Although Government authorities in Thailand had proclaimed a new phase of equal rights for women, Thai representatives told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning that Thai women preferred not to take risks, especially political ones; their traditional role was to look after the family and raise the children and, in that context, the introduction of affirmative action had not been well accepted.
Against that pervasive resistance to change, Thai society had been afflicted by acute problems of cross-border trafficking in women and children for the purpose of prostitution, domestic violence, child pornography and child labour, a Government representative, Saisuree Chutikul, told the 23- member expert body, which monitors compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons had also been among the country's most pressing concerns.
To increase the promotion of women's rights, the Government had established a National Commission on Women's Affairs, she said. The Commission had implemented programmes to eradicate violence against women and children, and it had launched several public information campaigns aimed at changing attitudes towards the commercial sexual exploitation of children and the sale of children by their parents. The new labour protection law of 1998 had buttressed those efforts by raising the legal employment age from 13 to 15. The real challenges, however, lay in reversing traditional family attitudes, particularly with respect to girl children, who were expected to look after their parents until they died.
The Government of Thailand had withdrawn five of its seven reservations to the Convention since its last appearance before the Committee in 1990, she noted. Of the two remaining reservations, acceptance of article 16, on the elimination of discrimination in marriage and family life, had been the most difficult to obtain. Thai men had strongly opposed attempts to amend certain
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laws that would facilitate withdrawal of that reservation. The remaining reservation, to article 29, concerned settling disputes by the International Court of Justice.
[Upon acceptance of the Convention, countries may register reservations to their acceptance of the terms of the Treaty. Committee members have expressed concern that reservations to one or more of the Convention's articles, the case for nearly one third of the 163 States parties, impedes assessment of a State's progress in implementing the Convention and limits the Convention's mandate.]
Following the presentation, several experts paid tribute to the Government for its efforts to improve the status of women. One expert acknowledged the impressive results of efforts by the National Commission on Women's Affairs to facilitate the withdrawal of reservations to the Convention. The country's new Constitution was impressive in its provisions to eliminate discrimination against women and promote their equal employment, however, she deplored the absence of any definition of discrimination, as defined in article 1 of the Convention, which had effectively stripped the treaty of any legal force in Thailand.
Another expert said that, coming from an Asian country, she had known the pain and difficulty of introducing change. It was important to utilize the new Constitution to ensure women's equal life chances and opportunities. The National Commission should look at other countries' experiences in the region, where putting a Constitution in place had catalyzed judicial reform. The new labour law, for its part, had provided for equal pay, but it had failed to cover so many other dimensions, such as training and promotion of employment. It was therefore incomprehensible how that law would reinforce the constitutional standards in the public sector. She agreed with the need for affirmative action.
Minister Counsellor, Apirath Vienravi, said his country had taken very seriously the fact that the rights of women and children were part of overall human rights development in Thailand. The Foreign Ministry was one of the gateways to change, and it had exposed itself to new concepts and thinking. Change could be made, although it might not come rapidly.
The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to conclude its consideration of Thailand's second and third periodic reports.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin considering the combined second and third periodic reports of Thailand (document CEDAW/C/THA/2-3), submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention, which Thailand acceded to in 1985. (For background on the session, see Press Release WOM/1076 of 15 January.)
According to the report, since 1987, when Thailand's initial report was compiled, the Kingdom has seen enormous economic, social and political changes, many of which have significantly impacted on women's lives, and their access to human rights. The driving force for change has been economic growth, with the nation recording the world's fastest rate of economic growth between 1985 and 1994. The World Bank no longer classifies Thailand as a poor country. However, while the manufacturing and service sectors have boomed over the reporting period, there has been a significant drop in the importance of the agricultural sector.
Not surprisingly, major economic changes have led to significant social changes in the country, states the report. Much of that has been beneficial to men's and women's lives, and has increasingly ensured their basic human rights in areas such as health and education. However, significant negative effects, in areas such as social structure and the environment, have particularly impacted women's rights. A very significant social phenomena over the reporting period has been migration from rural to urban areas, and a move towards industrial employment. Over half of the migrants from the country regions to the cities were women. Despite this migration, Thailand has not experienced the rush of urbanization seen in many other developing nations. Migration tends to be seen as a stage in an individual's life cycle, rather than a permanent choice.
