Thailand Profile

One woman’s way of empowering female ex-prisoners

“Ex-prisoners face a lot of discrimination and it is even harder for female ex-prisoners. They are excluded by their social and economic status and by their gender”

My name is Thunyanun Yajom but my nickname is Jinny. I am 43 years old. I am from a town near Chiang Mai and now I live in Chiang Mai. I was married once and I got divorce. I have a son who is 22 years old.

Until three months ago, I have worked in a woman’s prison in Chiang Mai, I was a prison officer. My main duties were to provide them with assistance, guidance and counselling. I worked in this prison for 17 years and during all those years I came to understand what the main challenges were for those women once they were let out of jail. The main problems is that once they are released and they regain their freedom, they have difficulties to find jobs because they have done time in jail.

In the prison I worked in, there is a massage training program. This program provides massage training inside the prison so that female inmates could become masseuses after doing their jail time. In order to really help them to get jobs once released, I opened a massage center in Chiang Mai that is a social business, where ex-prisoners who passed their massage certification in prison can come and get a job.

Ex-prisoners face a lot of discrimination and it is even harder for female ex-prisoners. They are excluded by their social and economic status and by their gender. They don’t get jobs easily and they don’t receive any support from the government to help them re-integrate into the society. This increases their social isolation and vulnerability.

“They find a community who accepts them and integrate them into the group, they have friends who don’t judge them or push them away but who, instead, understands their life”

Even if we provide them with a massage training opportunity in prison and even if they get their certificate, it is extremely hard for them to find a job in any massage place. Some business owners refuse to give jobs to ex-prisoners, they don’t trust them. There are some place, of course, that don’t mind about their past and are willing to hire them but then they usually face discrimination and exclusion from their co-workers. It’s hard for ex-prisoners to be accepted and make friends. Most of the time when people know a woman is an ex prisoner they get scared and take their distance.

For all those reasons, it was important to me to set up this project, so that those women ex-prisoners could start their life over and have a future. This place is important because of two things: First, these women can make a living, support their family and stay out of trouble. Second, they find a community who accepts them and integrate them into the group, they have friends who don’t judge them or push them away but who, instead, understands their life. They feel that they belong in the group, and this is very important to help the person to rebuild. [For more information about this project, click here].

I started this project three years and a half ago. At the beginning it was just me and three ex inmates. It has expanded a lot since, now we have three shops and fifty women working. They trust me and I trust them. They work and get 50% of the money on every massage. The rest of the money is used to expand the social business and help more women.

I am very proud of this project and when I see how accomplished and empowered those women are now, I feel blessed. They can make a good living and take care of their family with dignity. That makes me very happy.

“Women are not weak (…) but if at least they could choose their life, this would be a real change, this would be a real step towards women empowerment”

I think the situation for women in Thailand is getting better nowadays. Women are getting more educated and are more aware of their rights. I feel that they are stronger than before. But women, in Thailand, are still much more powerless than men. Our society is dominated by men. We need to be stronger and to be more represented in our society and for that to happen, we need to be more educated. Don’t get me wrong, women are not weak, they take care of the children and the family more than men do, but if at least they could choose their life, this would be a real change, this would be a real step towards women empowerment.

One major problem in our society that still persists is about the discrimination against pregnant young girls. Girls have an easy access to school but the problem is when they get pregnant, they have to drop out of school. Even though birth control is easily accessible, it is still something girls are shy about and have little knowledge about, because they don’t talk about it and no one gives them the information they need to protect themselves. It’s taboo to talk about these things. They know about sexuality and if they want to be on birth control they could go to the pharmacy, but most of the time they are too shy to ask. Culturally, we are not open to talk about this. European people are more open, they are not ashamed to talk about it. For us, it’s different it is not in our culture.

“When girls are young and get pregnant, they are not educated, but they have to find money to take care of their child, so they end up selling drugs or doing other petty crimes to get the money they need”

In Thailand, most women end up in prison for taking or selling drugs or for prostitution. Most of the incarcerated women end up in jail because they lack of education. They don’t know how to protect themselves. When girls are young and get pregnant, they are not educated, but they have to find money to take care of their child, so they end up selling drugs or doing other petty crimes to get the money they need. It is a vicious circle where they lose themselves.

For most of the women who work at the massage place with me, their boyfriends or husbands dragged them into the business of selling drugs. Most are from poor families so when they have children and when there is no money they just agree to take part in the illegal business. They have to survive. Some also face the risk of being beaten by their partners if they refuse to work in the business.

“We have had the internet for around 20 years, it has helped Thai women realize that they have power and rights too and that they should not let society, or themselves, limit their capacities”

Now, the situation is better. Before we had to get married young and start a family, nowadays they are a lot of women who are single and have a good career. It is more accepted than in the past. Women are taking more space in modern Thai society.

I think new technologies and social media have contributed tremendously to change our society. Internet gives us more information on what is happening around us, on what it is possible for women to do. We see what women from other countries are achieving and it encourages us to do the same. We have had the internet for around 20 years, it has helped Thai women realize that they have power and rights too and that they should not let society, or themselves, limit their capacities. We can succeeds or we can fail, but at least we have the right to try.

I think Thai people are aware about the concept of gender equality, but in practice, women always have a lower status than men. Maybe in a few years the situation will actually be equal but right now men are still considered superior to women. Thai women want to be recognized and valued as equal to men. They may not talk about it yet but that’s what they think. Women should understand that there is no difference between men and women. We all have our competences, our strengths and our weaknesses, but we cannot be judged or limited only by our gender.

We are mothers of men. It starts from us to educate them right, to teach them how to respect and treat women.

“It is annoying that only we talk about sex workers and we don’t highlight that Thai women can be smart and leaders”

Thai women also face discrimination and stereotypes from foreigner people, from foreigner men especially. They look down on Thai women. They think that we are all prostitutes. Women in Thailand are very shy and don’t talk much. They cannot speak English and when foreigners come and speak with them women are scared. Women working in bars and the others are different. Foreigners only know ladies working in bars and have a misconception of Thai women that all women are like these bar girls. And when they marry Thai women it’s unlikely that they will marry educated women.

It is annoying that only we talk about sex workers and we don’t highlight that Thai women can be smart and leaders.

We have a different culture, we are not tactile people and we don’t kiss on the cheeks like French people. We don’t speak out but it doesn’t mean that we are weak and easily manipulated. We are the country of smiles. If you speak to Thai women most of the time they will smile, surely because they don’t understand you! Thai ladies are taught to take care, we are caring people. If women come to you it is because they are caring people, not because they want to go with you. Foreigners have to know our culture and tradition before coming here.

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