On December 4th, UN Women hosted an event to allow survivors of sexual and domestic violence to tell their stories to the public. E.Quality Talks – My Story of Ending Violence Against Women put these survivors at centre stage, giving them a platform to speak in front of a group of eager spectators at the Alliance Francaise in Bangkok.
E.Quality Talks – My Story of Ending Violence Against Women
Here are the women who spoke on the night and some snippets of the stories they told.
Cindy Sirinya Bishop – #Don’tTellMeHowtoDress
Opening the event was Cindy Sirinya Bishop, an actress and model who recently became a social activist. This string was unexpectedly added to her bow when she was angered by the Thai government’s advice for women to not “dress sexy” in order to avoid sexual assault.
This warning touched a nerve with Cindy. At the age of 17, she had been assaulted by a group of men during Songkran party on Khao San Road. “To this day, I’ve never joined another Songkran water fight”, she said. She posted a passionate rebuttal video to Instagram with the hashtag #Don’tTellMeHowtoDress and thought little more of it, but when the video immediately went viral, she knew she had to take it further.
#Don’tTellMeHowtoDress has since turned into an international campaign, currently touring in the form of a social power exhibition which displays the outfits that survivors were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. What started as a spur-of-the-moment social media post has now become a life mission for her, and #Don’tTellMeHowtoDress is now her main focus.
Busayapa Srisompong – SHero Project
After Cindy, Busayapa Srisompong took the stage to speak about her experience in an abusive relationship.
“The first time he hit me, I forgave him”, she explained. When the abuse continued, she found the courage to report it to the police. However, the response she received wasn’t what she’d hoped. Instead of making a report, they responded with “you look fine, why are you here?” and “you might get back together, so why are you wasting our time?” As with many such cases in Thailand, the only response was to blame the victim. “They asked me why I let him hit me”, she said.
Busayapa stressed that she wanted to make a report not to punish her abuser, but to show that what she’d suffered wasn’t her fault. She won her case, but that wasn’t the end of her story. Later, she went on to become a lawyer, and she now provides pro-bono services for victims of domestic violence in marginalised communities.
Wipaphan ‘Nana’ Wongsawang – ThaiConsent
Next to speak was Wipaphan ‘Nana’ Wongsawang, founder of ThaiConsent. Nana began with a harrowing story of how she’d been sexually assaulted at a party by someone she considered to be a friend. When he attempted to rape her, her body went into survival mode and her reaction was to “play dead”. “When he was finished, he slept next to me”, she said. With no idea of how to handle the situation, Nana continued her friendship with him and waited for him to raise the subject. She didn’t know that this was rape because she had never seen a scenario like this on TV or heard another story like hers. That was until a university friend of hers had a similar experience. That young woman reported her assault to her university, but officials refused to act, stating that it was not their responsibility because the assault had taken place outside the university campus. She took it to the police, but at the end of it all, her abuser was let go with a fine of just 500b.
“You can see the pattern here”, Nana said. “Even after a woman fights against her own silence, she then needs to fight against the whole world”.
These experiences gave Nana the inspiration to launch ThaiConsent, a website educating Thai people on the meaning of consensual sex. Along with it, she created 2CentsforConsent, a Facebook page that combines her project with her skills as a professional illustrator. There, people submit their anonymous true stories about consent, or lack thereof. Nana and a team of volunteer artists create original pieces to post along with each story. The project grew quickly, amassing 40,000 followers in just 4 months.
The goal of Nana’s artwork is to change the narrative around stories of sexual assault. Instead of portraying survivors as victims or subjects of clinical news stories, she wants to let them know that their feelings are understood and shared by others. Unlike the cruel reality of the news and social media, Nana wants to make sure that her art doesn’t cause any further pain or trauma to the people who share their stories with her.
The courage shown by storytellers, coupled with the support of new followers, inspired Nana to finally come forward with her own story. After 6 months of working on ThaiConsent, she’d built up the confidence to confront her abuser and ask him if he remembered what he’d done to her. He expressed guilt and apologised to her, but it was too little too late. By this time, it had already been 5 years since the night he abused her.
Nana knew that breaking her silence wouldn’t come without backlash, and she’s has had her fair share of critics. She often hears things like “women’s issues are minor in comparison to democracy”, a sentiment she says is common among men’s rights activists in Thailand. As a young politician herself and a founding member of the Future Forward Party, she laughs at responses like this one. “There is no such thing as a minor topic”, she explains. She is confident in the knowledge that her activism is laying the foundation for something much bigger. “The first brick has been laid and others will follow”, she said.
Thararat ‘Nun’ Panya
Next to take the stage was Thararat ‘Nun’ Panya, a young law student who was the subject of news coverage and controversy when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Thammasat University in 2017. She called this a “turning point”, both in her studies and in her life as a whole.
After a night of drinking, Nun was sleeping in a room with other students, both male and female. She woke to find one of the male students, someone who she considered a close friend, sexually assaulting her. She reported the assault to the university and after an investigation, he was suspended for one semester.
Nun’s report became the subject of criticism, with rape apologists telling her that she was to blame for getting drunk with male friends. Instead of discouraging her, this criticism convinced her that she had to make her story known. She publicly posted what had happened on social media, making no attempt to hide her identity. “I wanted to set an example”, she said. “In Thailand, many women don’t believe that they have the same rights as men, and I don’t want to be part of that misconception in Thai society”.
Watcharapon ‘Sia’ Kukaewkasem – Freedom Restoration Project
Last to speak was Watcharapon ‘Sia’ Kukaewkasem, a migrant women’s rights advocate and social worker.
When Sia’s parents immigrated from Myanmar, their lack of citizenship meant that they couldn’t register her birth. She described her childhood as being underlined by the idea that men had “the ultimate authority” in the home. That idea was enforced by frequent violence at the hands of her father.
Sia witnessed her father beat her mother countless times, and at the age of just 7, she was whisked away in an attempt to escape. They almost made it, but when her father caught up with them, onlookers stood and watched as they were dragged back home and beaten. “Why was it acceptable for my dad to hurt my family?” she asked. “Why is it that when a man hits someone who isn’t a family member, the community gets involved, but if he hits his wife, she is deemed to be unfaithful or bringing shame to her family?”
Her mother sought help several times, but was always told to go back to her abusive husband. This advice was echoed even by her own mother, who urged her to stay for the sake of her children. “When they grow up, he’ll stop beating you”, she was told. He didn’t.
Unable to speak or read Thai, she was trapped. “Why does out culture and community place the burden on women’s shoulders?” Sia asked. Now, she refuses to let domestic violence have a place in her community. She works along the Thai-Myanmar border, providing social services and counseling to migrant women like herself, who are survivors of domestic violence.
E.Quality Talks was part of UN Women’s annual 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. This year, the theme of the campaign was #HearMeToo. These days, Thailand’s rape culture is being talked about more than ever, and more and more women are making themselves heard. However, many of their words are falling on deaf ears. There was a grim reminder of that fact earlier this week, after police failed to act accordingly when a 12-year-old girl reported being gang-raped by 5 teenage boys. One government officer even referred to her as “kind of a slut”, urging her to drop her case. If it wasn’t for protests by the girl’s father, her case would have been buried along with countless others like it.
The only man to speak at E.Quality Talks was Jaded Chouwilay, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation. Unlike many other NGOs, Jaded’s foundation doesn’t simply campaign for new laws. In his words, “legislation isn’t meaningful if society doesn’t have the power to speak up”. He highlighted the fact the women who shared their stories that night were the ones creating real change for Thai society. “The real feminists aren’t the NGOs, but the ones who speak out”, he said.