Thailand: Approaches to the Gender Paradox

Elin Bjarnegård. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


The picture of Thai women is usually one of two extremes: either they are portrayed as successful businesswomen with advanced degrees or they are pictured as victimized prostitutes. None of these pictures in themselves are, of course, an entirely true representation. Rather, they can be viewed as two extremes illustrating the large span of gender representations in Thailand. Modernization and globalization have, maybe more in Thailand than anywhere else, at the same time brought about increased equalities and inequalities.

Several social features have influenced the present status and social standing of women in Thailand. It is interesting to note that just as the status of contemporary Thai women is in many ways contradictory, the history of Thai women is equally distinguished by an intriguing mix of matrifocal families and kinship bonds on the one hand and a patriarchal and hierarchical state on the other.

Historical Context

As is the case in every other country, the society in Thailand as it stands today is strongly influenced by its religious heritage, its past interaction with other countries, and the traditional logic according to which families and villages are run in the local and private spheres. The specificities of Thailand in these different historical areas will serve as a good starting point to better understand gender relations in contemporary Thai society.

The first important characteristic is Theravada Buddhism, which has had and still exerts a large influence on how societal relations function at every level. Theravada Buddhism places a strong emphasis on harmony in Thai society at large, and this of course includes harmony between men and women. The focus on merit accumulation is particularly important. Merit accumulation means one’s position in life today is based on one’s behavior (sins and merits) in earlier lives. This system also means Thai society has a very strong hierarchical sense that is still valid at the individual level and the state level, whereby it is imperative to accumulate merit to advance in this life and the next. This hierarchy is by no means fixed, and it is completely possible to move up and down social hierarchical levels depending on one’s merit accumulation. There are, however, factors constraining this mobility. To start with, one is born to a certain societal position entailing certain opportunities but restraining others. This societal position is not to be questioned, because it is based on one’s actions in earlier lives. Age and sex are strong status determinants, and it is the task of men to advance the family or social group. Because it is the responsibility of each individual to accumulate merit, this system legitimizes existing inequalities, hierarchies, and the governing system. Some even claim that the aspect of Buddhism called “self denial” encourages people to accept the existing power system (Hanks and Hanks 1963 , 431-435). Men have also had a greater opportunity to accumulate merit by being ordained as monks (Vichit-Vadakan 1994 , 522). Women cannot be fully ordained, and the female Bhikkuni order has been and is still clearly subordinate to the male monk order when it comes to the possibilities for merit accumulation and to general societal status and influence (Lindberg Falk 2002 , 1-11). Men thus have a greater possibility to accumulate merit directly and thus to advance socially (Hanks 1962 , 1250, 1256).

Second, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been under colonial rule, and its interaction with other countries has thus been on different terms than is the case with many of its neighbors. Thailand never experienced the direct influence and forced modernization experienced by many colonized countries, but the culture of the West nevertheless has had a great impact on Thai society. Colonialism was always a threat, and Thai monarchs used adaptation to Western culture as a conscious strategy to avoid a more direct intervention. The heightening of the status of women was part of the modernization efforts made by Thai kings. One example of adaptation relates to polygamy, which had been practiced in Thailand for centuries, particularly by monarchs and the aristocracy. During the reign of King Vajiravudh in the beginning of the 20th century, some radical measures were needed to divert Western criticism of polygamy and to portray Thailand as a modernizing country. The king therefore prescribed Western women’s clothing, encouraged Thai women to grow long hair, introduced public socialization between women and men and, most importantly, promoted women’s education (Vella 1978 , 151-160). Although implemented more out of necessity than out of conviction, and though initially of more symbolic than practical value, these changes did open up new opportunities for women. Of course, the changes mentioned mostly affected elite women. On the other hand, the division of sex roles was most distinct and polygamy was most widespread in the upper classes, where women were seen as part of a man’s assets alongside land and animals, and a wife was not considered a legal entity (Tantiwiramanond and Pandey 1996a , 10-11).