The report states that among the negative effects of Thailand's economic growth has been a weakening of family life, often associated with migration. This has been identified as a major problem for women by women's and other organizations in both the Government and non-government sectors. With economic difficulties in rural areas causing migration in the search for work, and smaller family size due to lower birth rates, nuclear families are increasingly the norm in urban areas. There has also been an increase in births out of wedlock, separation, divorce and desertion.
Since acceding to the Convention with seven reservations in 1985, five reservations have been removed or are in the final stages of being removed, according to the report. The remaining two reservations concern article 16 (equality in family life and marriage) and article 29 (settling of disputes by the International Court of Justice). It is expected that changes in the family
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law to allow withdrawal of Thailand's final substantive reservation will be difficult to achieve, in light of entrenched social values. However, the Cabinet recently approved changes which would remove most of the legal provisions which conflict with the article. Although the Convention cannot be used as a legal instrument within Thailand, it has had a powerful influence on government action to end discrimination against women and ensure their human rights.
According to the report, in 1989 Thailand established a permanent national machinery for the advancement of women and the protection of their rights. The responsibilities of the National Commission on Women's Affairs are to advise the Government on women's issues, to submit appropriate policies and development plans, to make recommendations on new or amended legislation, to support and coordinate women's development efforts and to regularly report to the Cabinet on the position of women in the country. Thus, it is the primary body responsible for ensuring the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women in Thailand.
Although there is no legal definition of discrimination in Thailand, according to the report, the influence of the Convention has led to it being widely accepted as a de facto standard, and the definition used in the Convention is expected to be used in drafting the proposed anti-discrimination law. In 1994, following campaigns by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the National Commission on Women's Affairs, a provision specifically providing for equality between men and women was re-incorporated in the Thai Constitution. While all de jure discrimination against women by the Government has now been abolished (with the exception of within the police and armed forces), considerable de facto discrimination remains. Also, Thailand's Penal Code treats men and women equally and there are no obvious equity concerns for women in its provisions, with the exception of the criminal treatment of abortion. The report states that the implementation of temporary special measures to address de facto inequality appears highly unlikely in Thailand at the present time, in view of the political and social climate. They would be regarded as "unfair", since the concepts of equality, rather than equity, currently dominate public discourse.
Stereotypes, driven by deep-seated attitudes which will be difficult to change, still have significant negative impacts on the socialization of girls, both within the family, in schools and within the broader society, according to the report. Three sets of interrelated attitudes impact on this: those relating to girls' and women's work and duties; dangers facing them; and their abilities. In terms of duties, girls are often expected to assist their mothers with a variety of work around the house because it is considered training for their expected future duties as wives and mother. Boys of the same age, however, will not normally be expected to perform such work, and will have this time free to play, study or develop other abilities. Parents are particularly concerned about dangers, both in terms of physical danger and reputation, facing their daughters.
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As stated in the report, the exploitation of prostitution and trafficking in women are major human rights problems in Thailand. Deep-rooted social attitudes make it very difficult to implement appropriate measures which can be used to effectively suppress them. Although legislation penalized commercial sex workers while providing for severe penalties for those who profit from prostitution, and particularly those who force women into prostitution, enforcement of these laws is a major problem. The Commission and NGOs have been working towards enactment of a new law which will further strengthen penalties and renew the State's prohibition of child prostitution.
The Government has stated that there should be no commercial sex workers under the age of 18, no exploitation of prostitution and no trafficking into prostitution, according to the report. Programmes to achieve these goals have largely been directed towards girls and women, either offering them alternatives to becoming commercial sex workers or aiding them in leaving the industry. A major step has been the extension of compulsory schooling from six to nine years. Recently, some programmes aimed at changing general societal attitudes, particularly those of potential customers and the girls' parents, have been introduced.
Two groups of social attitudes have combined to encourage the development of a large and lucrative commercial sex industry in Thailand, the report states. First, attitudes towards what is considered normal or acceptable male behaviour have encouraged men to visit commercial sex workers. There is no word in the Thai language for a male virgin and a young man who admits to being one is highly likely to be ridiculed by his peers. It is thought to be normal in many social groups for a man's first sexual contact to be with a prostitute, and visiting commercial sex workers continues to be considered a part of group leisure behaviour.
Attitudes condoning prostitution are not confined to men, the report continues. There is a perception among both women and men that prostitution protects "good" women against rape, while many wives report preferring their husband visit commercial sex workers rather than take a minor wife, which is perceived to be a much greater threat to family stability.
