Recently, a woman reported to the police in Thailand that her 14-year-old granddaughter had been repeatedly raped over more than a year at a government-run school in Mukdahan province, in the northeastern part of the country.
She said that the young girl was abused by five teachers and two male students. And to further exacerbate her nightmare, they filmed and threatened her.
The girl had endured, secretly, such treatment since March of last year. When her story became public, a 16-year-old classmate from the same school reported that she had experienced the same at the hands of the same men.
Unsurprisingly, anger erupted on social media, as many netizens called for severe punishments for the alleged rapists. Even Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised the maximum punishment if the defendants were proven guilty.
In Thailand, punishments for rape are harsher than in many other countries. Convicted sex offenders can be sentenced to life imprisonment or death in the case of fatal rapes, for instance. But most cases go unpunished or end in reduced sentences when offenders cooperate with the police.
If an offense is committed against a child aged 15 or younger, as in the case of the school girl, the offender could face up to 20 years in jail and a fine of between 100,000 and 400,000 baht ($3,198 to $12,795). The sentence can be increased by a third if the assault was recorded on video for exploitation, or by half if the clip was shared with other people.
But as Jaray Singhakowinta, Ph.D. and adjunct professor of sexuality studies at Thailand’s Graduate School of Language and Communication, explained, “Judges rarely impose the death penalty on offenders, as convicted persons often confess their crimes and are considered entitled to a reduction of the sentence at the discretion of the judges.”
That is why, a few years ago, there was a public campaign started by a Thai celebrity, Panadda Wongphudee, to amend the penal code so that those convicted of rape were automatically sentenced to death.
As Singhakowinta explained, however, the campaign was questioned by many lawyers who warned of the lethal consequences if the law was changed. They were concerned that victims would likely be killed if the death penalty were legally ordered in every case.
Rape is still a serious problem in Thailand. It makes big headlines every year with stories of abuse and violence against adults and children. According to data from the Royal Thai Police, 1,965 complaints of rape were filed between January 1 and December 31, 2019, and as a result 1,893 people were arrested.
In the same year, the Pavena Foundation for Children and Women alone recorded 786 cases of rape and indecent assaults. The organization has assisted more than 9,000 victims of sexual attacks since 1999, and according to its statistics, the numbers have been increasing.
Although rapes can happen to people of any gender and age, most of the cases known to the foundation are of girls under the age of 10, and most of these rapes took place at home or at school.
According to Singhakowinta, the basic issue is that sex crimes are a structural problem, and to a certain degree, a “gendered problem.”
He believes the fact that the increasing numbers of women and both female and male children have become victims of sex crimes reflects, to a certain extent, their systematic subordination in the patriarchal system in the country.
“The alarming statistics on the one hand point to the moral decline in society, and on the other, they expose the cultural objectification and fetishization of female and youth bodies as objects of desire in Thailand,” he explained.
His research on the pornification of male youth bodies in Thai yaoi (boys’ love) TV series supports the observation that the sexualized bodies of youth have now become mainstream in Thai popular culture.
When we speak of abuse toward women, the situation is serious, complex, often underestimated, and rarely documented.
Dr. Henriette Jansen, senior researcher at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said that 20 years ago, her agency carried out a population-based prevalence survey in Bangkok and one province.
“This showed that about 44 percent of women reported physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some time in their lifetime. And about 22 percent reported this in the last 12 months,” she explained.
Thailand has never had a national survey of sexual violence. And as Jansen said, it is important to realize that such surveys are the only way to get greater information on the proportion of women in the population that are experiencing or have experienced such violence. The UNFPA survey figures from two decades ago are still used.
“If you would get the numbers on cases of violence from police, court or health [authorities], you get the tip of the iceberg. Twenty years ago the same survey showed that only 1 percent of women who had experienced partner violence had gone to the police. Official data from services will not give you a good picture of what is happening. They are always a huge underestimation,” she said.
The traditional values of the Thai family play an important role in this situation, as they emphasize a clear division between public and private affairs, encouraging women to remain silent about problems at home and with their partners in order to maintain the “honor” of the family.
Some frequently repeated proverbs even advise against intervening in other people’s love lives, to avoid having one’s intentions misunderstood and being seen as trying to destroy a couple’s relationship in the event that they eventually reconcile.
This situation was supposed to change with the passage of the 2007 Domestic Violence Victims Law and the modification of the Penal Code. Before 2007, criminal law did not include marital rape as a crime, so women were not legally protected against sexual assault by their partners.
Violence that occurs in the public sphere or is committed by a non-family abuser, such as sexual assault and harassment, is condemned by the Penal Code.
However, although the police have more power to act than before, they remain reluctant to intervene because while laws may have changed, attitudes have not. Many crimes thus go unpunished.
In the case of rape, many sentences are reduced and many women simply do not trust the judicial processes.
Rights advocates believe the solution to sexual violence starts with gender equality and mechanisms that would help women be more visible and feel the strength to press charges with the support of society. In this regard, there is much work to be done.
Rape is not about fulfilling a perpetrator’s sexual needs, but rather, “a demonstration of power over those the offenders consider subordinate,” said Singhakowinta, referencing the schoolgirls raped by their teachers and fellow students.
The psychologist who is caring for the girl said she was suffering from trauma and extreme stress. After all, she was abused by those whom she was supposed to trust.
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.