Porntip wanted out of her abusive marriage and filed for divorce. But her husband wouldn't leave. Then the Thai government's COVID-19 response locked them both behind the same front door in the northeastern Khon Kaen countryside. His drug abuse continued, and the tensions between them increased. As did the beatings. He often told their two daughters he wanted to kill their mother.
A woman farmer in her 30s, Porntip went to the police to report the violence. They sent her home saying it was a domestic issue. “They told me I should sort the problem with my husband,” she says. Even though she found no redress, perhaps the act of going to the police scared the husband enough that at last he moved out.
Yet, he kept returning, often unexpectedly and threatening the family.
Outraged by the stress of his threats and the increasing vulnerability in the lockdown situation, her sister (who lived with her) called the government’s 1300 hotline for domestic violence reporting. Five days later and despite the lockdown, a team from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security came to their house. They asked if Porntip needed help and offered her shelter in a distant city. “I had to decline because the place is too far from my cows,” she says. “I am the only one who can milk the cows and take care of them.”
Although government services for women who experience domestic violence in Thailand have considerably expanded over the past two decades, women’s advocates were seeing setbacks even before COVID-19 began disrupting the typical channels for help.
The hotline service that Porntip’s sister had called, for instance, had reduced from one call centre per province to one centrally located in the capital of Bangkok. And five years ago, the government shifted the hotline from violence against women and children (as well as human trafficking, child labour and teenage pregnancy) to any social problem.
COVID-19 and domestic violence
While media reports have highlighted increases of reported domestic violence in countries around the world due to the lockdown stresses, the situation is unclear in Thailand.
Data indicate that the number of clients appearing at One Stop Crisis Center units in hospitals in April more than doubled from a year earlier, from 85 to 183. These walk-ins include violence both inside and outside the family. But the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security’s 1300 hotline, which was dedicated to violence against women in 2013 and was considered a major step forward in the government’s response, registered a significant drop in family violence reports for March and April, compared with a year ago.
“Those who experience domestic violence may have difficulty accessing the hotline during COVID-19, because the lines have been flooded with calls about social assistance and grants,” notes a hotline official who asked not to be named.
As the pandemic interrupted people’s livelihoods and earnings with unpaid bills and sometimes nothing to eat, other grievances grew. The 24-hour helpline was flooded with more than 28,000 calls in March and April – more than double for that period a year earlier. But most of the calls were complaints or inquiries about government relief.
Even in normal circumstances, domestic violence is underreported. The United Nations estimates that less than 40 per cent of women who are physically abused at home seek any kind of help. Although many women in Thailand seek out services from non-government organizations, there is widespread belief that a large number of abused women here suffer in silence.
In Thailand, domestic violence cases are often reported by outsiders, such as teachers and friends who notice signs of abuse, according to Boonwara Sumano, a researcher with the Thailand Development Research Institute. In lockdown at home, this first line of support is now largely cut off, and abusers can keep their spouse or partner from reaching out for help.
Additionally, Boonwara speculates, the threat of virus infection likely scared many people from seeking hospital care. Government and private shelters for women and children have had to take preventive COVID-19 measures and limit the number of people staying under their roof or shut down their service.
If the abuse happens at night, many non-government organization directors explain, the curfews imposed by the authorities became another possible barrier to seeking help. In some provinces, roads have been blocked to prevent people from traveling.
Societal attitudes a major impediment to seeking help
With or without a pandemic, a major barrier to women reporting violence in Thailand has long been and remains societal attitudes, among public servants like the police that Porntip turned to and even among women themselves.
“As in many Asian countries and across the globe, domestic violence in Thailand is seen as the family's business or a private issue, and no one should interfere,” says Supensri Puengkhoksung, director of the Social Equality Promotion Foundation and an activist on women’s rights since the 1970s. Some women even believe that admitting the abuse is to admit they have failed their marriage.
Supensri finds that the social prominence of the perpetrators (a husband or boyfriend typically) and a prevalent attitude that victims rather than abusers are to be blamed further prevents women from speaking up. “Women do not have the courage to ask others for help because they are afraid no one will believe them,” she says.
And the gender-biased attitudes of men, be it the abusers or public servants, that men are “the dominant species” are hard to change, Supensri adds.
These societal attitudes may form early. According to a study by the Thai Ministry of Education and UNICEF in 2016, many students in Thai schools indicated attitudes that reject gender equality and sexual rights; roughly half of the surveyed students thought that domestic violence is sometimes justifiable.
Femicide in Thailand
Violence against women has become increasingly fatal, many women’s advocates believe, although they admit data on the phenomenon of femicide in Thailand is needed.
Several cases of femicide were recently reported. In February, a man in Chiang Rai allegedly killed and dismembered his mother, putting the body parts in a refrigerator. In May, a 53-year-old man in Nakhon Phanom province was charged with beating his wife to death with a concrete brick and dumping her body in a septic tank. He told police his patience had run out when he discovered her seventh lover. Also in May, a woman in Chiang Khong was charged with the murder of her husband. She said she couldn’t bear his physical abuse anymore.
In 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women issued a call for all countries to establish a "femicide watch" or a "gender-related killing of women" watch. To date, no country in Asia has responded to that request.
New law on hold
Thailand has been trying to strengthen its legal framework on all forms of domestic violence. A major change under the Family Institute Protection Act, adopted in February 2019 (which replaces the Victims of Domestic Violence Protection Act of 2007), will be the use of case managers who can help violence survivors navigate the legal and other service systems.
