This week’s shocking murder of a newborn girl by her father because he wanted a boy highlighted the plight of women in many of Thailand’s hilltribe communities, where female children traditionally are far less valued than male offspring.
Social workers and rights activists say girls and women long have been seen as inferior to men and are often treated accordingly, whether the communities are Buddhist or Catholic, where some of the diehard, age-old prejudices toward women remain prevalent.
“My parents love me, but I know they would have been happier with a son, especially my father,” said “Supansa”, a 25-year-old Catholic woman who belongs to the Karen tribe – whose members are predominantly Christian – and lives in a remote hillside village in Chiang Mai.
“In my village, women are (viewed as) less able to work hard than men and so if they get sick or unable to do much work they are (considered to be) a burden on their families,” said Supansa, who now lives and works in Chiang Mai City.
Although female infanticide is rare now among hilltribe people, girls and women frequently are mistreated by other tribespeople and have fewer rights than men, according to tribal customs.
Whereas a man can divorce his wife without serious consequences for his social standing, a woman who decides to leave her husband is routinely ostracized, even when her husband is known to have been abusive toward her.
“In (local) culture, (many women) believe that if they’re married to a man, they belong to the man and he has the right to do anything to them,” said Anurak Chaiyaphuek, a nun and director of the Wildflower Home Foundation, a Catholic charity in Chiang Mai that caters to marginalized single women and their children.
“It’s not easy to change those beliefs. We teach them that the men have no right over the women. We teach them to rise up, to fight back, and to protect themselves,” the nun recently told an online publication dedicated to women’s rights.
Yet hilltribe women have their work cut out for them if they want to fight back. Domestic abuse and violence remain widespread in many hilltribe villages and victims often have little recourse within their communities, according to the United Nations.
“My parents love me, but I know they would have been happier with a son, especially my father…”
Hilltribe women, especially those in particularly marginalized communities, also are at considerable risk of being trafficked into Thailand’s thriving sex industry, the U.N. said. Many of the girls from hilltribes who are lured or coerced into working in the sex trade are underage.
Several Catholic charities working in northern Thailand are providing support to hilltribe women, from running shelters for abused women to organizing income-generation workshops for disadvantaged villagers.
One such initiative, spearheaded by Catholic nuns, is working to save marginalized teenage girls and young women from being trafficked online by unscrupulous people who seek to lure them into the sex trade under the pretext of offering them well-paying jobs.
Such projects are having positive impacts in many remote villages, but plenty of hilltribe women still have a long way to go within their communities.
“I think women’s situation in my village is better than before,” says Supansa, who sends most of her earnings as a caregiver back home to her parents. “But it’s still not easy to be a woman sometimes.”