Third, in the lower classes, women’s roles were, in some ways, less restrained. Among other things, there was a matrifocal kinship system where lineage evolved around women. The groom in a newly married couple would often move to the bride’s home, for instance, rather than the other way around (Vichit-Vadakan 1994 , 516). There was an equal inheritance practice early on, where siblings of different sex had the same right to inherit land. This matrilocality has been more or less pronounced and flexible in different parts of Thailand (Potter 1976 , 51-56; Whyte and Whyte 1982 , 109). This strengthened women’s standing in the way they received economic and emotional support from the maternal networks. In addition, military service, warfare, or court duties often took the men away from the responsibilities at home, leaving women no choice but to work in the fields and become economically active (Siengthai and Leelakulthanit 1993 , 89; Phananiramai 1996 , 275). When compared with the distinct roles of men and women in the West, the traditional Thai family left more room for the fluidity of sex roles, and different tasks and household chores have not been clearly associated with femininity or masculinity (Hanks 1962 , 1250, 1256).

Women’s standing in Thailand has traditionally been varied, and many developments have shaped the particular form it takes today. In particular, whereas the standing of the rural woman has been relatively strong, with a matrifocal lineage and economic activity, the power centers have been predominantly male. The monarchy is a male institution, where polygamy was deeply rooted. The military has been almost totally a male institution, as has the influential order of monks.

Values and a Woman’s Place in Society

A woman’s place in Thai society varies depending on context. The historical heritage, already briefly outlined, has generated specificities that have enabled Thai women to achieve progress in certain areas, while hindering their advancement in others. Cultural traits and values also shape and form the room within which Thai women can act. Asian leaders have often used what are referred to as “Asian values” to resist the Westernization and liberal democratic influences that tend to come with globalization and modernization. These Asian values include a respect for authorities, discipline, and a focus on communitarianism as opposed to Western individualism. The decadence and high divorce rates of the West have been held up as examples of what might happen if Asian countries do not continue to emphasize their cultural uniqueness (Thompson 2001 , 155-157). Fathers and husbands are still viewed as authoritative persons in the family, whereas many women are taught that enduring hardships is a female duty. This is reflected in the persistently high incidence of domestic violence affecting women and children and the continued regard of such abuse as a private family matter where public authorities should not interfere (Chayiasuta et al. 2004 , 27, 33-34).

Modernization has opened new doors for women workers in Thailand. Thailand has experienced a large urbanization and out-migration from the villages (Vichit-Vadakan 1994 , 517). Apart from the possibility of being able to provide for the family, modernity itself draws young women to the cities. Modernity is strongly associated with beauty, and Mills even argues that “feminine beauty has become one of the most powerful symbols for representing Thai progress and modernity” (Mills 1997 , 43). Although the “beauty culture” has a long tradition within the realms of Thai tradition, it has been reaffirmed and reshaped with Westernization. Beauty parlors offering every treatment imaginable and shopping malls selling various cosmetics and beauty products are readily available in the cities, and in Bangkok in particular (Vichit-Vadakan 1994 , 520). In fact, one advantage of migrating to work in urban areas is often said to be the indoor work and the highly admired paler skin you can thus achieve (Mills 1997 , 43-44). This emphasis on beauty also symbolizes the value of the woman compared with that of the man. “Beauty is viewed as a woman’s passport to happiness in life, beauty increases her chances of getting a good husband, beauty is seen as essential to retaining a husband’s love” (Vichit-Vadakan 1994 , 520). According to Vadakan, this has its roots in the traditional Thai society where men could advance within the royal service and thus gain increased social status. As has already been mentioned in the historical overview, women in these aristocratic contexts were commonly seen as nothing but a man’s asset, and women had no direct means to achieve social status on their own (Vichit-Vadakan 1994 , 520-521). Women have not been able to gain status by themselves, only indirectly as mothers or wives of prominent men. The remains of this logic are still visible in, for example, the overemphasis on beauty.

Of course, not all women that move into the cities are employed in the technical industries or the formal service sector: one of the most common accounts of Thai women is probably that of the prostitute. Migration patterns from rural to urban areas within Thailand actually show that women migrate to a greater extent than men. Many of these migrants enter into prostitution—some are lured into it, whereas others enter willingly. Prostitution is fairly visible in the streets of Bangkok, as well as in other parts of Thailand, not to mention in tourist areas such as Pattaya and Phuket. Because prostitution is an illegal business, it is notoriously difficult to estimate the numbers of sex workers in Thailand, but some fairly recent accounts suggest numbers between half a million and one million (Bales 2002 , 214). Some surveys indicate that women who work as prostitutes actually earn rather good money, and that this is one of the reasons the sex industry draws so many women (Keyes 1984 , 235-236). Another is the high demand, from foreign tourists as well as from Thai men. The prevalence of a prospering sex industry in Thailand has also been one of the driving factors behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. However, Thailand has been rather successful in combating the epidemic, and overall rates are continuing to drop. Approximately one-third of the newly infected are now married women, who are generally considered to belong to a low-risk group. These women have generally been infected by their spouses, a circumstance that illustrates the social acceptance of men having extramarital sex with sex workers (UNAIDS 2006 , 28).

