed to sleep with him in exchange for higher grades and had brought shame upon the university.

Dr. Suchada Thaweesit, an assistant professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Thailand’s Mahidol University, has found that the country’s existing laws fail to adequately protect women from sexual harassment. Dr. Thaweesit said women were often blamed for harassment, which took place in schools, universities, workplaces, on buses, as well as in the home.

“They have to fight against the negative attitude, both in the media and in their own neighbourhoods,” she said.

While this response reflects a widespread view in Thai society that women are to blame for sexual harassment, a growing band of women are speaking out and demanding their rights be protected. However, research suggests that existing laws fail to protect women and much more needs to be done to raise awareness about harassment in the workplace and educational institutions. Dr. Thaweesit said while reports of sexual harassment had increased in recent years, many women were afraid to make complaints and were intimidated by the perpetrators.

“The rape cases that have been brought to the courts are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

According to the 2007 World Health Organisation Thailand National Report on Violence and Health, a survey of 3000 women aged 15 to 49 showed that 23 percent of women in Bangkok had been physically assaulted by their intimate partner. The report states that research has also shown sexual harassment, either physical or verbal, was found in up to 40 percent of workplaces.

Dr. Thaweesit said although Thailand had laws making it illegal for employers and civil servants to sexually harass staff, the laws failed to define what constituted sexual harassment and lacked specific measures to ensure that reports were investigated fairly.

“There are no clear, strong laws to prevent sexual harassment and to restore women’s rights and dignity,” she said. Dr. Thaweesit urged the government to review the laws to better protect women from sexual harassment. She said institutions and governments needed to establish procedures for handling complaints in a gender-sensitive manner and to improve community awareness through public education campaigns about sexual harassment.

The research by the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University is part of the International Conference on Population and Development +15 project, a monitoring and research project coordinated by the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) which assesses progress on women’s health in 12 countries. ARROW is a women’s regional NGO committed to promoting and protecting women’s health rights and needs, particularly in the area of women’s sexuality and reproductive health.

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