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Bring back our girls - in Thailand also

Nong Kaem was 13 when she was raped and killed on a train from Surat Thani to Bangkok. This was heinous, and it is beyond imagination to think of what she suffered before she died.

Unfortunately, this tragic event is not the first of its kind. Rape and sexual violence occur all too often in Thailand. Last week in Chon Buri, a Matthayom 2 student, like Nong Kaem, was almost gang-raped by eight male students. The local news reported that as the girl was packing to leave the classroom around 2pm, eight male students locked the classroom door and prepared to rape her. The girl fought back and cried for help. The girl was saved from further physical harm, but barely.

The incident is reminiscent of a case in September of 2008, in Chumphon province: another 13-year-old Matthayom 2 student was almost gang-raped by six male students. The girl was walking to her classroom during lunch when she was pulled into the classroom by a 14-year-old boy. Another five boys were waiting there to sexually abuse her. The victim screamed for help, and luckily a group of five young girls passing by rushed to her aid.

We shudder when we read of schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria. But is this any better? There were 31,866 rape cases last year, or 87 cases per day on average, according to the Women and Men's Progressive Movement Foundation, based on statistics from the One Stop Service Centre under the Public Health Ministry. That's an average of about one woman or girl in Thailand raped every 15 minutes. The actual number is likely much higher, as it is estimated that only 5 per cent of all rape cases are reported.

On top of that, young girls are the most likely target of sexual assault. Women and Men's Progressive Movement Foundation also reported that based on the news analysis of sexual violence cases in five Thai daily newspapers last year, 35.1 per cent of the victims are 11-15 years old and 22 per cent are 16-20 years old.

Now here is where the two school stories turn nasty: in both cases, the girl student victims pressed charges, and in both cases they were pressured by their schools to keep things silent, so as to not "bring shame to the school". In both cases, the victims also claimed that similar attacks had occurred at the school before, but that nothing had been done to prevent a recurrence because the school management was afraid of "losing face".

These sexual abuse incidents are not isolated cases, and the fact that they continue to be reported indicates that little action has been undertaken to stop them happening again. In fact, only a small percentage of cases are being reported, as the huge majority of sexual abuse incidents are believed to be swept under the carpet due to pressure on the victim by family, friends, schools and others.

Shame. Again. So instead of the boy accepting shame for having done this, the girl is made to feel ashamed. Instead of the school being ashamed that they let this happen, the girl is made to feel ashamed. Instead of parents feeling ashamed for not telling their sons that their behaviour is unacceptable, the girl is made to feel ashamed. So it is it the girl, the victim, who is told to feel ashamed. She is brought to a place where even Nigeria's Boko Haram would not take her - a "House of Shame". She is reminded every day of her suffering and pain while the perpetrators may plan on doing it again, in impunity, and without shame.

This is no way to treat our girls. The two school incidents show two remarkable girls, and their parents, who fought for themselves and refused to give in to pressure to stay silent. They deserve much praise and respect. Hopefully, they will be able to get over the trauma of these attacks and live healthy and joyful lives again. Nong Kaem was not so lucky.

Some quarters in society are calling for harsh punishment for sexual predators. In fact, there is no scarcity of laws on the issue, including the death penalty for the worst offenders. But this blight is not solved by laws - it is solved by society; communities, parents, teachers and everyone else's determination to protect their girls. The most effective way is to instil respect for women and girls everywhere.

It starts in the home: do parents, especially fathers, teach their sons that this behaviour is wrong, full stop? And that rape is a criminal offence that could land them in jail? It continues in school: are boys being told during morning assembly that the school has zero tolerance for sexual violence and harassment? Is respect for women and girls part of what all schoolchildren are being taught?

Ultimately, the responsibility for sexual violence lies with men and boys, collectively and individually. No amount of talk about raging hormones justifies harassment or rape. And executing one man does not absolve the rest of us.

Bring back our girls from the House of Shame. They don't belong there.

Caspar Peek is a representative at the United Nations Population Fund - Thailand (https://www.facebook.com/UnfpaThailand).


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