As well, the new law allows for a 48-hour restraining order against perpetrators of domestic violence without having to wait for court approval. This change is expected to save many lives.
But the law has yet to go into effect, partly due to concerns that it seeks to hand the powers to investigate domestic violence over to officials of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Assault charges related to domestic violence also constitute non-compoundable offences under the bill. The 2007 law stipulates following the normal legal procedures in which a probe is handled by the police and the assault charges stemming from domestic violence are compoundable offences.
“A major concern is that the provincial Social Development and Human Security staff are not ready with the needed skills and resources for the added roles and responsibilities,” says Areewan Jatuthong, a prominent women’s advocate and lawyer. It may also give too much power to provincial officials who could be biased or influenced in favour of the abusers.
The Family Institute Protection Act has also received criticism from activists that it focuses more on protecting traditional family values than giving victims access to justice. Critics say the law reflects a conservative mentality. "The amendment bill seeks to preserve the family as a unit. But what if a family can't be united," asks lawyer Areewan.
In August 2019, the cabinet approved an executive decree placing the draft bill to amend the 2007 law on hold. Opposition parties have petitioned the Constitutional Court on the legality of the executive decree, insisting that family protection is not an issue that qualifies the cabinet to invoke the decree.
The new law is also supposed to improve conditions for foreign migrants working and living in Thailand, who would be covered.
Foreign migrant women and violence
“Stress and poverty have increased a lot among migrants during the pandemic,” says Watcharapon “Sia” Kukaewkasem, the founder and director of Freedom Restoration Project, an organization that offers a peer support group for survivors of domestic violence in Mae Sot, in western Thailand. “About half of the men here are construction workers and have lost their jobs. Families often live in one room, and the stress levels rise with the children being home all day because of the school closures.”
Like many other migrant women from Myanmar, Ma Phyu came to Thailand for a better life. Her husband’s abusive behaviour ramped up as his earnings from motorbike taxi driving disappeared due to the lockdown. “He blames me for the miserable situation we are in,” she says. “He yells at me that I am useless and often threatens to kill me and the children. He kicks me and attacked me with a knife three times in April.” She holds up her scarred fingers.
His rages were sporadic before the COVID-19 pandemic but have become daily. “We receive some food donations, but I need to borrow money from people in the neighbourhood to get by,” says Ma Phya, who has lived in the Mae Sot area for 22 years.
After every physical attack, she sought out the support group for her only relief. But the women were prevented from gathering during the lockdown.
Sia, who is from the Akha ethnic community in Thailand, a social worker, and a domestic violence survivor, runs the small Freedom Restoration Project with a Karen woman originally from Myanmar. “Violence is normalized in migrant communities – it happens to everyone,” she says. “Most women don't consider leaving their husband as an option. They often think the violence is partly their own fault because they didn't look well enough after the children or failed cooking. Survivors of domestic abuse often do not seek help because they are afraid of being blamed by the community.”
But migrant women also have nowhere to go, Sia points out. Going back to their home country is difficult with the borders now closed as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. They often have no family or friends in Thailand who can take them in. And there are no shelters in Mae Sot. “There are not enough shelters near migrant communities anywhere in Thailand,” she says.
Sia is doing what she can to fill some of the gaps. She offers parenting workshops for mothers and teaches teenaged girls at migrant schools how to defend themselves against sexual abuse. She thinks gender equality education should be part of the school curriculum. “Many men here have grown up seeing their fathers beat up their mothers and sisters. We have parenting workshops for women, but actually the fathers should also join to learn how to deal with their frustrations in a different way and to change their behaviour.”
Household violence likely to get worse
The women’s advocates in Thailand believe that the fear of infection and the financial uncertainties related to the pandemic may have women across Thailand choosing to wait and endure the abuse until the outbreak is over.
With grim forecasts of a sharp economic contraction this year, dim prospects for the tourism industry (a major source of employment) and job losses at 7 million as of mid-April but estimated to potentially reach 10 million, the government is overwhelmed with new priorities.
It is too soon to tell how the pandemic will affect funding streams for social services, either provided by the government or civil society. But as the financial pressures in households continue to build, many women’s advocates in Thailand expect the violence against women and children will escalate.
"Now violence against women during COVID-19 is raised, NGOs hopefully get more donations and funding for this," says U-sar Lerdsrisuntad, director of the Foundation for Women (FFW). "Actually, the health sector should incorporate violence against women in their mission. It should be considered a health issue."
World Health Organization research shows violence against women tends to increase in every kind of emergency, including epidemics. United Nations and human rights reports emphasize how the COVID-19 pandemic impact is leading to a global rise in new and pre-existing abusive behaviour and violence.
“In the Thai society,” says lawyer Areewan, “it is very difficult to tackle the domestic violence problems because we still endorse it, and people still accept media laced with violence. No matter how we say we are all about gender equality and sensitivity, we still live in a male-dominant society.” She also fears that officials across government as well as the police may not fully understand the law already in place on domestic violence.
Now more than ever, Supensri believes the government needs to invest in expanding the numbers of properly trained social workers and shelters that do not separate children from their mother. The 1300 hotline, she adds, must be dedicated to violence against women and girls, with specialized staff receiving the calls.
“If we do it right, we could turn the crisis into an opportunity to create more impact to the work we are doing,” she says.