By Megan Cossey
Sunday, December 4, 2005
A landmark U.N. study of domestic violence--launched at the start of the current 16-day campaign--is giving hope to activists in Thailand. They say the grim statistics could help them fight a bill pending in Parliament.
BANGKOK, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)--Thailand's Bangkok-based Foundation for Women is planning to enlist a new World Health Organization report in its effort to block a proposed bill on domestic violence from becoming law.
The WHO report--the first major study on violence against women conducted by the United Nations' public health arm--provides data that a startling number of women have suffered physical or sexual abuse from their intimate partners and describes the long-term public health consequences.
The study canvassed 24,000 women from randomly selected households in 10 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America and found, across the board, that women from Japan to Namibia are at the greatest risk of encountering violence in their own homes, at the hands of their husbands and male partners.
"While the home should be a safe place, women are more at risk at home than on the streets," said the report's author, Dr. Henrica Jansen.
Jansen's team chose the 10 countries for the report because they already have active, established women's groups to which interviewers could refer subjects if they reported abuse. The countries also all had governments that are unusually open to reform.
"WHO is now taking the issue of violence against women very seriously," said Dr. William L. Aldis, the organization's representative from Thailand. He called violence against women "an endemic problem" and a public health problem in every society in the world.
In Thailand, 41 percent of women in Bangkok and 47 percent in its rural areas have experienced either physical or sexual abuse by an intimate partner. Of those women, two-thirds said their children witnessed the abuse and half of them considered suicide, according to the WHO study, made public in the U.S. Thanksgiving Day.
The study's release came one day before the kick-off of the U.N.'s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an international campaign used as a springboard for various activities across the world. The campaign began Nov. 25 with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and concludes on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day.
In most of the countries polled by the WHO study, two interview sites were set up, one urban and the other rural. Within each country women generally fared better in urban areas but results varied widely among countries. While 13 percent of women in Japan have ever suffered physical violence from a male partner, for instance, that figure leaped to 61 percent in rural Peru.
Ethiopia topped the list of countries where women complained of domestic sexual abuse. There, 59 percent of women reported that they were forced into unwanted sexual acts by their husbands or partners out of fear or force. In Japan and Serbia and Montenegro that number dropped to 6 percent. Almost a third of Ethiopian women reported being raped within the past 12 months.
In Thailand, Usa Leardsrisuntad, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Foundation for Women, hopes that the grim numbers in the report will persuade policy makers and university academics--perhaps her most important allies, she says--to rethink the implications of a bill that codifies domestic violence as a crime but assigns a relatively light, six-month sentence.
Under the country's criminal law, physical abuse against a relation or stranger that does not result in serious injury would normally be punishable by up to two years.
The bill, which has been approved by Thailand's cabinet, could go before Parliament for a vote at any time in the future. It also emphasizes conserving "the good relationship of a family" over a woman's health and makes no provision for social services, Leardsrisuntad said.
Under the bill, Thai women can call for a protection order against their spouses, but they are expected to stay in the family home instead of being given the option of an emergency shelter.
Leardsrisuntad heads to New York this winter to make her organization's case before the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In January, the Thai government will attend a special session before the United Nations to report on its progress in eliminating discrimination since it signed on to the convention. In addition to the country's official report, the U.N. will permit Leardsrisuntad and her group to give its own assessment.
Leardsrisuntad said the study is the first for Thailand and a crucial one.
Awareness of the issue is still growing in Thailand, which had no emergency shelters for battered women until the foundation opened its first in 1985. At the time, the foundation faced widespread criticism, even from many of its nongovernmental partners, who considered shelters a Western idea that did not belong in the culture of Thailand where the importance of family cohesion and resolution is emphasized, Leardsrisuntad said. Today Thailand has shelters in nine of its provinces, although most are centered in Bangkok, according to the WHO report.
"The National Office of Statistics never thinks of this issue," Leardsrisuntad told Women's eNews with a bitter smile. "They will think of people with car accidents or violence in public spaces but not at home."
Domestic violence around the world should be seen in the context of public health, WHO's Jansen argued, because the high incidence of domestic sex assault is particularly alarming amid the world's raging AIDS epidemic.
Also, violence by intimate partners radically increases the likelihood that women will attempt suicide. Abused women are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and, on average, four times more likely to attempt suicide.
"This report . . . provides clear evidence that shows how this 'minor' social problem is in reality a major public health crisis," Jansen said.
Before the study, the only reliable data on violence against women came from research conducted in the United States, Canada and in Europe.
"We have reason to hope that the findings are credible and will be used," Thailand's Aldis added.
Megan Cossey is a journalist living in Bangkok, Thailand.
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