By Thin Lei Win
BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - Her employer's brother raped her repeatedly for four months until Noi, 17, mustered the courage to press charges, but courage, she discovered, has a price.
Noi's abuser is free on bail, and his family is threatening to kill hers. She lives like a fugitive in a shelter for abused women on the outskirts of Bangkok. When she visits her family, she must sneak in the back door and stay inside for safety.
Yet her desire for justice outweighs her fear.
“I want him to go to jail,” said Noi (not her real name), a former factory worker.
While the recent deadly gang rape in Delhi renewed calls from women’s rights activists around the world for countries to take sexual crimes seriously, rape victims like Noi struggle for justice in Thailand.
Rape laws are badly drafted or weakly enforced. Police and judges are insensitive, poorly trained and sometimes corrupt.
In a culture that objectifies and commodifies women, society tends to blame rape victims, posing serious barriers for women who are sexually assaulted.
A FRACTION OF CASES
It’s hard to say how many rapes occur in Thailand in part because society does not want to know, according to Kritaya Archavanitkul, an associate professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University.
“Nobody would like to invest in that kind of budget because it's very difficult to design a questionnaire when we have a culture of silence (on rape),” Kritaya told TrustLaw.
According to Thai police, 3,169 rape cases were reported in 2012, and 1,591 arrests were made - compared to 3,771 reports and 2,290 arrests in 2011.
Perhaps more accurate, the Public Health Ministry’s One Stop Crisis Centre - a network at hospitals to assist women and children - in 2011 tallied about 10,000 sexual assaults and nearly 22,000 cases of violence against women and girls.
Kritaya believes the police figures represent only 5 percent of rapes in Thailand. She helped conduct a 2007 survey on sexual behaviour, in which 4 percent of Thai women described their first sexual experience as forced.
Other studies show an acceptance of violence. In 2010, more than 60 percent of Thais thought it justifiable for a man to beat his wife, higher than Indonesia (less than 20 percent) and India (about 40 percent), a U.N. report showed.
Thailand reformed its rape law in 2007, expanding the definition of rape to cover victims of all sexes and all types of sexual penetration, and recognising rape within marriage as a crime.
Female rape victims were recently given the right to be interviewed by female police officers, but there are only 150 female police investigators - with an additional 70 in coming months - in a country where half of the 69 million people are women and girls.
Compounding these challenges, Thai rape laws run contrary to international standards, said Leah Hoctor, legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists and an author for a 2012 report on women’s access to justice in Thailand.
Under international law, Hoctor said, “no matter where it happens or in what context, when it's brought to your attention and someone indicated that it has happened, then you, as the state, have the obligation to investigate and prosecute it.”
However, in Thailand if a rape happens in private and does not result in physical injuries, then authorities do not have to investigate unless the victim complains.
As such, police often do not take rape complaints seriously. Perpetrators can settle the case for as low as 20,000 baht ($670), activists say, and the perpetrator sometimes even offers marriage as settlement.
“Our culture has this view that a woman's body has a price attached,” said Naiyana Supapueng, a former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission who heads the Teeranat Kanjanauaksorn Foundation, working on human rights and gender equality.
“When you marry someone, there is dowry involved. We see (women’s bodies) as a commodity.”
NO STRUGGLE MEANS NO RAPE
Activists say police encourage victims older than 15 to settle by pointing out the difficulty of proving the perpetrator’s guilt, the need to be in court to testify, and the amount of time a court battle could take.
Anchulee Theerawongpaisarn, a police spokesperson, told TrustLaw that police do not make compromises in rape cases and all are sent to court.
Penalties for rape in Thailand range from a fine of up to 40,000 baht ($1,340) to life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Courts often look for evidence the victim fought off the accused.
However, many cases involve threats and intimidation by someone with authority, so although a woman may not struggle, that does not mean she consents, Hoctor said.
Evidence of the victim's background, sexual history or sexual relationship with the perpetrator - inadmissible in many countries - are often used in Thai courts to undermine a victim’s credibility, she added.
Some blame the overwhelmingly male government for the discrimination.
While Thailand has a female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2010, women represented only 13 percent of the lower house of parliament, and 6 percent of judges, said the U.N.
A culture of silence and blaming the victim also make rape victims reluctant to come forward.
“The silence culture is very deep-rooted in Thai society because if anyone wants to complain and take the case to court, the cost they have to pay is very high,” said Mahidol’s Kritaya.
She recounted a case in which a rape victim who went public a decade ago lost her job, her boyfriend and ultimately, her surname, because her relatives said she had sullied the family name.
“Thai people are very black and white about who is a good woman and who is bad,” said Usa Lerdsrisuntad, programme director for Foundation for Women.
In several cases, authorities and the media cast doubt on rape victims by saying that they acted indecently and were merely actors to consensual sex.
Last year, a senior Thai police officer suggested that a foreign tourist might not have been raped as she claimed because she went to dinner with the accused.
Rape prevention, Usa said, is always about telling the women to dress or behave properly, and never about telling men to change their behaviour.
“Once (a rape) happens, women are always questioned first: ‘Why did you go home late? Why did you stay in the office alone with him?’”