Six months ago, just before I was hired to work for The WomanStats Project, I decided to do a summer internship program in Thailand. Being a student with a minor in women’s studies, I chose to do my three-month internship at a women’s shelter. Upon coming here, my understanding of Southeast Asian women and my knowledge about Thailand came mostly from the information in our database. Having been here for only two months, I am in no way an expert on Southeast Asian culture, nor do my observations in any way encompass the situation of every woman here, but my pre-conceived notions have shifted quite a bit. Still, I want to share my experiences and thoughts for the purpose of discussion with like-minded people, concerned about the status of women worldwide.
The women’s shelter I am at works with ‘single mothers in crisis.’ All the women staying at the shelter either have a child or are pregnant and most are years younger than me (I’m 21). They come to the shelter for various reasons. Some have been raped, some have gotten pregnant by a boyfriend or husband who then abandoned them, and all have little or no support from their families. The shelter often takes in women from the hill tribes who are denied Thai citizenship but exploited by the government. Those hill tribe women are probably the most disadvantaged in all of Thai society. Being a single woman with a baby is looked down upon here (as in many parts of the world) and most families will disown a daughter for that reason. A few weeks ago we had a woman who, having completed the shelter’s reintegration program, was ready to leave the shelter and go back home. When I asked her how she felt about going home, the only emotion she expressed to me was embarrassment. As a college undergraduate, there isn’t much that I have to offer these women except my non-judgmental support and friendship. It saddened me to hear this woman tell me that she was embarrassed to go home, and I encouraged her not to feel that way. She should have been proud of the immense courage and strength that she had been forced to develop in order to endure her situation. That very ability for humans to endure the most difficult of circumstances is something that I am humbled to witness every day.
Leaving work each day, I return to a host family made up of many women. I stay with a host family comprised of a mother and father and their one daughter. Some of my host mother’s sisters live next door where they take care of their own mother, who is currently 104 years old and still going strong. She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. Having given birth to twelve daughters originally, five of them (including my host mom) are still alive. (She had sons as well but no one has been able to give me an exact number of how many total children there were.) When I sit on the floor at her feet and hold her delicate, little hands, I feel nothing but immense love radiating from her. It takes a strong woman to bear a child, let alone more than a dozen children. I imagine that if we could converse beyond the boundaries of my rudimentary Thai, she would be able to instruct me on how to be the absolute perfect mother. I feel as though all the most kept secrets to life are within my grasp, and I constantly curse the language barrier for keeping me from them. From the look in her eyes, which seem to always be laughing, I sense that she is likewise aware of this.
One thing my Thai grandmother likes to do is tease me about my clothes. She frequently laughs at my shorts, which fall mid-thigh on me and tells me my legs are too long. She will then ask me if I think Thailand is hot. I tell her that if I wear full-length pants, I will get heat stroke. Thailand, in addition to being extremely hot, is a very modest country where the only scantily clad people are foreign tourists and prostitutes. Most Thais (women in particular) remain fully and modestly clothed despite the heat. It is rare to see bare shoulders or pants not covering the knees. And cleavage is something unheard of. Men can get away with wearing sleeveless shirts, but rarely do they go shirtless in public. Though much of the younger generation is becoming less modest in their dress, the majority of people maintain their modesty. Late one afternoon, having spent the day in the city, I hopped into the back of a covered truck which functions as a taxi, that goes by my house. The two long benches in the back of the truck run parallel so that passengers sit facing each other. I was faced with the decision of choosing which side to sit on as I climbed in. On the right sat a young mother with two loud, fidgety children, and on the left sat a silent monk in orange robes. Since monks are not allowed to touch women, I chose to sit next to the mother and risk having children climb on me, rather than risk accidentally touching the monk on the sometimes-bumpy drive. As we sat waiting for the truck to fill up with passengers, I looked around for the driver but couldn’t see him. I noticed a middle-aged woman in a hot pink t-shirt and sunglasses leaning against the door of the truck. She was watching a little girl play on the sidewalk and appeared to be waiting for something. It suddenly dawned on me that she was the driver of this particular truck (and I spent the next few moments sulking at the very gendered mentality that I had just exhibited). I had never seen a woman taxi driver in Thailand before that moment (and still have yet to see another). Sure enough, as soon as the truck filled up, she walked around to the driver’s side door and got behind the wheel, calling to the little girl as she went. The girl, whom I perceived to be her daughter, abandoned her game on the sidewalk and jumped into the cab, settling into the passenger seat as we took off away from the city. My attention was once more brought to the back of the truck as the younger child next to me began to fuss—obviously hungry and wanting to breastfeed. Due to Thailand’s culture of modesty, I expected the woman to cover her chest with a blanket or something while she breastfed the hungry baby, but she did not. Fully exposing her breast, she began to nurse the child and calm it in a soothing voice. I immediately scanned the faces of the other passengers of the truck to observe their reactions and what I saw made me smile. No one had made a face or even flinched at the sight of a woman’s exposed breast in public—not even the monk sitting directly across from her. I’ve never seen a nursing woman fully expose her breast in public back in the States. It seemed to me that women’s breasts are not sexually stigmatized in Thailand like they are in my own culture. If we had been a truck full of Americans, the woman probably would have made national news the next morning for causing a fiasco. But don’t get the impression that women are not sexually exploited here. Because despite things like acceptance of breastfeeding in public, the growing sex industry casts a long, dark shadow on the women in Thailand. It’s extremely hard not to have an encounter with the sex industry in Thailand. If you are out at night, you are guaranteed to see prostitutes on the side of the street waiting for customers. If you are lucky, that’s all you will see.