The second group of social attitudes which contribute to the problem are those which may push women to become commercial sex workers. These relate to the daughter's duties to her parents and attitudes towards female virginity. Daughters are expected to contribute materially to their parents' well-being, and for many women with limited education and work opportunities, prostitution may be seen as the only way of doing this. Women can be, thus, overtly or indirectly coerced into prostitution in this manner.
A further problem arises from the very high value still placed on a woman's virginity. This may leave a girl or woman, who has been abused within her family, involved in an illicit relationship or who has been raped, with
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very low self-esteem and feeling her future fate is not important, making her an easy victim for traffickers.
To ensure women and girls have an alternate source of income, vocational training is being provided, particularly in areas known to be important sources of sex workers, to try to assist vulnerable women and girls to remain in their villages and earn a reasonable income. They have also been educated about the realities and dangers of the industry, including HIV/AIDS. A number of programmes have also begun to encourage a change in general societal attitudes towards prostitution, particularly among parents, teachers and other influential community members. It is hoped that family education programmes, such as that focusing on "One Man, One Wife", will also help reduce the demand for commercial sex services.
According to the report, significant progress has been made in reducing discrimination against women's participation in political and public life. A number of public positions, previously barred to women by law or custom, have been made accessible. Also, the level of women's representation has increased in a number of areas of public life. While Thai women have traditionally had important economic roles, and consequently economic rights, traditional stereotypes have indicated that public leadership roles should be taken by men. These attitudes remain a powerful barrier to further advances in their political participation and continue to discourage women from attempting to achieve leadership positions.
Women constitute about 62 per cent of the country's illiterate population, but this figure reflects the historical situation among older women who were offered less access to education during their youth, rather than any current discrimination, the report states. The educational opportunities available to girls are approaching equality with those of boys. Women are also broadly enjoying equality with men in access to tertiary study. In 1993, of more than 4,000 students studying abroad for higher degrees, approximately half were female, although of those being supported by government scholarships, only 42 per cent were women. There is a high dropout rate beyond compulsory education, the rate for which is approximately equal for boys and girls.
According to the report, statistics show that Thai women are a very significant part of the workforce, which is both a reflection of historical roles which saw women as important contributors to family income, and a result of the demands of the modern labour market. Women's rate of participation in the workforce is lower than men's at most age groups, but there is a significant exception among urban women aged 13-24. The demand for female domestic helpers, factory workers and service industry workers has created many opportunities for young women to begin work often at a younger age than males. However, this means that these women may be drawn away from educational opportunities, which may limit their future employment options.
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Overall, women tend to be concentrated in lower status and lower paid positions, which reflects historical inequalities in access to education, but also their higher level of involvement in the informal sectors of the economy.
The report states that medical services in Thailand are available to all on a non-discriminatory basis, and free health care is available in State hospitals to those who cannot afford to pay for treatment. The relatively low numbers of female medical practitioners makes it difficult for them to influence health policy and practices. A significant health problem in the country is HIV/AIDS. Of the more than 700,000 people now believed to be infected with HIV, at least several hundred thousands are women. It is predicted that, by the year 2000, there will be approximately 2 million infected people in Thailand, the majority of them being in the 19-35 age group, with women forming close to half of this number. The prevention strategy has focused on promoting a "100 per cent condom policy" among sexually active adults, and is attempting to empower women to protect themselves, for example, by carrying condoms, despite powerful social forces which make it difficult for women to discuss and address these issues.
Under Thai law, abortion is only allowed if the pregnancy endangers the mother's life or if it is the result of rape or forced prostitution, the report continues. There are ongoing moves to change the law, particularly to allow for abortion in cases where there is a risk of the foetus suffering from disease or disability, particularly if it may be infected with HIV. Thailand's relatively low birth rate reflects a high level of family planning services, with about 74 per cent of people accepting those services. Both in public perception and the general direction of services, however, family planning remains the responsibility of women.
According to the report, approximately 69 per cent of the Thai population live in rural areas, reflecting the fact that about 60 per cent of employment continues to be in agriculture. Incomes and living standards in rural areas have continued to decline relative to urban standards, despite efforts to promote rural development. Rural women make up well over half the national female population. An important aspect of government efforts for women's development, particularly in rural areas, has been the establishment of women's organizations at all organizational levels, designed to run in parallel with general organizations. Hence, it is expected that each village will have a women's committee, as well as a village council or committee.