The royal harem was disbanded in 1910, but it is still considered a mark of high social standing for men to have a mistress. In a hierarchical society like Thailand, the booming economic development in the 1990s led to an increased consumption of commercial sex. Buying sex is not an embarrassing thing that Thai men sneak away to do where no one can see; rather, it is a social event that takes place publicly in pubs, massage parlors, coffee shops, and karaoke bars, places that Thai men frequent with groups of male friends. Most Thais find it natural that men will want several sex partners, something that leads most men and many women to find this behavior, if not laudable, at least explicable and understandable. Many women also prefer their men buying commercial sex from a sex worker to other forms of extramarital affairs, which are seen as more threatening to the harmony of the family (Bales 2002 , 215-216). In a qualitative study of married couples, it was noted that men are considered to have a strong sex drive and an innate need for variation, whereas women are seen as either not having as great a desire or as being better at controlling it.

Premarital sex is not condemned, and although many Thai men claim that they would appreciate virginity in a wife, it is far from taken for granted or emphasized as a critical issue when selecting a life partner. Thai women expect their husbands to have previous sexual experience. This relatively gender-equal view of premarital sexual activity does not carry over to the marital life, however. Whereas many Thai women believe they have to tolerate and deal with their husbands visiting prostitutes from time to time, marital infidelity is unacceptable for Thai women and would lead to the termination of the marriage (Knodel et al. 1999 , 96-108).

Apart from being seen as a paradise for sex tourists, Thailand is also commonly regarded as a society with generally liberal views toward homosexuals and transgender persons, in Thailand called kathoey.  Jackson (1999) , however, posits that there are nuances to this attitude and claims it is above all the kathoey that escape homophobic attitudes, and only if they manage to acquire female high-class attributes and behaviors. If they do, they are tolerated as being women psychologically, but in a male body. This is perceived as an indigenous phenomenon that fits within a heteronormative logic, as opposed to other types of homosexualities, which are criticized as being the result of Western influences. Jackson describes the Thai view as not outright homophobic, but as tolerant but unaccepting (Jackson 1999 , 226-241).

Family-planning services are readily available throughout Thailand, as are contraceptives. Most of the contraceptive methods used are modern methods, and in most cases contraception is the responsibility of the woman. Condom use is not widespread and, according to some accounts, is even decreasing, paradoxically precisely because of its unpleasant association with preventing sexually transmitted diseases and HIV (WHO 2006). The contraceptive prevalence rate was estimated at 72 percent in year 2000, and the fertility rate in Thailand is rather low at 1.9. A remaining problem, especially for unmarried women, is unsafe abortions. Abortion is illegal in Thailand unless the pregnancy is due to a rape or if there are special health circumstances endangering the life of the woman. Thus, many women resort to illegal and unsafe abortions (Warakamin et al. 2004 , 147).

Political Participation and Representation: Country-Specific Data

Thai women gained the right to vote and to stand for election simultaneously with the transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Yet it took 17 years and 14 elections until the first woman was elected to Parliament. And still, women tend to be less politically active than men (Tongchai and Tamronglak 2008 , 211-213). One cannot discuss Thai politics without alluding to the 18 coups d’etat since 1932 that have marked modern Thai political history. It is extremely difficult to say anything definitive about the present political situation in Thailand, as the only thing constant seems to be change itself. However, though regimes may change with short notice, and political institutions may seem unstable, the underlying informal power structures are more stable and persistent, as is the male dominance in these inner political circles. Whether members of Parliament have been appointed under military rule or elected by the people under democratic rule, however, women have never made up more than approximately 10 percent of the lower house in Parliament. This shortage of women has been even more obvious in cabinets, in the senate, and in regional and local politics. To show that regime type has not had a great impact on the participation of women in politics, a comparison will be made between two recent years—2005, when democratic elections were held, and 2006, when there was a military coup. This is an illustrative comparison in many respects. The cabinet that came about after the democratic election in 2005 and the politicians that took office after the military coup d’etat in 2006 will first be compared.

