July 05, 2014 00:00
By Veena Thoopkrajae
Single women might be shocked to hear it, but by remaining unmarried, either by choice or circumstance, they are turning Thailand into the region's fastest-ageing society.
I abide by the conviction that “staying single equals a more comfortable life”. But look around and you see fewer female colleagues, university friends and peers getting married, let alone raising two or more kids. Unsurprisingly, the birth rate among Thais has plunged – to 12 per 1,000 per year. Ask yourself how long it’s been since you visited a new mother and her baby in hospital, or when you last traipsed the aisle of a toy store seeking a gift for a friend’s little one.
Thailand’s birth rate is now the lowest in Southeast Asia except for Singapore’s. But Singapore’s government, alarmed at the rising number of single women, is going all out to increase the birth rate. To boost amorousness in the city-state, officials have organised speed-dating events and even funded “sex gurus” to help couples conceive. More encouragement to have kids comes from tax incentives and other benefits for new parents.
We here in Thailand can only look on in envy at the assistance offered to Singaporeans thinking of a child. Here, the road is far bumpier for women. The first hurdle is getting a date, and the gender imbalance is making that harder. Figures from 2010 show there were 782,716 more Thai females than males between the ages of 15 and 49. As a result, men have the luxury of “shopping around” for prospective partners, while women might have to “settle for less”, adopting a mentality of “this is as good as it gets”. Hardly surprising, then, that the sight of a plain (often chubby) guy walking hand in hand with a gorgeous woman is becoming more common.
Compounding the situation is that not all males are “straight” and not all women want male partners: sexual preferences also play a role in our falling birth rate. However, Thailand shouldn’t succumb to the inevitability of becoming Southeast Asia’s “greyest” society.
We have the opportunity to design a blueprint for better demographics. Speaking as a single mother, I think there’s plenty of room for improvement, especially where government policy is concerned. It may be impossible to change a person’s mind if she wants to remain single, so perhaps the focus should be on married women and those in stable relationships. They may just be discouraged from having kids by busy work demands and the modern lifestyle.
In contrast to the welfare and incentives offered in Singapore, Thailand seems to discourage motherhood. Thai law allows for three months of pregnancy leave from work, but at lower pay, meaning few women take the whole allocation. Having a baby gets you a Bt7,500 incentive on annual income tax – or Bt15,000 for a single mother. But that’s a drop in the ocean when you consider that a week’s supply of nappies costs Bt500.
Employers also prefer to recruit single women since they can work till they drop and tend not to care so much about welfare and holidays. The work culture in Thailand seems designed as if there had never been a baby born. Mothers find that little thought has been given to their situation. Look around and see how few big corporations – Thai and multinational – allocate precious space for creches.
Improvements in infrastructure are one factor that might convince more women to have children. City life as a mother presents daily challenges. When out in public, where does one go to breastfeed or to change a baby’s nappy? Looking for a “stroller park”? Good luck with that. The truth is that Thailand is a far more comfortable place to live if you’re childless.
So you can’t blame women if they choose to stay single. If we’re serious about preventing Thailand from becoming a “grey” society, we need to learn from countries like Singapore, which have been facing these issues for some time now. Look at what they’ve done and what we have not. Actions and input are needed from all sectors of society.
Growing “old” is compulsory, but Thailand can choose to grow “older” and become wiser.