The report states that little research has been conducted into the scope or nature of the problem of domestic violence. Violence is a significant human rights issue for Thai women, and much needs to be done to improve government services, both in the fields of prevention, services for victims and prosecution, and in changing public attitudes towards violence and its victims. While strong legislation is in place to protect women against sexual violence and other violence, there is no protection for women within marriage against rape or sexual assault. Also, the issue of sexual harassment in the
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workplace has yet to receive significant public attention. In addition, a great deal needs to be done to train police to handle reports of sexual assaults sensitively and appropriately. The National Commission on Women's Affairs is attempting to reduce the availability of pornography, in the belief that it is a contributing cause of sexual violence.
Introduction of Report
SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, Adviser, Office of the Permanent Secretary, the Prime Minister's Office, introduced Thailand's report, which included replies to questions posed by Committee experts following the meeting of their pre- session working group from 12 to 15 January.
[The Thai delegation was comprised of: Adviser, Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office, Saisuree Chutikul; Minister Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations, Manop Mekprayoonthong; Director, Office of the National Commission on Women's Affairs, Office of the Permanent Secretary, the Prime Minister's Office, Sriwatana Chulajata; Minister Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations, Apirath Vienravi; and Third Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sawitree Sangjansomporn.] She said that Thailand had made seven reservations when it acceded to the Convention in 1985. By 1995, five of those reservations had been withdrawn. The most difficult one was article 16, which dealt with family life and marriage. The National Commission on Women's Affairs had attempted to amend laws to facilitate the withdrawal of the reservation to article 16. Some of those laws were in the process of getting approval and, unfortunately, some had faced much opposition. Within Thailand's family law on betrothal, a man could claim compensation from any man who had had sexual intercourse with his fiancée, or had raped his fiancée, while a woman could not do likewise to another woman who did the same to her fiancé.
As for the grounds for divorce, a man could sue his wife for divorce if she committed adultery, she continued. The woman could sue her husband if she could prove to the court that he had provided support and honoured other women as his wife. The Council of State, which was responsible for scrutinizing the laws to be approved by the Council of Ministers, had rejected the National Commission's proposals to amend those laws. The Commission was in the process of appealing that decision.
The National Commission had also submitted the draft name amendment act for the Cabinet's approval, which dealt with the freedom to choose family names, including the right to keep using the maiden name after marriage, she said. Such amendments were difficult because Thais had a strong feeling towards patriarchal lineage and were very much subjected to male-dominant tradition. It would take some time to reach the goal stated in article 16, but serious attempts were being taken.
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She said the amendment of the Civil and Commercial Code had been included in the 20-Year Perspective Policy and Plan for Women (1992-2011). The cohabitation for persons of the same sex and of different sex was not recognized in Thailand, and there was no legal protection for cohabitants to claim their rights regarding financial provision, both during cohabitation and at termination, including death. Among other issues that still needed to be addressed were: that an alien woman who married a Thai man could request Thai citizenship while an alien man who married a Thai woman could not apply for citizenship; that a husband could rape his wife; and the narrow definition of "rape" which included only sexual intercourse in the traditional sense.
To help promote women's rights, the National Commission on Human Rights had been established by the Government, she said. The Commission was an independent body and was responsible for receiving complaints which were violations of human rights. Its mandate included ensuring that human rights and the international instruments related to human rights of different target groups would be respected. It could also make recommendations on changing laws and remedial measures to the Government.
The 20-Year Perspective Policy and Plan for Women (1992-2011), along with the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, had been translated into a Five- Year Development Plan for Women in the Eighth National Social and Economic Development Plan, she said. One of the results of that Plan had been the establishment of the National Commission on Women's Affairs in 1989, with its goals to promote the advancement of women; create gender awareness and gender analysis both at the local and national level; eliminate discrimination against women; increase participation of women in decision-making; and coordinate activities related to women among ministries and developments and between governmental and non-governmental organizations. The National Commission was also responsible for monitoring and evaluating programmes for women and initiating or promoting gender-sensitive research.
With regard to the Beijing Platform for Action, the Government had translated the Platform into Thai and had organized five regional meetings to inform the public of its content and to enlist support from the governmental and non-governmental organizations for its implementation, she said. Special emphasis had been put on gender equality, violence against women and the girl child, and trafficking in women and children.