The Thaksin Shinawatra cabinet, that followed from the 2005 democratic election, consisted of 38 ministers. Of these, two were women: Sudarat Keyuraphan, a well-known politician, was minister of agriculture, and Uraiwan Thienthong was appointed minister of culture. Uraiwan Thienthong subsequently resigned in 2006 (before the coup) and was replaced by a man. The cabinet under General Surayud Chulanont, after the military coup in 2006, also had two women ministers, but out of a smaller number of ministers, 31 in total. These two women held the positions of minister attached to the prime minister’s office and minister of culture (Royal Thai Government 2006 ). Thus, a democratically elected prime minister did not select more women to his cabinet than did a prime minister appointed by military coup makers.

Political Development and Political Representation

Political development in Thailand has been very uneven with numerous coups d’etat and new constitutions stalling the democratic process. Thus, the possible benefits emanating from democratic institutions, such as the encouragement of political participation, the increased debate and expression of opinion, the free press, and accountability processes have not been enjoyed by Thai women. This, together with the fact that even democratic periods have often been deficient in many of these respects, makes it difficult for groups outside the established political elite to make their voices heard and to enter the political arena (Iwanaga 2008b ).

The main gatekeepers to women’s increased political representation are the political parties. The way candidate nomination is undertaken in a party has an even greater impact on who is subsequently elected than do the voters when they cast their ballots at the polling station. Voters already have a set of candidates to choose from, whereas parties have the possibility to recruit, train, and prepare candidates as well as introduce gender-sensitive considerations in the process (Matland 2005 , 95-98). This has not been done in any Thai parties. Nomination for candidacy is more often divided among important factions, considered a return favor for long service in the party, or is the result of a poll measuring who has the largest amount of followers in a given constituency. In rural areas, where clientelist networks and favors dominate politics, it is almost impossible for someone without large networks and vast resources to win such a poll, regardless of policy stance or other formal merits.

Thai women have yet to make substantial gains in the political field, and to do so, political parties must be convinced that they have a social responsibility to ensure the equal possibilities of everyone to become political candidates.

As shown in Table 1, the parliamentary representation of women after the 2005 election was 10.4 percent. Of the 500 persons elected, 53 were women. The Parliament appointed after the 2006 military coup was 8.7 percent women. Of 242 members of Parliament, 21 were women.

During democratic rule, the gatekeepers for women’s representation are the parties that nominate candidates. Thus, the gendered selection does not take place at the polling station but rather inside the parties (Matland 1998, 99). An analysis of the 2005 parliamentary election confirms this view. The proportion of women fielded as candidates was very low in all four major parties that participated in that election, and the proportion of women elected as representatives was approximately the same as the proportion of women selected as candidates by the parties (Bjarnegård 2009 ).

The situation for women in politics is even worse at the local and regional levels. It was only after 1982 that women were even legally allowed to become village heads or heads of subdistricts (Doneys 2002 , 167, Funston 2001 , 337). Still, more than 20 years later, the proportion of women who are village heads is only slightly higher than 3 percent, and the proportion of subdistrict heads is even lower, at just over 2 percent. It looks slightly better at the provincial level, where 4.8 percent of the provincial council members and 6.6 percent of the municipality council members are women (UNDP 2006b, 26-27). Claims that it is easier for women to participate politically at local levels are thus proved wrong in the case of Thailand.

Table 1. Parliamentary Representation of Women, Comparison between 2005 and 2006
2005 2006
Female Male Female Male
Source: ECT (Election Commission Thailand)
Number 53 447 21 221
Percentage women 10.4% 8.7%


Studies of gender-disaggregated citizen participation in politics are rather scarce, but a few somewhat contradictory results should be mentioned. A study of voter turnout in 1992 shows that all over Thailand, eligible rural citizens vote to a greater extent than do people residing in the capital, and the same pattern seems to exist today. Women and men vote to almost the same extent (59.5 percent of eligible women turned out to vote, compared with 59.0 percent of eligible men) apart from in Bangkok, where slightly more men vote (43.4 percent of eligible men compared with 41.8 percent of eligible women). About 300,000 more women than men turned up to actually vote, constituting 50.8 percent of all voters. An exit poll in the same election concluded that women were more knowledgeable in politics than men, based on the fact that women could better than men predict which female candidates representing which political party would be elected (Thomson 1995 , 8-9). Whether this, in fact, represents general political knowledge or knowledge of female politicians seems questionable. Most other research findings, summarized by Tongchai and Tamronglak, tend to come to the opposite conclusion. Thai women in general seem to be less interested in politics and less knowledgeable about politics than Thai men. Men are also more likely to be members of a political party than are women. In addition, one study has suggested that women tend to make their political choices at a later stage than men, and that personality, rather than political conviction, plays a greater part in determining for whom they will vote (Tongchai and Tamronglak 2008 , 217-218). By the same logic, however, it can be questioned whether this really reflects less political interest among Thai women or the mere fact that Thai politics are male dominated and women feel excluded from that sphere. Tongchai and Tamlongrak also construct a political participation index containing a variety of forms of political participation, such as political discussions, attendance at a political campaign, participation in demonstrations, party membership, and voter turnout. Not surprisingly, they find that participation among Thai middle-class women increases with age, higher education levels, and frequent exposure to news. Salary, marital status, and association membership did not have an impact on the political participation of these women (Tongchai and Tamronglak 2008 , 220-227).

