The problem: sexual harassment and Songkran
A 2016 survey conducted by the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation indicates that a large number of women experience sexual harassment during Songkran. Indeed, more than half of all respondents claim to have suffered sexual harassment during the three-day festivities. Worryingly, the sample group of almost 1,800 females included those as young as 10-years-old.
Several respondents made reference to having been groped in public, in particular, having their breasts grabbed and fondled. Unwanted kissing has also been reported. The men involved are often under the influence of alcohol, and some women reported being pressured by men to drink alcohol themselves.
While sexual harassment has been illegal in Thailand since 1998, few women make reports in general, largely due to the stress and difficulties involved in successfully proving a case and the potential repercussions from perpetrators. This holds true at Songkran too, with one survey participant stating that she didn’t report the matter to the authorities as she didn’t want any trouble.
Disturbingly, the survey also revealed that 14% of the women surveyed, normalise sexual harassment over Thai New Year and see it is part and parcel of the revelry.
The context: brief overview of women and Thailand
Although certainly not oppressed in the same way as women in some parts of the world, Thai women still live very much in the shadow of men. Thailand is a patriarchal society where status is immensely important. There are subtle (and some not so subtle) clues that show where people fall in Thailand’s social pecking order, and women are often lower on the rungs of society’s ladder than men.
Despite Thailand being one of the first nations in Asia to give women the vote, there have been few genuine advances towards gender equality for many years. Gender equality in Thailand seems to have stagnated.
Beauty contests are a common feature at events. Prostitution is rampant. Women cannot officially take part in monastic life and live a spiritual life, if so desired. Abortion rights are all but non-existent. Violence against women is commonly portrayed in Thai soap operas.
More disturbingly, violence against women regularly plays out in day-to-day life, with little sympathy and protection for survivors. Domestic violence, for example, is generally viewed as a private matter that law enforcement officials are loathe to tackle. Laws may exist on paper, but enforcement and punishment is a different matter. When a university study indicates that one in three households report domestic violence (do note, though, that fewer than 5% of respondents cited sexual violence), it is clear that there is a much larger problem than people may think.
The effects: women’s reactions to harassment during Songkran
Understandably, the risk of being sexually harassed during the festival has deterred some women from participating. While women will still visit the temples and take part in the spiritual and traditional aspects of Songran, they may be hesitant to join in with the fun water fights. Women may also choose to celebrate at smaller events in provincial areas, rather than attend large-scale street parties in places like Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai. Impact statements show a strong desire for better protection for women and children over Songkran.
The solutions: government responses to the problem
The survey organisers have asked the Thai government to implement measures to stop sexual harassment during Songkran and provide greater protection for women.
As with every year, officials have released statements urging women not to wear provocative or revealing clothing for the festivities, a move to both promote Thai morals and reduce the risk of untoward advances. The government feels that the way in which a person dresses plays a big role in whether they suffer from harassment.
Known for controversial statements, the Thai prime minister has already given his opinion on the matter a couple of years ago: essentially, women are like candy, and people wouldn’t want to eat them if they were not already unwrapped.
Past measures to try and tackle abuse have included banning “sexy dancing” and the show of muscles. Moves like setting up alcohol-free zones are more conducive to moving away from a victim-blaming mentality, but there is still little deterrent for men to avoid harassing women.
Tellingly, laws prohibiting indecent exposure are more likely to be enforced during Songkran than those surrounding sexual harassment, assault, consent, and violence against women.
With few repercussions for perpetrators and blame and shame that seems to rest with those who have been violated, it doesn’t look like Songkran will be a more women-friendly affair for the foreseeable future.