Sexism and paternalism among Thai NGOs

Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on sex; or conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.[1] Sexist attitudes are frequently based on beliefs in traditional stereotypes of gender roles. Sexism is not just a matter of individual attitudes, but is built into many societal institutions.[2] The term sexism is most often used in relation to discrimination against women,[3][4][5][6][7] in the context of patriarchy. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexism.)

A few weeks ago, my former colleague in a Bangkok-based Thai nongovernmental organization (NGO) resigned. The reason was that she was warned by the NGO’s committee after she was found having an affair with a married man in another province. The committee members who talked to her, asked her to stop the affair. They ignored the response of my colleague that the man had promised to end his relationship with his wife within a year.

One member demanded that she stay put in the Bangkok office and stop visiting the provinces. Another senior member criticized her for violating the Buddhist precept forbidding alcohol consumption saying that by drinking alcohol she was leaving herself vulnerable to affairs with men.

Her behaviour, said the committee, was giving a bad image to the NGO (which by the way claims to be one of the more radical environmental groups in Thailand). The committee comprised 5 males out of a total 6 members, with at least two aged above 50 years.

My colleague was a senior staff who had worked in this NGO for the last 25 years; in fact it was the only job she had done ever since her graduation. One would think she would have been treated with a little respect at least for all her years of work.

Why does an NGO organization think it has the right to decide what a woman staff does or does not do in her private, personal life. Did my colleague’s behavior in any way affect her work or activities? Did she, in having her affair, take extended vacations or go on beach jaunts forgetting her office meetings or campaigns.

Actually not. In fact, as far as I know, she has always given her full attention to the work. She is still considered one of the best researchers and activists who has very detailed knowledge of forest and land management issues especially at the grassroots in Thailand and Laos.

The NGO reaction although distasteful, is not surprising. Most of Thailand’s NGOs are ruled by a coterie of males often around 40-60 years of age and in many cases very ultra-conservative in their views about the rights or the roles of women in NGOs. Gender is at best a token lip service that often serves to highlight sections in annual reports to donors who can tick off the “development” boxes. In many Thai NGO conversations, the term can also be referred to mockingly as “gen-duhhh” in a rising Thai tone, as if the whole thing is some kind of inside joke.

Most young women who join Thai NGOs do it out of a sense of making society better. That’s all that’s left anyway as the pay and benefits are almost always next to nothing. But these young people are willing to give it a try as they feel that NGOs offer a space for activism, to right the wrongs, to fight injustice and discrimination and to improve the lives of those more marginalised. (And to be fair, in some cases, this can be true.) But often, the irony between their noble intention and the reality of the system soon becomes apparent to them.

The reality that hits them first is that as younger women who are junior staff, they face the system of “poo yai” or “pii” or elders, those who sit above them in the NGO hierarchy, and are always invariably male. This system is both one of patronage as it helps them to learn how to deal with their work, but also one that is patronising since it usually never allows a woman to actually grow in the job and say, one day, that she is the equal of her peers. However, many years she has worked, or papers she has presented, or meetings she may have chaired, the prevalent attitude among the elders is that she is always a “nong” (younger sibling) who is under them, who needs to be guided and sometimes tolerated.

The woman who works in a Thai NGO soon finds that she can never become an equal as it’s always a case of her male peers being more equal than her. (I write this piece to illustrate instances like that of my former colleague. Of course I also know of exceptional women colleagues who have both challenged this system as also turned it upside down in many cases by starting their own NGO and creating a different intellectual and activist space where younger people don’t always have to defer blindly to their elders. )

The problem in the case of my colleague was that the committee members especially the males thought that they knew and would decide what was best for her not in her work but in her private life. Never mind that she had worked almost as many years if not more, and in my view, maybe was even more active, than some of them. To tell someone with her experience, knowledge and work background that she was breaking the Buddhist precepts and hence has to reform or leave, displays a typical male chauvinist arrogance, and at its worst, is downright patronizing and sexist.

She has since resigned her job, forced out by some feudal sense of outrage displayed by a group of so-called moral guardians.

In the larger picture, this was probably for the best as who in their right mind would want to continue working in an environment like that. But more tragic is that such an environment exists and that these kinds of decisions are considered the norm within NGOs in Thailand whose supposed rationale for existing and being paid salaries by public tax money is to make society better.

I guess my colleague’s case is not going to figure in the section on “gen-duhhh” in the NGO’s next annual report to their foreign donors.

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One thought on “Sexism and paternalism among Thai NGOs

  1. This is absolutely appalling, though i am not surprised, the ridged sense of non-sense morality here is present even in the youngest of generations, i am a prefect in my school and you have no idea how many times i have heard complaints from older students that younger students are not ‘respecting’ them (e.g. not calling them ‘pii’) even if they have done nothing to deserve this extra bit of respect or even if they are only a few months older, it’s instilled deep into society.

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