She said that stereotyping of women and men still existed in Thai society, even though there was an increasing awareness on the part of the public. The Commission had undertaken a research project to evaluate stereotypes in textbooks and supplementary books used in the elementary schools. The results had been given to the National Education Commission to continue to do research in other levels and types of education, and the Ministry of Education was revising its textbooks. The attitude changes had been reflected in the increased enrolment of women in usually male-dominated subjects. There were
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also television programmes and talk shows which presented women's views and gender perspectives that helped eliminate some stereotypical attitudes and negative opinions about women.
In 1998, she said, there had been about 140,000 displaced persons in 16 camps in Thailand, whose problems were mainly regarding educational and health services. Thailand upheld the principle of first asylum and provided shelters to those fleeing from their countries. Shouldering the heavy burden of providing, not only temporary shelter, but also basic services, the Thai Government had to face several burdens in providing adequate care and support to local communities negatively affected by influxes of those displaced persons.
Since the submission of Thailand's report, there had been significant changes related to the problems of exploitative commercial sex and trafficking of women and children. Those changes included three revised laws: the Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act of 1996; the Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Women and Children of 1997; and the Penal Code Amendment Act. In addition, the National Commission on Women's Affairs was in the process of formulating the National Plan of Action for Trafficking of Women and Children, to deal with illegal women migrants who were trafficked into Thailand, using Thailand as a receiving, transiting or sending country.
Domestic violence and violence against women and children had also been at the centre of Thailand's attention during the last two years, she said. Pamphlets had been produced and distributed to create awareness among the public and to inform them where they could get help. In addition, health workers, social workers, and community development personnel would form networks with medical personnel and women police officers to help eradicate violence and sexual abuses in the communities.
Child labour was one of the crucial concerns for Thailand, she said. It was estimated that 16 per cent of children aged 10-14 were engaged in some form of labour. Preventive measures, with the help of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other NGOs, through educational loan programmes, had been implemented, together with skill development schemes to improve the potentials of children who were already in the workforce. Recently, the new Labour Protection Act had been enacted to provide those children with better protection against exploitation. The legal employment age had been raised from 13 to 15 years. Future challenges would include the changing of traditional attitudes and practices in relation to children and their duties to their parents, which were among the major factors perpetuating child labour.
Turning to the participation of women in political and public life, she said that there were fewer women participating in various professional areas, especially at the decision-making levels. One of the reasons was that women usually entered into traditional careers, and that Thai women preferred not to take risks. Politics, in the Thai context, was a risky career, especially when
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coups d'état had occurred often in the past. Another reason was that Thai women were given the responsibility of raising and looking after the children. The lack of training or proper preparation for career development, the existence of both de jure and de facto discrimination, and family obligations were among the other reasons given. Affirmative action was possible, but not well accepted by men. To achieve the goal of having 30 per cent of women in decision-making positions, some positive measures and affirmative actions would have to be pursued.
The new Labour Protection Law of 1998 was the first law to stipulate gender equality in employment and the prohibition of sexual harassment, she said. In the public sector, men and women had equal pay for equal work, while in the private sector, most companies practised equal opportunity employment. However, there were some small companies or employers who would not pay the minimum wage as required by law, and that practice was usually agreed on by employers and employees.
Sexual harassment had never been addressed in the Thai legal system, she said. As a senator, she had taken the initiative in proposing that in the new Labour Protection Law, articles on gender equality in employment and the prohibition of sexual harassment -- which aimed at protecting female employees or children from being sexually harassed or sexually exploited -- be included. With that new law, the National Commission, in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, would have to establish a monitoring system and mechanism so that the law could be enforced effectively.
She said that it had been suggested that the conditions for abortion be expanded to cover the child's health or the risk of a foetus suffering from disease. However, that proposal had received strong opposition. Effective family planning programmes would prevent unwanted pregnancy, which in a way was a preventive measure for abortion. Family planning had been in the hands of women, she added.
Presently, there were campaigns targeted to wives who had HIV/AIDS and were pregnant, she continued. Emphasis had been put on knowledge about HIV/AIDS in women, and coping mechanisms and skills, through proper counselling programmes. In Thailand, most of the health volunteers at the village level were women trained on AIDS and other important health issues.
With regard to inheritance, men and women had equal rights, she said. In some areas of the north-eastern provinces, female children inherited land, while male children did not or not as much. That was because female children were expected to look after their parents until they died, while male children, once married, would move out from their parents' home to be with their wives. As for taking out loans, a husband and wife had to co-sign the agreement, and both were responsible for the debt. There was no discrimination against women in accessing bank loans and other forms of financial debt.
