Briefing Report: Women in Thailand

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Photo: Jay Galvin - Some rights reserved: CC-BY

Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul


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Thailand has made a commitment to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015 (3), as set out at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), as part of the 2005 World Summit Outcome. It has also committed itself to making this goal part of the country’s strategies to attain internationally agreed development goals, as set out in the Millennium Declaration (4), which, in addition, aim to reduce maternal mortality, improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, promote gender equality, combat HIV/AIDS, and eradicate poverty.

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Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index 2009 (5) shows that Thailand’s gender gap is not narrowing. As regards education and economic activity the situation of Thai women has generally improved to 99% in education and 62% in economic activity, but when it comes to empowerment the level attained is a low 56%. The level of women’s empowerment does not necessarily depend on a country’s wealth, and a high level of economic development does not have to result in gender equity. In some countries the World Bank ranks as wealthy, women have relatively little access to power, for example Japan (59 points) and the Czech Republic (53 points). Also, while the proportion of women in positions to make decisions and influence state policy may be increasing, thus indicating a trend towards gender equity, there are still structural limitations, many of them cultural in origin, that may hamper, impede, or even reverse progress in this area.
The global crisis has shown that if Thailand is to survive in the new international environment it has to perform social, political, and economic paradigm shifts. Regarding development assistance, the country has neither a strategy for development co-operation, nor a system to evaluate aid efficiency. Its commitments will be difficult to uphold as in almost every sector gender budgeting is non-existent. At the same time, despite the documented success of their grassroots projects, civil society organisations are still considered minor players in the area of women’s development policies.

The overview from the latest, 2010-2011,  indicated that “Thailand is still living through the worst political crisis it has seen in decades, and it is unlikely that a process of national reconciliation will gain traction in the near future. Although Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva now has the upper hand, having driven the red-shirted anti-government protesters from the capital, Bangkok, there is no sign that his opponents will accept defeat. The government's immediate policy priorities are to support the businesses affected by the political unrest and to introduce new incentives to get the economy back on track”. The report also emphasised that “against the background of the poor short-term prospects for a negotiated solution to the political crisis, the Thai economy will probably expand by only 4.1% in 2010 and by about the same rate in 2011. After a year of deflation in 2009, consumer prices will be rising in 2010. Inflation will not accelerate rapidly, however, because the Thai currency, the Baht, is strong and has lost little ground during the recent political upheavals. As a result of the global recovery, Thailand's exporters are enjoying a strong increase in revenue, and the trade balance will remain positive in 2010-11” (6).  The analyst believed that “after surviving the recent protests, Abhisit has taken a harder line against the “Red Shirts,” arresting protest leaders, freezing assets of their suspected financiers, and censoring the media. On June 10th, Abhisit restated a five-point reconciliation plan, but the opposition has complained that his proposals are biased, and that the views of a recently established reform panel have been ignored. The government has announced further measures to support the economy, including a 5% pay rise for civil servants, a six-month extension of popular subsidies, and a debt moratorium for farmers. A panel established by the government to end the impasse for the development of the Mat Ta Phut industrial complex has presented its recommendations, raising hopes that investments worth around US$12bn may go ahead. The economy's performance suggests that the impact of the recent political violence was not as severe as had been feared. According to the Thai Central Bank, the Bank of Thailand, in May 2010, compared to 2009, private consumption fell by only 0.2%, while private investment rose by 0.9%; tourism, however, saw a 12.9% drop” (7).

Gender ratio (8): This entry includes the number of males per female for five age groups - at birth, under 15, 15-64, 65 and over, and for the total population. For some countries, gender ratio at birth has recently emerged as an indicator for gender-based discrimination. In some Asian countries, high numbers of male births are now attributed to gender-selective abortions and infanticide driven by a strong preference for sons. This will affect future marriage and fertility patterns. Eventually, it could cause unrest among young adult males who will be unable to find partners. The ratio for Thailand indicates that there is no substantial difference between male and female.
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School life expectancy (before tertiary education) (9): School life expectancy (SLE) is the total number of years of schooling (primary to tertiary) that a child can expect to receive, assuming that the probability of his or her being enrolled in school at any particular future age is equal to the current enrolment ratio at that age. Caution must be maintained when utilising this indicator in international comparisons. For example, a year or grade completed in one country is not necessarily the same in terms of educational content or quality as a year or grade completed in another country. SLE represents the expected number of years of schooling that will be completed (including years spent repeating one or more grades).
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Literacy (10): This entry includes a definition of literacy and percentages for the total population, as well as males and females. There are no universal definitions and standards of literacy. Unless otherwise specified, all rates are based on the most common definition – the ability to read and write at a specified age. Detailing the standards that individual countries use to assess the ability to read and write is beyond the scope of the CIA World Factbook. Information on literacy, while not a perfect measure of educational results, is probably the most easily available and valid parameter for international comparisons. In our current, rapidly changing, technology-driven world, low levels of literacy and education can impede the economic development of a country.
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Population: 67,089,500 - Population growth rate: 0.653% (2010 est.) - Birth rate: 13.01 births/1,000 population (2010 est.) - Death rate: 6.47 deaths/1,000 population (July 2010 est.) - Urbanisation: urban population: 33% of total population (2008) - rate of urbanisation: 1.7% - annual rate of change (2005-10 est.).
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Women in Public Life
In 1933, in Thailand’s first constitution, women were given the same voting rights as men. Since then, socio-cultural attitudes regarding the role of Thai women in public affairs have gradually changed as the society has been modernised and educational opportunities for women have increased. The spread of Western ideas has promoted the notion that women have the capacity to take on duties long held to be the prerogative of men (12).

