Pro-democracy protests in opposition to Thailand’s military have swept the country since July, and women are front and center in the fight.
Protesters are demanding more say in the government after the military took control of Thailand in a 2014 coup and rewrote the constitution to maintain a hold over the 2019 elections, according to the Los Angeles Times. Participants in the demonstrations are putting their lives at risk in a country where people caught criticizing the king can face up to 15 years in prison.
Women, many of them students, played a pivotal role in organizing the demonstrations, have been some of the most outspoken protesters, and have shown up in the biggest numbers, according to the New York Times. They’ve also used the rallies to draw attention to gender equality issues.
Women protesters are calling for more democratic systems and aim to dismantle the patriarchy within Thailand’s military, monarchy, and Buddhist monkhood. Reproductive rights, the price of menstrual products, sexist school dress codes, the wage gap, and rape culture have all been highlighted during rallies.
Women for Freedom and Democracy, a group leading protests in Bangkok, believes reproductive rights are key to achieving a fair democracy. In February, the Thai court ruled that anti-abortion laws that only allow women to have abortions if their pregnancy puts their physical or mental health is at risk are unconstitutional.
When governments restrict abortions, people still seek the procedure and resort to unsafe methods, the third-leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide. For low-income women, denial of abortion can lead directly to economic hardship and poverty.
“We cannot claim to be a true democracy when decisions about our bodies and reproductive health are still controlled by the government,” activist Kornkanok Kamta read on behalf of Women for Freedom and Democracy at a protest in Bangkok in August.
“Decisions regarding our body and our life must belong to us. We have the right and responsibility to make the best decision for ourselves,” the statement said.
Menstruation is also highly controversial in Thailand. Sufficient data to measure how many people who menstruate experience period poverty is unavailable but the topic remains taboo, according to the Bangkok Post. In 2019, Ketpreeya Kaewsanmuang, a spokesperson for the Puea Chat political party, took to social media to discuss the high price of tampons. Kaewsanmuang claimed they are taxed as luxury items at 40% because they are considered a cosmetic product. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha then accused Kaewsanmuang of spreading “fake news” and the Thai government later clarified that menstrual products are taxed a 7% value-added tax, which is standard for most products.
The exchange sparked larger conversations about the steep average daily price of menstrual products in Thailand, around $9.95, which is unaffordable for most people in the country.
“There are a lot of people who have a bias against menstruation,” activist Supeecha Baotip said, according to the non-profit newspaper Prachatai.
“People like to think that a period makes you irritable, therefore women are irritable, because when she gets to that time of the month, she becomes irrational, which makes women look irrational,” she added. “This is about our bodies. Democracy is about politics on a wider scale, but the rights of one person together, the rights that we’re given have to be [held] accountable.”
While Thailand is one of Asia’s most equitable countries for women, according to the New York Times, women still don’t have representation in the government and military. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, is head of the national committee of gender equality but has said that granting equal rights to women will destroy Thai society. He’s also perpetuated the harmful stereotype that women’s power is in the home.
“Male supremacy” has been on the rise since the coup, Chumaporn Taengkliang, a co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy, told the New York Times.
Women only hold 14% of seats in Thailand’s Parliament, and succession laws at the Thai royal palace require the crown to be passed down to a male. Women are also prevented from entering the military or police force — some schools in both sectors prohibit women from attending.
The recent protests are Thailand’s first gender political movement, one student told the New York Times. Social media is also credited as helping propel the movement forward in the wake of #MeToo to end sexual harassment against women.