Limits to Women’s Political Participation and Representation

Different factors are limiting women’s political participation at different levels. This section will briefly outline how the military influence in Thailand shapes the central political sphere where traditional politics and clientelist practices have a gendered impact on who becomes a constituency candidate or a local politician. Because of the clientelist networks, there are also linkages between the local and the national level.

Before the 2006 military coup in Thailand, there was an ongoing discussion about the role of the military in Thailand. Whereas the frequent coups d’etat of the 1970s and 1980s seemed but a memory, the military structures were slow to reform themselves and still exerted a strong influence, at least informally, in some areas (Samudavanija 1997 , 57, McCargo 2005 , 121-165). To some observers that meant that even though political military intervention seemed unlikely at the time, it was still imperative for any national politician to have good connections within the military and to make strategic appointments. In short, connections with the military were a prerequisite for power at the central, national level (McCargo 2005 , 147). Since it was only during the 1990s that women were accepted as cadets to the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (GDRI 1996, 15), they have not had access to this common path to power, nor have they become part of the crucially important networks formed during the years at the academy. The greeting on the Web page of the academy states: “Not only are Army commissioned officers produced at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, many leaders of the country are also born here” (Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy n.d.). This is certainly true, as many of Thailand’s past prime ministers are Chulachomklao alumni, including Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram, prime minister and military dictator of Thailand from 1938 to 1944 and 1948 to 1957; General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was prime minister from 1980 to 1988 and later became president of the Privy Council; and the more recent General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who graduated in 1969 and led the military coup in 2006.

Just as politicians had to cultivate good relationships with the military, officers within the army have also had to build careful alliances with powerful politicians to preserve their influence. As the military’s role has gradually become more complex, it has been more important for its officers to become part of patron-client networks and to thereby solidify their power both locally and nationally (Samudavanija 1997 , 54-57). Thus, even away from the high-level, military-influenced politics of Bangkok, the difficulties for women to participate locally also persist.

The United Nations (UN) Report Women’s Right to a Political Voice in Thailand outlines many commonly mentioned limitations, such as general social attitudes, the attitudes of political parties, and practical difficulties. General social attitudes, it says, are still that men make better leaders than women. Because of this, potential women politicians are held back by their families and are affected by such attitudes (UNDP 2006b, 27-28). No active measures have been taken to change the election law or the nomination process in favor of women, as has been the case in countries that have passed laws establishing candidate quotas. Voluntary party quotas, also common in political parties around the world (Dahlerup 2006 , 3-4, 21), have not been employed in Thai political parties thus far, although the Democrat party did, for a while, set a target (never reached) of 30 percent female candidates. In addition, the report states that women are bound by household responsibilities, and they do not have access to the same important networks as men (UNDP 2006b, 28).

These difficulties are known by women politicians in many countries of the world. In the literature, the networks supporting political candidacy have, perhaps, received less attention than they merit. In Thailand, as in many other countries, access to and control over such networks are crucial for political participation. If traditional structures and practices determine who has access to and control over these networks, and if these traditional structures and practices are, in turn, male dominated, they constitute an important piece for understanding the full picture of the gendered political jigsaw puzzle.

Political networks are, indeed, important in Thailand; as important, many would argue, as are the political parties. Political parties are often built up around factions that, in turn, are centered on different individuals. As organizations, these parties are rather far from mass membership nor can they boast active and participating party branches (McCargo 1997 , 130-131; Ockey 2004 , 22-24). Whether you are a male or a female politician, voters will still expect direct help in the form of more or less clientelistic transactions. Being a successful patron is in many ways equal to being a successful politician (Ockey 2004, 6-9). It is thus very difficult to escape the clientelist logic in Thai rural politics. The key lies in being able to build, maintain, and use these networks efficiently, and it is here that the gendered aspects of clientelism comes in.