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Many statistics in Thailand usually were not classified by rural or urban sector, she said. In the new Constitution, rural women received the same rights as other women, which included rights in the justice system. Rural women had been provided legal education, as well as programmes for social, economic and political development. Also, they were encouraged to participate in village meetings and to serve in village committees.
Comments by Experts
Several experts paid tribute to efforts made by the Thai Government to improve the status of Thai women. They also appreciated the wealth of material and the ingenious way of presenting summaries to the experts' prior numerous questions; that had provided more time for the Committee to enter into an in-depth dialogue.
One expert acknowledged the work undertaken by the National Commission on Women's Affairs, which had been both impressive and admirable. During the period under consideration, efforts to remove certain reservations to the Convention had succeeded; however, the country's reservations to articles 16 and 29 of the Convention still needed to be removed, on, respectively, equality in marriage and the family, and differing interpretations of the Convention between two States.
A matter of grave concern was Thai women's persistent under-representation in public life, she said. Despite some improvements, the target of 30 per cent of women in decision-making posts was still far from being met. The Government, therefore, should implement special temporary measures, even though the Thai people were still reluctant to do so. On the problem of stereotyping, it was encouraging that some universities had established women's studies programme, but stereotypes still existed in Thai society, including in textbooks. It was imperative that the Ministry of Education take strides to revise its textbooks and enlist the help of mass media. Those were crucial factors towards improving the situation.
The court procedure for enforcing the new Constitution seemed weak, she said. In the area of the protection and promotion of employee's rights, the Government did not seem used to making policy changes in the public sector, and there was no relief in the private sector in that regard. It was important to introduce new anti-discrimination legislation, as proposed by the women lawyers association of Thailand. The much talked-about issue of trafficking of women and young girls and the human rights of minority groups also called for concrete measures. In addition, the new child labour protection act must be enforced. The new legal age for children to work was 15, but that was still too young.
Another expert said she would encourage the Government to publicize the interrelatedness of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was the legal
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basis for the policy programme of the Platform. While the new Constitution was impressive in its steps forward in the areas of anti-discrimination and employment equality, she deplored the absence of any definition of discrimination, as defined in article 1 of the Convention. Thus, the treaty did not have the force of a legal instrument in Thailand.
She also sought elaboration on the meaning of "unjust discrimination", adding that unenlightened judges, for example, might justify "justness" by invoking its relationship to existing cultural norms. She wondered whether there had been any court cases where such an argument had occurred, or whether anyone in the public sector shared her concerns in that regard. The Government should be urged to embody a definition of intentional or unintentional discrimination in its legislation, and to regulate the remaining areas of discrimination between individuals and enterprises. What were the obstacles, and why had some of the Commission's proposals in that regard failed? she asked. Was it due to traditional norms or a lack of knowledge? Perhaps, the help of the royal family, widely respected in Thailand, could be enlisted.
Indeed, the status of the women's Commission should be enhanced, she said. It had been asked to concentrate some of its efforts on the economic crisis. In that regard, women's needs should not be compromised, because availing them of equal rights carried the potential of helping Thailand to emerge from the economic crisis. She sought additional retraining data for 1997 and 1998 since the start of the economic crisis. She wondered about women registered as unemployed. It was quite possible that registration for unemployment might be a precondition for registration in retraining programmes -- those women might have been overlooked.
Another expert said that, coming from an Asian country, she knew the pain and difficulty of introducing change. It was important to utilize the new Constitution to ensure women's equal chances and opportunities in life. The National Commission should look at other countries' experiences in the region, where putting the Constitution in place had catalysed judicial reform.
The new labour law of 1998 had provided for equal pay, but it had failed to cover many other dimensions, such as training and promotion of employment, she said. It was, therefore, unclear how that law would reinforce constitutional standards in the public sector. It was important to consider forms of affirmative action, although those had not been limited to quotas alone, in order to ensure that qualified women did not suffer from a "glass ceiling" of not being able to move beyond a certain position. Of some concern, also, was the number of new agencies being created; replicating existing institutions was not always successful and required careful forethought.
She said it was extraordinarily important that men and women have equal rights to inheritance of land and other economic assets. The traditional basis of Thai law was egalitarian, and a lot of family law had probably been influenced
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by the Napoleonic code. The authorities, therefore, should ensure that traditional law had not been used as an argument to prevent change. Hopefully, efforts to revise the name law would succeed, as such change would positively affect women in areas of credit and economic access. The 1996 legislation aimed at preventing prostitution was the result of a big struggle. It was equally important now to focus on enforcement, particularly relating to the training of police, lawyers and judges, as well as the allocation of necessary resources.
