Catholic groups are trying to change the culture of Thailand's hilltribe communities where females are less valued
Girls of the Lisu tribe in northern Thailand. A man who belongs to the tribe has confessed to poisoning his seven-year-old daughter because he preferred to have a son. (Photo supplied)
A young ethnic minority girl in northern Thailand died by her own father’s hand for a simple reason: she wasn’t a boy.
Anuphap Jaipanya, a 45-year-old man who belongs to the Lisu tribe in the country’s mountainous northern region inhabited by hilltribe people, many of whom are Christians, has confessed to poisoning his seven-year-old daughter on Sept. 23 while the child’s mother was away, according to police.
Anuphap, who has three daughters, reportedly told police he had wanted to kill one of his daughters from the day she was born because he preferred to have a son. It was his distraught wife who reported her husband to police.
The shocking murder of the girl by her own father simply because of her biological sex has highlighted the plight of women in many of Thailand’s hilltribe communities, including Catholic ones, where female children have traditionally been valued far less than male offspring, who are thought to be responsible for carrying on the family’s name and legacy.
In these communities, social workers and rights activists say, girls and women have long been seen as inferior to men and are often treated accordingly. And some of the diehard, age-old prejudices toward women remain prevalent in Catholic communities as well.
“My parents love me, but I know they would have been happier with a son, especially my father,” attests Supansa (not her real name), a 25-year-old Catholic woman who belongs to the Karen tribe, whose members are predominantly Christian, and lives in a remote hillside village in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand.
“In my village women are [viewed as] less able to work hard than men and so if they get sick or unable to do much work they are [considered to be] a burden on their families,” Supansa, who now lives and works in Chiang Mai city, told a UCA News reporter in Bangkok by phone.
Although female infanticide is rare among hilltribe people these days, girls and women are frequently mistreated by other tribespeople and have fewer rights than men, according to tribal customs. Whereas a man can divorce his wife without serious consequences for his social standing, for instance, a woman who decides to leave her husband is routinely ostracized, even when her husband is known to have been abusive towards her.
“In [local] culture [many women] believe that if they’re married to a man, they belong to the man and he has the right to do anything to them,” says Sister Anurak Chaiyaphuek, who is director of the Wildflower Home Foundation, a Catholic charity in Chiang Mai that caters to marginalized single women and their children.
“It’s not easy to change those beliefs. We teach them that the men have no right over the women. We teach them to rise up, to fight back, and to protect themselves,” the nun recently told an online publication dedicated to women’s rights.
Yet hilltribe women have their work cut out if they want to fight back. Domestic abuse and violence remains widespread in many hilltribe villages and victims often have little recourse to much help within their communities, according to the United Nations.
Hilltribe women, especially those in particularly marginalized communities, are also at considerable risk of being trafficked into Thailand’s thriving sex industry, the UN says. Many of the girls from hilltribes who are lured or coerced into working in the sex trade are underage.
Several Catholic charities working in northern Thailand are providing various forms of support to hilltribe women, from running shelters for abused women to organizing income-generation workshops for disadvantaged villagers.
One such initiative, spearheaded by Catholic nuns, is working to save marginalized teenage girls and young women from being trafficked online by unscrupulous people who seek to lure them into the sex trade under the pretext of offering them well-paying jobs.
“Right now, the issue that we are working on is cybertrafficking,” Sister Marie Agnes Buasap, a nun of the St. Paul de Chartres order who worked in Chiang Mai for two decades, recently told a Catholic publication.
“We learned how combating cybertrafficking is hard because at first all communication is online. Then, perpetrators lure the girls to meet them in person, and once they do, they are trapped. The girls feel ashamed and worried that their parents and teachers will find out what is happening to them.
“Part of my work is outreach, so I also went to the remote western borders of Thailand to work with youth in seven hilltribe centers. I held sessions with youth, teachers and parents to teach them about human trafficking and to create collaboration to help protect the youth from being trafficked. The priests and village leaders all cooperated with me.”
Projects such as these are having positive impacts in many remote villages, but plenty of hilltribe women still have a long way to go within their communities.
“I think women’s situation in my village is better than before,” says Supansa, who sends most of her earnings as a caregiver back home to her parents. “But it’s still not easy to be a woman sometimes.”
Unequal Christians of Asian Churches is a new series of features aimed to help us see prejudice and bias that are at work in our Church. They also help us see the struggles of Catholics to live out their faith.
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