Thailand's women suffer in silence

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This much-recited line from our folk epic Khun Chang Khun Phaen seems a fitting consolation for Thai women amid the skyrocketing food prices and a news report that 70% of our sisters must endure lousy sex.

If you wonder why I link these two things together - food crisis and no-orgasm sex - it is because they stem from the same root cause: gender oppression.

When the male leaders tell us to prepare for the worst in the looming food crisis, we know that the burden will fall most heavily on women.

Nature may tell women to do their best to take care of their children, but it is the patriarchal culture that tells women that if they fail to do so, then they are condemned as ungrateful daughters or uncaring wives and mothers.

The food crisis, therefore, is the women's crisis.

This cultural mandate is not limited to female peasants foraging for food in community woods to feed their children.

The powerful indoctrination of family service and self-sacrifice has forced countless poor women to enter slave labour and the flesh trade to support their families.

Ask educated women why they refuse to go up the management ladder.

Many of them will tell you, too, that they are tied by motherhood - more precisely by guilt if they fail to meet role expectations as sacrificing mothers and wives.

Patriarchy does not only tell girls to serve, sacrifice and endure in silence, it says good girls must be asexual virgins while boys must be sexually experienced. This double standard supports the flesh trade and men's selfish sex.

No wonder why the Durex global survey on sexual well-being reveals that while 79% of men reach climax during sex, only 30% of women say they do.

Back to the Khun Chang, Khun Phaen advice on sexual abstention.

The verse in Thai reads: Od khao dok na jao cheewa wai, mai tai lok pro od saneha.

It is actually a plea from Pimpilalai, a female protagonist, to Khun Phaen against his persistent sexual advances during their secret rendezvous in a cotton field.

Over time, however, this demand for men's sexual restraint has changed into a message for women's endurance.

Ironically, many women use it to justify their having to endure bad sex and bad marriage for fear of losing the social status and financial support - if not for themselves then for their children.

The verse encourages the women's culture of silence, by saying that it does not kill.

Who cares if many women must suffer inner death from psychological trauma due to troubled marriages and adultery?

With the Aids pandemic, however, such silence has become fatal.

One national study shows that 40% of new infections occur between spousal male-to-female transmission.

Another study shows that Aids is the leading cause of death among female teenagers. Ask them why they do not press for safe sex, and the answers will be along the same lines.

The wives would say they are afraid of appearing distrustful, which may be taken as an insult. Not a good thing for a good wife to do.

For the teenagers, they would say they fear appearing sexually experienced, which is a no-no because it will make them look like bad girls.

How to help women from food crisis and sexual oppression? Better wages? Better education? Better protection of the environment? More respect for women's voices?

Most certainly. But short of gender equality - and we are talking about real cultural transformation, not only cosmetic legal measures - these changes will not be forthcoming. That is why many more women will continue to die from hunger, poverty and making love.

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