Another expert sought further clarification on the impact of the economic crisis on the cultural and developmental rights of women. The issue of child labour, though not a direct concern of the Committee, was undeniably linked to women's rights. Therefore, she implored the national women's Commission to propose measures to end child labour and improve the living conditions of women, particularly in poor families.
There had appeared to be equal access for all to health care, but a closer inspection had revealed the existence of hidden or unintentional discrimination concerning access of rural women to medical services. The problem lay in the very low number of women doctors in rural areas -- indirectly, that had limited equal access of rural women to medical services, because of their reluctance to be treated by a male practitioner. Women should be enticed to study in medicine, and, meanwhile, male doctors could be given human rights training, particularly in the area of women's reproductive rights.
She had been saddened to learn that that noble proposal to allow mentally ill women the right to terminate their pregnancies had been defeated on religious grounds. That was in direct defiance of the first article of the Convention. Moreover, the very high suicide rate among Thai women was directly linked to their mental condition, and yet not much was being done to address their needs. After all, the right to life was the most basic of all rights, and professing to implement the Convention while denying women their basic right to life was synonymous with not implementing the Convention at all.
It was plain to see there were very traditional ways of looking at things, by the vast majority of the population and possibly also by the authorities, another expert noted. Clearly, women in the country were subordinate to men. In some instances, the national legislation had stipulated equality, but when it came to apply it, social prejudices predominated. Although points had been made on paper, women's rights were not being translated into practice. Examples included the large number of girls who had dropped out of schools and the very strong preference for sons in Thai society.
Moreover, she said, Thai women were expected to confine themselves to private life, and deeply rooted religious concepts had sometimes gone far beyond those very traditional views. When girls were obliged to show gratitude to their parents and make sure they were "doing their bit" to reduce the costs they had incurred to their parents, a more organized and targeted effort must be
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mounted to change those attitudes. Textbooks were being revised, but that job could not be confined just to university texts or to the narrow task of rewriting books; "you have to change minds within communities and reach out and touch the people themselves -- particularly the opinion-moulding sectors", she said.
A key concern of the Committee was the scourge of prostitution involving children, she said. Members' sources had asserted that there was a very high rate of girls involved in prostitution. Programmes under way should be examined for their effectiveness in reducing and rehabilitating those girls, and preventing them from falling victim to such exploitation. The economic crisis had caused that kind of activity to surge. She sought additional information on how the Government intended to combat child labour and reduce the volume of sex tourists. What was the Government trying to do through its legal apparatus to turn things around? she asked.
Another expert asserted that apart from raising awareness, the issue of violence against women also required the elaboration of domestic laws. Currently in Thailand, that issue was being taken up as a domestic affair and not as a public issue. Yet, it was a public issue that had to be tackled by the whole community. Consideration should also be given to devising a comprehensive law to deal with domestic violence issues, including marital rape, presently not regarded in Thailand as violence against women.
The issue of property rights of women also had to be addressed, she said. At present, Thai women married to foreigners were unable to own land without first declaring their intent not to transfer that land to their foreigner husband. She wondered what happened to men who were married to foreigners. Perhaps, the Government should seek a comprehensive way to deal with inheritance and property matters.
Replies of Government Representatives
APIRATH VIENRAVI, Minister Counsellor, said his country had moved into a new phase of equal rights. It had taken very seriously the fact that the rights of women and children were part and parcel of overall human rights development in Thailand. The Foreign Ministry was one of the gateways to change, and it had exposed itself to new concepts and thinking. Change could be made, although it might not come rapidly. A lot of improvements had been made, but much more remained to be done.
"It takes two to tango", he said. The issue of prostitution, for example, particularly cross-border prostitution, involved two sides. "We don't like to see those kinds of things", as those had political repercussions and often undermined international relations. Similarly, there were two sides to deal with in order to combat the economic problems: the demand side and the supply side. When higher pay was offered on one side of the border, other people tried to cross that border.