The clientelistic networks of politicians and canvassers, called hua khanaen networks, often build on connections between national-level politicians and local-level politicians (Ockey 2004 , 27-33). As already shown, local-level politics in Thailand are still very male dominated and, as a consequence, so are these networks. The networks can be likened to static hierarchies: informal patriarchal organizations in which succession is controlled by the older politicians, rather than by formal rules and regulations (Kvande and Rasmussen 1994 , 171-172). As one prominent member of one of the leading party said:

The leader of a political party tried hard to recruit women. But how do you do it if they do not drink cognac and play golf?

Women can be patrons and godmothers as well as political candidates—it is far from impossible, as Ockey’s account of a number of successful Thai women leaders shows (Ockey 2004 , 59-80). But this does not necessarily mean the constituency where they work is not corrupt. Instead, it implies that the woman has, somehow, found an inroad to the clientelist network. This inroad is most often constituted by close contacts to powerful men but sometimes by the maintenance of a separate clientelist network.

The implications for gender justice are that clientelist politics are not just a democratic problem, but also a system that works to preserve the status quo to the disadvantage of women. In this sense, democratization does not necessarily produce a more just political sphere. In addition, one needs to turn one’s gaze to the logic according to which politics operate and to how political practices are gendered. Clientelism has clearly gendered aspects that serve to maintain male power and impede the achievement of gender justice.

The male dominance in Thai politics is more evident than in other spheres of Thai society, and it seems to remain firm whether the country is ruled democratically or not. This seeming gender paradox (this term has been borrowed from the work of Erwér 2003 ) has been outlined by many observers studying women in Thai politics (for a recent example, see Iwanaga 2008b ).

Economic Participation: Country-Specific Data

Women in Thailand participate in the labor market to a large extent. The rate of female economic activity is 65 percent versus 81 percent for Thai men. When disaggregated on different sectors, the proportion of women and men is also fairly equal in industry, agriculture, and service (ILO 2006).

Women’s share of professional positions is also high, at 53 percent. The ratio of estimated female-to-male earned income, however, is only 0.59 (UNDP 2006a). Women are highly visible in the economic sector in Thailand and have been throughout history. The importance of women’s economic roles can be traced back several hundred years. As mentioned earlier, men and women have shared agricultural work, and sometimes women have even taken the main responsibility for the family farm and the economic activity surrounding it, as men were required to do military service or to work for the royal court. In this way, men sought status through activity in politics. Economic roles, on the other hand, traditionally represented worldly attachment and as such posed a threat to men in their accumulation of merits (Siengthai and Leelakulthanit 1993 , 89; Phananiramai 1996 , 275). With the emergence of contemporary public administration and private enterprises, however, modern business management was established, requiring employees with literacy and education. Men, who had education from the monasteries, were able to make the occupational shift. Women, who had not received a monastic education, were left in small businesses, whereas men entered modern business organizations and built up wealth and networks (Siengthai and Leelakulthanit 1993 , 89).

Even though men certainly became active in the economic sphere with modernization, there is still no social stigma for women working outside the home, as can be detected in other countries in the region. For instance, the Thai female labor force participation does not drop below 60 percent at any household income level, whereas the Indian women’s participation in the labor force never exceeds 60 percent (Mammen and Paxson 2000 , 151-158).

Most management positions are still held by men, however. Yet some observers have noted visible improvements in this regard. One report shows that the number of women-led enterprises not connected to the family has risen significantly in the last four or five decades (Chonchanok and Vejjajiva 2004 ). A sample of selected industries in Thailand shows that 19 percent of top managers are women, although there are few women chief executive officers or presidents, and many companies have no women on their board of directors. In this sample, women constitute 30-45 percent of board members in the entertainment and financial sector. The report concludes that women reach executive positions when they are related to finance, perhaps because historically women have managed the money in Thai households. Women also stand a better chance of becoming executives in small or international companies, probably because they have a different corporate culture (Chonchanok and Vejjajiva 2004 , 75-82).