One morning, as I ate breakfast in the city with my fellow interns, we incidentally got to witness one of the many unpleasant consequences of getting involved in the sex industry. The café we were eating at had a guesthouse upstairs and one of the guests was at the center of a ruckus on that particular morning. He had woken up to two prostitutes dragging him out of his room and delivering him to their pimps waiting in the street. Apparently, the hung-over foreigner owed them 6,300 Baht (about 200 USD) for the previous night and had left (the brothel) without paying. After refusing to pay for things he “did not remember,” he suffered a physical beating from the pimps—something quite uncommon in Thailand. When they let up, the man went to get his wallet only to find it was not in his room. Not being able to remember where he left it, he gave them 50 Baht from his pocket and an iphone as collateral. As all this took place, I couldn’t help but turn my gaze away from the fighting men to the two prostitutes sitting silently on the side of the street. Watching their expressionless faces watch this whole scene unfold gave me the impression that tracking down customers for payment was a common occurrence—just another daily task to deal with in this business. Though slightly awkward for those of us trying to enjoy our breakfast, it certainly provided some interesting things to mull over and more of a first hand glimpse than I ever wanted into the sex industry.
I think this is a typical story to bring back from a trip abroad. Stories like this are the ones that we hear about from our friends and see in the movies. But there’s a side to prostitution in Southeast Asia that goes unnoticed by many foreigners, and is rarely even recognized by locals themselves. Louise Brown’s book Sex Slaves delves into the inner-workings of the sex industry in Southeast Asia only to discover that sex tourism is not the main objective of the sex industry and that foreign tourists are not actually the most targeted customers. Brown shows how it is actually the local men who provide the majority of the sex industry’s business and how the best brothels are kept secret from foreigners for them to enjoy. Betrayed by the men they trust, Southeast Asian women are forced into a life of indentured slavery to serve other men who have likewise been trusted by other women. With sex tourism drawing so much attention to itself, (as demonstrated above) it’s easy to see how the local sex business is kept extremely quiet and goes on unnoticed. Somaly Mam discusses a similar situation in Cambodia in her autobiography recounting her imprisonment in the sex industry, her escape, and her eventual success to found an organization that rescues young sex slaves from brothels all over Southeast Asia.
Don’t get too depressed about the situation of Southeast Asian women—change is on the horizon. The country known as Burma (named Myanmar by the long-reigning military dictatorship) is undergoing political reform. And the person leading the way to change is a woman. Having previously been under house arrest for 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi is now able to move about freely and her fame has grown exponentially over the past decade. Earlier this year she successfully campaigned for and won a seat in the Burmese parliament. She serves as a symbol not only of women’s growing involvement in political leadership but also of anti-dictatorship movements and democratic reform. There is a large amount of Burmese women taking refuge in Thailand (I have personally met several) and they are incredibly disadvantaged here. They legally cannot go to school and many grow up in Thailand without getting any form of education. The situation of Burmese people is a distressing one, and it is my greatest hope that drastic change is on the horizon. All over Southeast Asia there are many populations (like Burmese refugees) of women who reside on the brink of society and quite often fall through the cracks of social change. I didn’t come to Thailand to change the world—that’s a task I leave to those more skilled and experienced than I am. I came to see what life is like for disadvantaged women, to learn from them, to understand their experiences, to befriend those who need friendship, and to see what social change looks like firsthand. And now when I share what I have learned here, others will (hopefully) be moved to continue demanding equality for women in Southeast Asia.
Brown, Louise. 2001. Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia. Virago Press Ltd. UK.
Mam, Somaly. 2008. The Road of Lost Innocence. Virago Press Ltd. UK.