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Protecting the 'little woman'

As Thailand joins the rest of the world in marking International Women's Day today, we can boast being a country with a fair share of feminists. However, whether we are actually moving toward equality for women is quite another matter.

Call me a cynic for saying this, but, with Thai feminists busy bumping heads, the battle for women's rights is making little progress. I'm not singling anyone out for blame. The battle for feminists is different from country to country, and Thailand's battleground is unique.

Here, many women's-rights activists are wasting time and energy guarding females in powerful positions, including caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Deputy Government Spokeswoman Sunisa Lertpakawat, Thaksin Shinawatra's former wife Pojaman na Pombejra and Taya Teepsuwan. The rights violations in question here stem from cases of perceived political injustice. But aren't these powerful women capable of taking care of themselves? Surely they have their own armies of guards among their supporters and hardly notice the efforts that rights groups make to defend them. Speaking plainly, these political "targets" have the power of choice: they know that, if they can't stand the heat, they can get out of the kitchen.

Before we veer toward the topic of equality for women, we might want to discuss the meaning of "equality" first. Is equality for all what matters, or is it fair protection for everyone in accordance with her needs? I am in favour of the latter. There are so many women in our society whose plights are crying out for the attention of rights activists. Domestic violence occurs on average every 20 seconds in Thailand. Yet meanwhile we are preoccupied with the rhetoric of political injustice. Forty-four per cent of Thai women have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner. These are examples of basic rights violations that demand our attention if the cause of women's equality is to progress.

Violence against women and girls often makes headlines, but this is only one facet of the inequality. Look closely enough at any area of society and you realise that gender inequality is everywhere. Some cases might seem "major" or "minor", according to individual opinion, but they express inequality all the same.

And wealth or education is no protection against such injustice, which is embedded in our tradition and difficult to root out. In the matter of property rights, for instance, the law says a woman who marries a foreigner loses her right to own land. Why do we accept this obvious discrimination?

One person's minor annoyance can be a major issue for another. Many mothers wonder why women's-rights activists don't press private firms and public officials to provide separate rooms for breastfeeding, especially since the practice is heavily promoted by the government. The list goes on and on. Another item worthy of attention is protection for sex-workers, whose trade is illegal, meaning they seldom get help from law-enforcement agencies. A sex-worker who is raped and goes to the police will seldom if ever get protection or justice.

By all means join the country's feminists in waging war against inequality in everyday life, but perhaps we should place to one side the women's-rights rhetoric of the ivory tower. We should instead be led by our common sense and concern for women of all professions, status and groups. Make your voice heard - otherwise it will be a mere whisper amid the self-righteous hue and cry of politics.

Next time someone introduces herself or himself as an advocate of women's equality, try putting them to the test with a checklist of basic, everyday rights. There's a long journey ahead, but it starts with small steps.


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