In the 2006 general elections 52.22% (12,000,372) of voters were female, 47.78% (10,972,706) male. In the latest election for Governor of Bangkok, in 2009, 54.56% (1,435,842) of voters were female, 45.37% (1,193,964) male (13).  In the political arena, however, Thai women are underrepresented. In 2006, 1,027,666 more women than men went to the polls, yet less than 8.7% of MPs were female; in 2010, the figures stood at 15%.

The Senate of the Kingdom of Thailand is the upper house of the National Assembly of Thailand (Thailand's legislative branch). According to the 2007 Constitution, the Senate is a non-partisan legislative chamber, composed of 152 members. 78 Senators are directly elected from the 78 Provinces of Thailand, while the other 74 are appointed from various sectors by the Senate Selection Committee. The Senate’s term in office is six years (14).
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The nomination is supposed to represent a cross-section of Thai society and includes, among others, representatives of NGOs, business associations, and the academic community. The number of female senators has risen to 25, although proportionately it remains at a low 16.4%. For the elected senators the number of women elected has risen to 14, i.e. 17.9% and for the appointed senators the figure is 11, i.e.14.9%. The recent improvement was partly due to lobbying by women’s groups, who, in order to show that there were many women qualified to be Prime Minister, put forward a list of candidates.  

In the 59th Cabinet (December 20, 2008 – now), there were 8.5% women (three women, 32 men) (15); in the 58th Cabinet (September 24 – December 2, 2008) there were 14.2% of women (five women, 30 men) (16).

In local government, substantial changes occurred when the Local Administration Act allowed women to take up the posts of village head and sub-district head. In 2009, 9.33% of elected provincial governors (there are 75 Provincial Administration Organisations) and 4.8% of elected Tambon (district) governors were women (there are 6,060 Tambon (districts)) (17).

Education is key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (18)
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A World Bank report published on August 23, 2010 indicates that countries in East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean are close to enrolling all their children of primary school age. However, as of 2006, an estimated 72 million children worldwide were not in school. Poor children are less likely to attend school, but in the poorest developing countries, even many children in wealthier households do not receive any school education.
In Thailand, net primary enrolment is 94%, whilst gross secondary and tertiary enrolment is at 84% and 38% respectively. There is near gender equality in primary and secondary education, and with an average of one teacher for every 16 students, pupils receive a high quality education. Subjective assessments of Thailand’s educational system are similarly positive: About 90% (19) of the population are content with their local school, and believe that children have the opportunity to learn every day, placing the country fifth and 23rd, respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, the average Thai worker completes fewer than four months of secondary, yet about 1.2 years of tertiary education. Statistics provided by the Ministry of Education show the percentage of female and male students for 2006-2007 divided by the school level and show the same pattern as above. However, in terms of gender, the figures clearly indicate that women in higher education tend to opt for courses that will place them in low salary jobs, i.e. education, services, humanity and arts, social sciences, business administration and law, health and welfare – while men tend to opt for courses such as engineering that open the way to higher salary levels.
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Official labour statistics classify the employment status according to five categories: employer; government employee; private sector employee; unpaid family worker; and self-employed worker. Women exceed men only in the category of unpaid family worker, which disguises the economic contribution women make to household enterprises such as farming, fishing, trading, and handicrafts. The table below shows the growth of the workforce between 2006 and 2008
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Women have made a substantial contribution to Thailand’s economic development. In 2009, out of the 52.7 million people in the workforce, 27.1 million or 51 percent were women, 49 percent (25.6 million) men.  Moreover, 4.4 million women are domestic workers and thus unaccounted for in the statistics (20). There were an estimated 37.7 million trained workers, 7.2 million of them women, 20.5 million men. The table below lists trained women workers according to their level of education. The figures indicate that the majority of women have lower paid jobs and less education than men.
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The next table lists the figures of employment in industry for the 2007 to 2009 period. It indicates that fewer women than men are employed in agriculture, commerce, and sectors listed as ”other,” while in manufacturing and services women outnumber men.
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(1) Information gathered and prepared by Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul for Heinrich Böll Foundation, Southeast Asia Regional Office, January 15, 2011
(8) CIA World Factbook - accessed December 30, 2010
(9) CIA World Factbook - accessed December 30, 2010
(10) CIA World Factbook - accessed December 30, 2010
(12) Orapin Sopchokechai. 1996. A Report on the Status of Women in Social and Political Affairs. Paper presented at the Second Women’s Congress, National Commission on Women’s Affairs, Bangkok. 
Office of the Election Commission of Thailand
(15) 1. Pornthiva Nakasai 2. Narisara Chawaltanpithak 3. Pansiri Kulanartsiri
(16) 1. Pornthiva Nakasai 2. Narisara Chawaltanpithak 3. Pansiri Kulanartsiri 4. Khunying Kallaya Sophonphanij 5. Na Ranong
(17) Department of Local Administration, Ministry of the Interior
(19) Data from the Gallup World Poll
(20) National Statistics Office, ICT Ministry, 2009

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