กล้าเล่า (Speaking Out TH) is a Facebook page that shares stories of sexual assault and harassment in Thailand. The founder, Jomtian Jansomrag, is an activist who has been speaking out about her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. She and I first met when we were both invited to speak at UN Women’s HeForShe University Tour to speak about our personal experiences of sexual violence. Through that, we bonded, and we’ve been firm friends ever since.
Jomtian created the first Thai-language support group on Facebook for victims of gender-based violence, สมาคมลับ survivors (Survivors Talk Thailand). As well as providing community and online counselling there, she also arranges meet-ups for members to meet, talk and enjoy therapeutic activities together.
Their first meet-up was a discussion group on sexual assault laws in Thailand, co-hosted by Thararat Panya, a law graduate from Thammasat University who led a public campaign after being sexually assaulted by a fellow student. Her efforts directly influenced the university’s move to become the first in Thailand to set up a Committee on Ending Sexual Harassment on Campus. The group’s second meet-up was an art therapy session co-hosted by Busayapa Srisompong, a lawyer, domestic violence survivor and activist who founded SHero to provide pro-bono legal aid for others affected by gender-based violence. For their third, Jomtian asked me if I could provide a Muay Thai workshop. After hearing me talk about how much strength and confidence the sport has given me, she hoped we could extend those benefits to her group. I loved the idea, and was more than happy to oblige.
One of the wonderful things about my job at Decathlon Thailand is that I have the freedom to facilitate events like this one. I arranged for the venue (F.A Group Fitness Muay Thai Gym), the trainers and the equipment all the be sponsored by Decathlon’s Muay Thai brand Waikru, so the group could enjoy the class free of charge. It was important to Jom and I to make it as accessible as possible, and we knew that some people wouldn’t be able to afford the usual training fee of 400-500 baht. We wanted every member to have a chance to enjoy the experience of Muay Thai training with us, and since Decathlon’s motto is ‘to make the pleasure and benefits of sport available to all’, this was the ideal partnership to make that happen.
I invited a female trainer, Kru Wan, to lead the session, while the male trainers from FA Group provided support and extra padwork. Wan taught a Women’s Muay Thai Workshop that I held for Bangkok Rising in 2019, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to invite her back again, especially since all of the participants for this class were women, too. She has a great energy about her, is patient and attentive, and brings everyone together. I knew that she would provide the warm, welcoming environment that would be key for this kind of class.
It’s important to note that the aim of this session was not to provide self defense training. While martial arts training is often marketed in this way, it’s something I find problematic and counter-productive to the important work of combatting rape culture (read my post on Why Self Defense Classes Don’t Prevent Sexual Assault for more of my thoughts on this). The real value of this kind of training for those who’ve experienced trauma is as a tool for healing. The Fight Back Project, founded by Muay Thai fighter Georgia Verry, is a ‘trauma-informed kickboxing program‘ specifically for this purpose. Georgia talks about the program, which she developed with the help of psychologists, on The Fight Back Podcast. Her latest episode focuses on how sexual assault and domestic violence leads some women to start martial arts. Through this, I also discovered Shape Your Life, a free trauma-informed non-contact boxing program in Canada for women who have experienced violence. It was refreshing for me to finally see martial arts marketed to women as a healing tool rather than a preventative measure, and I drew inspiration from these two programs for our Muay Thai for Survivors Class, which, to my knowledge, was to be the first of its kind in Thailand.
The last thing I wanted was for participants to have to think about their abuse, let alone ask themselves how they may or may not have been able to prevent it, in this session. As survivors, we have enough of those thoughts already, and I wanted this to be an escape from them. This was not a space to encourage participants to protect themselves. There are so many other wonderful benefits of Muay Thai, and I wanted to focus on those, instead. This was a space for them to heal, to build confidence, to take control of their bodies, and to find solidarity with people who share their experience.
Here’s how กล้าเล่า described it in their proposal to me:
“We are providing space for survivors to release their stress from trauma through their body and help them to build confidence. We want participants to be brave enough to hit as hard as they can, shout as loud as they want, and break the stereotype that survivors should be sad, powerless and broken. We also want them to have a chance to feel empowerment and community among people who understand their feelings best.”
Jomtian joined the class as an active participant, as did lawyer and activist Busayapa, nicknamed ‘Best’, who co-hosted the group’s previous meet-up. They are like big sisters to members of the group, and spend a great deal of time working one-on-one with survivors, supporting them as they process their trauma and often guiding those who report through the legal system. As well as providing a comforting presence to others in the session, they had a lot to gain from it, too. The three of us have previously worked together on other activism against gender-based violence, and it this time, it was great to bring them into my world of Muay Thai.
We were joined by Thitima Jansomrag, Jomtian’s mother. At 62 years old, her only experience of Muay Thai was learning some ram muay moves in her school days, but was keen to try her first session. In fact, she ended up being the most energetic person in the class! She took to it like a duck to water, and was the first one of the group to hit the pads. At the end, she remarked that she was proud to have completed the session.
We were also joined by Nalinrat ‘Earn’ Tootubthim, a student who was the subject of a media storm when she went public about being sexually assaulted by her teacher. In November, she joined one of Bangkok’s many political protests wearing a school uniform, her mouth sealed with black tape, holding a sign that said “I have been sexually abused by teachers. School is not a safe place”. As a result, she received a huge amount of criticism and backlash, from which the support group has provided respite. She opted to observe the session, and joined us afterwards for a discussion at a nearby café. As she opened up about how she’d been mistreated and maligned by authorities at her school, by members of the public on social media, and even by a member of parliament, it drove home just how important this support group is. It provides a place for people to speak without fear of the victim blaming that is still so prevalent in Thai society.
While this may have been the very first Muay Thai class of its kind in Thailand, it won’t be the last. I’ll continue to support and collaborate with Jomtian and กล้าเล่า, and we hope to conduct more sessions like this one in 2021.