Limits to Women’s Economic Participation

Economic growth has been one of the greatest driving factors behind the political ups and downs in Thailand. Growth, however, has been uneven and unbalanced, further widening the gap between the urban rich and the rural poor (Bunbongkarn 1999 , 174). The economic sector has undergone far-reaching changes during the past decades, bringing with it new demographic situations, new possibilities, and new problems. Female employment has gradually shifted from agriculture to manufacturing and services, and from own account work to formal employment. This shift has affected women to a greater extent than men because of rapid growth in sectors with a high demand for women (Phananiramai 1996 , 277, 282). With industrialization, migration from rural to urban areas has increased significantly. There is a visible increase in the number of young, unmarried women migrating from rural villages such as Isan (in the northeastern part of Thailand) to Bangkok. These women are motivated by the rising demand for young women in the workforce. Young unmarried women are considered easily controlled and inexpensive, and as they have no immediate family to support, they will work in insecure positions and will often work for long hours below minimum wage; they do not have access to labor unions (Mills 1997 , 37-38, 45).

The insecure working situation of many young women was made obvious during the economic crisis when many women were laid off. It is, however, not a good idea to measure unemployment rates in such a situation. As Phongpaichit and Baker stress, when no formal welfare is available, it is simply not an option not to earn an income of some sort. Rather than being unemployed, people are likely to go into small businesses, take low-paid work, or work as unpaid family labor (Phongpaichit and Baker 2000 , 82-86, 248), thus moving back to the situation they were in before industrialization.

Many general problems persist, similar to those of other countries, such as limited job opportunities, a lack of job security, work discrimination, fewer chances for promotion, and family disharmony. Family responsibilities are not shared equally by men, something that is often not even questioned by women. As mentioned, employers prefer to hire unmarried women, and they also lay off women first, often defending this with the claim that men are breadwinners and thus more in need of an income. The double burden of employment and housework that women have also means less of a chance to move up the career ladder. Thai female managers are generally well respected and successful—but few. In 1993, only 4 percent of employed women held managerial positions, compared with 13 percent of employed men (Siengthai and Leelakulthanit 1993 , 93-94). Men have access to all the traditionally male networks, whereas women need to rely on formal merits. The growing importance of education as a status symbol is perhaps improving women’s abilities to compete on a more equal basis, especially considering the closing gender gap in the education system in Thailand (Siengthai and Leelakulthanit 1993 , 98). The gross enrollment rate is somewhat higher for boys than for girls in primary school. However, girls enroll to a greater extent in secondary and tertiary education than do boys. This shift came about during the 1980s and 1990s (World Bank 2006 ). Education has proved to be more important to women than to men, because, as already mentioned, there are many alternative routes to managerial positions for men. One survey reported that women have less career advancement opportunities than men and receive less social recognition than men (Siengthai and Leelakulthanit 1993 , 95-98).

Impact of Transnational Feminism

UN movements and foreign donors have had some impact on the Thai women’s movement, but this reliance on outside help has also brought a certain vulnerability. Pandey (2003 ) claims that the Thai women’s movement was a latecomer at the global stage compared with the West and to some of Thailand’s neighbors in Southeast Asia. In many other countries, women’s struggles started alongside struggles for national independence. As Thailand has never been colonized, striving against colonial rule has never been a motivator for women’s movements. The lack of an independence movement also meant that an intellectual education boom was never undertaken. Some would argue that movements still partly suffer from this, being very pragmatic rather than critical and analytical (Pandey 2003 , 14-16).

After World War II, many women’s organizations were led by wives of or women related to military personnel or government officers. These groups were elite-oriented and saw women’s primary tasks as preserving national culture and family values (Tantiwiramanond and Pandey 1996b , 9-10). With modernization and women’s movement into the formal labor force, however, the call for organization among lower-class women became more frequent. Starting from the 1970s, many women’s organizations were created as a response to the increasing impact of international donor agencies in the region and to the increasing importance of the UN. With the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985), activists found a framework in which they could work. At this time, many young activists also returned home from studies in Europe and began to work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Thailand, thus influencing them with foreign feminist ideas. In 1980, the Thai women’s movement became involved in a regional protest against sex tourism, the offshoot of which became the first real women’s NGO, Friends of Women (Pandey 2003 , 10-12). These women’s NGOs were concerned with such issues as domestic violence, rape, and trafficking. Since this time, women’s NGOs have demonstrated each March 8, on International Women’s Day (Tantiwiramanond and Pandey 1996b , 10). These organizations also sided with the student movement against the military. Although the student movement was leftist-inspired, the women’s movement got its inspiration from Western feminism. The entire movement, however, was mainly confined to intellectuals in Bangkok and did not reach out to larger groups of people (Pandey 2003 , 10).

