Abused wives suffer in 'the land of smiles'

Long swept under the rug as a family issue, spousal abuse is coming to light as a major problem in Thailand


Thu, Nov 06, 2003 - Page 16

Forty-year-old Tui thinks about her dead husband every day.

Every day that she scrubs the shirts and shorts she washes for a living, her right shoulder aches, reminding her of the days and nights her husband would tug her closer to hit her harder.

Every day she sits on a small plastic stool in front of her tub of soapy water, her lower back twinges, reminding her of the times her husband would knee her in the small of the back.

A black eye, a bruised nose. Once, a broken arm. Mementoes from her husband -- before she shot him dead.

"I have to take care of three kids on my own, I only make a little money and I have a lot of financial troubles I have to think about," she said.

"The only thing that makes me feel really good is that I don't have to worry about anyone coming around to hit me or slap me, or worse. It's a load off my mind."

Tui's experience -- which landed her in jail for nearly two years before a court released her -- shows the flip side of a country that markets itself to visitors as "The Land of Smiles."

Three years after Thailand set aside November as the month to wage war on domestic violence and sexual abuse, reports of wife-beating and marital rape have escalated.

According to a study by Mahidol University and the WHO, as many as 44 percent of Thai women have been abused by their partners, with 29 percent suffering sexual abuse and 12 percent injured during pregnancy.

Bad choice?

Experts say violence at the hands of a lover or husband was long considered the result of choosing a mate badly, and assumptions of male superiority had deep roots in society.

"It's the way we were all brought up," said Suteera Thompson, president of the Gender and Development Research Institute, an NGO running shelters for women in trouble.

In a land where men make about 30 percent more than women for the same work, "men see their economic superiority and some try to take advantage of that," Suteera said.

Reinforcing women's silence is the traditional Thai distaste for interfering in relationships and a culture that lauds women for acts of self-denial.

"Society still considers it a personal issue," said Usa Lertsrisuntad, a coordinator for the non-profit women's advocacy group Foundation for Women.

"They think it's normal that sometimes women are beaten."

Better than nothing

Tui reasons she stayed with her abusive mini-bus driver husband because she needed help with their three children, now ranging in age from 12 to 21.

"Sometimes he gave a little, sometimes he gave a lot, but in any case it was always better than nothing," she said.

"He was always running around, but he was getting attached to his new girlfriend and would leave us with no support at all. We fought and he ran after me with a knife. What was I to do?"

In a society where the phrase "feeding the ducks" is a euphemism for a woman who slices the penis from an unfaithful husband and throws it into the duck pond, actual incidents of husband-beating are rare, Usa says.

"I have never heard of a case where the husband is being beaten," she said. "Cases where men have been hurt or killed, the women were defending their own lives."

No laws

Despite media fanfare after a high-profile case in which a university lecturer was given a two-year suspended jail term after beating his wife to death with an umbrella and a golf club, Thailand's legal system has yet to deliver on promised reform.

Police are now obliged to report incidents of domestic violence, but laws punishing wife-beaters have yet to be passed.

"There hasn't been a specific law outlawing domestic violence yet," said Lucita Lazo, head in Thailand of the UN women's organization UNIFEM.

The university lecturer said his wife had been unfaithful and judges cited the emotional distress of losing a loved one and jealous rage as grounds for leniency.

The verdict last year incensed women's groups and much of the general public who said men would not be discouraged from battering wives.

"You can get away with murder if you have a doctorate degree and know how to play golf," wrote columnist Dinsordome in the Thai-language Daily News newspaper.

But the murder has helped the crusade against domestic abuse by raising its profile in the media and sparking debate about attitudes to violence in the home.

"The case has helped raise consciousness of domestic violence and has enabled more women to speak out and realize it isn't OK to wait until you die," said Usa.

Tui, who received bail assistance from the Foundation for Women, earns 2,000 baht (US$50) a month as a laundress, eking out a living with her children in a one-room home on Bangkok's outskirts.

But she still thinks she's better off.

"If these men see other people get away with it, they think they can do it," said Tui, rubbing an aching shoulder. "Domestic abusers should be punished, not left alone like my husband."