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He said his country had actually dared to propose a national symposium on migration to address the cases of undocumented working men, women and children, in an attempt to find ways to manage the flow. The issue had to be handled at the source, and the worse sort had been the traffickers. For that reason, last year the Foreign Affairs Ministry had worked hand in hand with various agencies, particularly the women's Commission, to treat women and children who had arrived on Thai soil as victims of trafficking, rather than wrongdoers. The slow but successful passage of a related law had been one step forward. The next step was to raise awareness on the other side of the border that trafficking and placing one's children into the oldest profession in the world was not the way to raise them.
The situation of displaced persons was the worst situation the country had faced, he said. He was not begging for forgiveness, but, for centuries, Thailand had hosted hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, and was doing its best to handle the situation with care. "We would like to solve the problem in a more systematic way and as humanely as possible", he said. Displaced women and children were high on the Government's agenda.
Additional Comments by Experts
An expert noted that factors such as poverty and underdevelopment contributed to prostitution. Given the problem of trafficking, there was a need to recognize the serious human rights violations that were taking place. The Thai legislation, while important, had to be enforced with extreme political commitment, and male responsibility also needed to be addressed.
A question was raised regarding the life expectancy of women compared to men, and whether Thailand's health policies took into account that women were now living longer and had special related needs. She asked if the overall policies -- social, economic and health -- took that into account. She also wanted to know whether working women, who had to take care of aged parents, were entitled to any tax incentives to help them.
Concerning the decriminalization of commercial sex workers, one expert had difficulty understanding the provisions of the new law. The law said that such workers would receive lighter penalties, and she wanted to know why they were subject to penalties at all.
Also with regard to trafficking and prostitution, one expert said that there would not be incentives for sex tourism if there were effective controls. As long as there was a market and a demand for it, then there would be a supply. Perhaps, what was needed in addition to legislation was the necessary administrative apparatus to raise awareness among the public.
There was also concern over the fact some of the women residing in the hill regions had Thai nationality, while others did not. The report stated
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that regardless of their nationality, those women had access to the same basic services. However, an expert asked why the differentiation existed between those with Thai nationality and those without it, and what measures were being taken to guarantee those women their rights.
Replies of Thai Delegation
Ms. CHUTIKUL said that although Thais were not accustomed to the idea of affirmative action measures, it had been put forward in the Constitution for the first time. One example of implementing such special measures involved minority groups in southern Thailand. Since it had been shown that many of them did not get to higher education levels, a quota system had been set up so that they could attend universities without taking the required entrance exams. There was also a proposal currently being considered within governmental bodies to establish that eight out of the 22 nominations to the Human Rights Commission be women.
Responding to concerns regarding child labour, she said that the minimum age of employment had been raised to 15, in accordance with the International Labour Organization (ILO) recommendation and since compulsory education in Thailand had been extended to nine years. She hoped that when the proposal to extend compulsory education to 12 years became a reality, the minimum age would be raised to 18. Child labour had received a lot of attention, mainly due to the ILO's efforts. Their programmes had included grassroots income generation projects, and scholarships to help extend children's education, so that they would not have to work. Also, most of the manufacturing companies did not hire children at all due to the large amount of paperwork required by new laws. Citizens were also encouraged to report on exploited children to the appropriate agencies.
While there was a need for an anti-discrimination code in Thailand, there were many difficulties being faced in that regard, she said. For the time being, the National Youth Bureau was trying to come up with one comprehensive code for children's rights. If that was successful, then an anti-discrimination code for women would be pursued.
Turning to the participation of the Thai royal family, she said that while they were active in development projects, their traditional practice had been to refrain from involving themselves in debates of issues. The sixtieth birth year of the Queen had been determined as Thai women's year (although it had not been officially sanctioned by the Queen), and much had been accomplished during that year. One of the royal family members had been requested to look into the prostitution issue but had been reluctant to get involved.
While Thailand had many wonderful laws, the most difficult problem was enforcement, she said. Law enforcement officials needed more training, and
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currently there were courses being offered to them, including those on prostitution and trafficking. Corruption was also a problem among law enforcement officials. When legislation on prostitution had come out two years ago, the Director General of the Police ordered that police officials who had child prostitution in their areas of control would be punished. The result was that in the following year, there had been no records on child prostitution because the police were afraid to report them. She had recommended to the Director General that an order be issued stating that those officials who enforced prostitution laws would be rewarded, in the hope that it would lead to better enforcement.
Concerning the legality of the Women's Convention in Thailand, she said that none of the international legal instruments had legal status in the country. Rather, they were being used as a reference point to change existing laws and regulations, and had been successful in many instances.
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