However, during the UN Decade for Women, civil society was strengthened as part of the preparation for the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. International donors also moved in at this point, partly as a preparation for Beijing, but also because they could see that most organizations had changed from being the charitable organizations they were in the beginning of the movement to working for structural and political changes (Doneys 2002 , 170-171). Women’s organizations started to reach out to grassroots women more than before, in order to train them to participate directly or indirectly in the Beijing conference, where grassroots women from all over the world came together (Vichitranonda and Bhongsavej 2008). In 1985, Thailand signed the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), initially with quite a few reservations. In the 1990s, however, these reservations were removed. Subsequently, women became eligible for all government posts, could enter the military academies and other formerly all-male educational institutions, and equal property laws were established for women and men (GDRI 1996, 15).

After the Beijing conference, however, there was a decline in the activism of women in Thai civil society. Funds had run out, and donors left Thailand considering it developed. At the same time, new kinds of problems emerged that were connected to the new economy, such as human trafficking and mass layoffs of factory workers, where women were especially vulnerable (Pandey 2003 , 13). The upswing before the Beijing conference did, however, bring about some lasting good consequences for the women’s movement. It made organizations cooperate with each other and link themselves to transnational umbrella organizations, such as the Centre for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics, which provided them with resources such as information and networks. Such resources were needed to strengthen the women’s movement and make it more autonomous from domestic pressures (Doneys 2002 , 170-171).

The Nature of Civil Society: Women’s Mobilization and Civil Society

It has been difficult for Thai civil society to solidify and become a consolidated channel for influencing the state, because of the frequent regime changes and the political instability in Thailand. Nevertheless, there are active grassroots movements working with particular issues that are transformed into policy demands by NGOs. Joint actions by grassroots movements and NGOs have sometimes led to state action, but they are not yet legitimate enough to serve as a natural channel through which people’s wishes are incorporated into state policy. Grassroots movements and NGOs also tend to focus on particular cases of victimization, rather than on building bridges and changing the discourse in broader segments of society (Banpasirichote 2004 , 238-239).

Although extra-bureaucratic groups such as the student movement and the business sector have gained some political influence, Thailand continues to be ruled by small groups of elites and by a centralized administration system. According to Banpasirichote (2004 ), the political culture in Thailand is rigid and paternalistic, thus limiting the potential impact of civil society. Because of the persistence of patron-client relationships in almost all areas of Thai society, direct political participation is commonly viewed with distrust (Banpasirichote 2004 , 242-244). Although civil society has to some degree managed to build vertical linkages to decision makers, it has not managed to establish broad-based public support (Banpasirichote 2004 , 250).

The women’s movement, being a part of civil society, functions in much the same way. A brief description follows of how women’s organizations, despite these general problems, managed to make a concerted, coordinated, and in many ways successful effort to influence the drafting process of the 1997 Constitution.

Women’s organizations pushed for the 1997 Constitution to include gender equality. As the political space opened up, a participatory drafting process of a new constitution was started. Several NGOs were active in the drafting process and women’s NGOs decided to join forces and work together under an umbrella organization made up by 53 different organizations, called the Women and Constitution Network (Doneys 2002 , 173). Doneys also discusses the impact of the women’s organizations in the drafting process and remarks on the seeming paradox of the low representation of women in the drafting committee and the success with which the women’s movement argued for some of their demands (Doneys 2002 , 164). With its network including grassroots organizations as well as research institutes, they had many channels by which they could work. Most of these channels were used in the Women and Constitution Network. The network directly lobbied drafting members, gave out information material like handbooks and brochures, and used the research conducted within some of these organizations to effectively argue for the need for legal changes and improved implementation and accountability. The network also engaged the public by organizing hearings and seminars, giving out information material, and holding press conferences.

Among other things, the network succeeded in introducing Article 39, claiming that men and women have equal rights, and Article 80, specifying that equality between women and men should be promoted by the state (Doneys 2002 , 174-175). The case of the Women’s Constitution Network should not as yet be seen as a typical case of women’s movement activism in Thailand. Rather, it is to be considered a best practice example, illustrating the potential strength of a unified and coordinated women’s movement. This successful network and its actions suggest that the women’s movement in Thailand has an enormous potential to achieve political change.