Alleged sexual assault on schoolgirls in Thailand prompts national reckoning on patriarchy

Incessant rapes and sexual assaults on schoolgirls have shocked Thailand leading to social media unrest and intensified calls for severe “capital” punishment for sex offenders in the country.
In May, a grandmother reported to the police that her 14-year-old granddaughter had been raped over the course of more than a year. The attacks, according to the child, happened several times at her school in northeastern Thailand, where she was reportedly abused by five teachers and two male alumni.
Besides the assaults, the men were also accused of filming the acts and using the video clips to threaten the child, who had kept it a secret since March last year.
Shortly after her story made headlines, another student from the same school reported that she too was raped by some of the suspects. She is 16 and currently acting as a witness in the case involving the 14-year-old.
Their cases have engulfed the entire nation in disgust and shock with many calling for chemical castration, capital punishment and life without parole for sex offenders.
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed maximum punishment if the allegations are proven to be true.
“Regarding the case involving teachers and students, it proceeds according to the law. Maximum punishment as stipulated by the law will be given if the offence was committed and there is clear evidence, given that educational personnel are involved,” he said in a press conference on May 12.
“They have to be role models for society and youths. If they had behaved as alleged, that’d be unacceptable and seriously damaging,” he added.
According to data from the Royal Thai Police, 1,965 rape complaints were filed nationwide between January 1 and December 31, 2019, leading to the arrest of 1,893 people.
In the same year, the Pavena Foundation for Children and Women alone recorded 786 cases of rape and indecent assaults. Since 1999, it has assisted more than 9,000 victims of sexual attacks and according to its records, these cases have been on the rise.
“Since the start of this year until May 5, we’ve already received 293 complaints about rape and indecent assaults. These are victims who approached our foundation alone, not to mention others who filed complaints to the police,” the foundation’s chairwoman Pavena Hongsakul said.
She added: “Many victims are children aged below 10 and the attacks took place at home or at school. Last year, our youngest victim was three years old. One of the abusers was a school-bus driver, who assaulted her in the vehicle. The other is her nanny’s husband.”
Based on the foundation’s data, rape can happen to victims of any age and gender.
Elderly people have also been sexually assaulted in Thailand. The oldest person to have sought help from the Pavena foundation was 90 years old. Her perpetrator was a 14-year-old male neighbour.
“Age and gender doesn’t really matter when it comes to rape,” Pavena said adding, “It’s more about opportunity.”
In Thailand, convicted sexual offenders face serious punishment. They could be sentenced to death or life in prison.
If the offence is committed against a child aged 15 or younger who is not the offender’s wife or husband – with or without their consent – the offender could face up to 20 years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht to 400,000 baht (US$3,140 to US$12,600).
The criminal code also stipulates the sentence can increase by one-third if the assault was recorded on video for exploitation, or by half if the clip was forwarded to others.
According to prominent sexual rights advocate Jaded Chouwilai, more people will become victims as long as society is still dominated by men.
Jaded said the root cause of rape in Thailand is the traditionally superior power men exert on women and children. “Although there have been instances of sexual assaults on men, the majority of the victims are female”, he noted.
“This is because Thai society is patriarchal, where men enjoy more leadership roles. Moreover, when they grew up, men were often taught not to control their sexual urge but to visit entertainment venues or sleep with their girlfriends if they have one,” said Jaded, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation.
According to Jaded, these social values have been ingrained in Thai society – a belief that men are superior and women are sexual objects they can do anything to.
Besides the sociocultural elements, a lack of specific law on sexual harassment could be another reason for the problem in Thai society.
According to Police Colonel Paweena Ekkachat who has spent years investigating such cases, more legal clarity and specific punishment for sexual harassment could help reduce the number of rape cases.
“Sexual harassment is not a criminal offence here. So, offenders will only be fined for causing annoyance,” said Pol Col Paweena, a superintendent for investigations at the Metropolitan Police Division 8.
She added: “Thailand has no law to criminalize, for instance, verbal harassment of a sexual nature or stalking. If it existed, I believe it’d help decrease rape cases as it’d send a warning to potential offenders.”