UNESCO initiative to improve gender equality in Thai media opens with special event ahead of International Women’s Day

Bangkok: Research shows that women are most often depicted as victims, family figures and sex objects in Thai media – representations that clash with reality as Thai women’s contributions to society grow and their areas of expertise become increasingly diverse. UNESCO Bangkok and partners have launched the “Woman Make the News (WMN) – Thailand” online database of Thai female experts for journalists to address this disparity.

A special event was held at UNESCO Bangkok yesterday, ahead of International Women’s Day (8 March), to launch the database and spotlight some of the key issues it seeks to address.

Opening the event, UNESCO Regional Adviser for Communication and Information Misako Ito spoke of the “global trend of gender inequality in the media and the way gender is portrayed in media” and how challenges persist despite several international commitments to change, such as the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action.

“There is a huge gap between the commitments made at the very highest levels to promote gender equality in the media and the very concrete reality of the work of journalists who have to produce news in a limited time and who do not have access to the relevant resources and contacts” she said. “We decided to develop a very simple tool to respond to the daily requirements of the work of the journalists by providing a platform they can use to access the women’s voices they may struggle to find.”

The WMN – Thailand database, which is available in Thai and English, offers journalists access to a wide array of Thai female experts – almost 300 to date – from across the country and from the grassroots through to the policy level in three core areas: media, ICT and innovation; environment and climate change; as well as the cultures and histories of ASEAN countries. The areas covered were selected in consultation with journalists who identified them as lacking in female voices.

Thailand has one of the highest percentages of women scientists (more than 50%) and women in senior corporate positions (37%) in the world, and yet it ranks only 131 out of 145 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (2015) when it comes to women in public affairs. Women are unlikely to find themselves in the “mirror” that media is supposed to be – a 2014 Thai PBS study of one month of TV news coverage found that women accounted for only one out of four expert sources interviewed.

Since media are the main channels of information for citizens, marginalizing women in this way threatens full democratic participation, said Ms Anne-Charlotte Malm, Counsellor Head of Regional Development Cooperation in Asia with the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok.

“The news media is a power that has a great responsibility to democratic development and when these media undervalue women’s opinions, thoughts and actions, they risk being a restraining force that does not promote a democratic, sustainable and equitable development,” she said. “Gender equality is not a goal by itself; it is also essential for achieving peace, poverty reduction and sustainable development.”

Kamolrat Intararat, Executive Director of the Research Center of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM) at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, helped bring together the highly diverse group of Thai female experts included in the database. “There are lots of Thai women experts out there, but nobody sees them,” she said, adding that the WMN – Thailand project gives voice to women from different sectors across Thailand, particularly those from remote, underrepresented communities.

This point was echoed by Kanlaya Chularattakorn, from the Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand in Chiang Mai, one of the panellists in a discussion on the role of media in promoting gender equality led by former Bangkok Post editorial pages editor and prominent gender activist Sanitsuda Ekachai.

Ms Chularattakorn, a member of the Hmong ethnic group, said that when it comes to representations of hilltribe or ethnic minority groups in Thailand, the power is with those who have access to the media. “Our image in the Thai media, especially in mainstream media, is that we are uneducated people … we are forest destroyers, drug dealers. And we have no way to explain or to bring the truth to the public. This is a very good opportunity [to do so], thanks to UNESCO.”

The gulf between reality and representation in media is also stark in the IT field, said Siriporn Pajharawat, Director of Developer Experience & Platform Evangelism (DX) Group with Microsoft Thailand. Ms Pajharawat said that while there are numerous success stories of women in IT, these are often underplayed in favour of familiar narratives that suggest tech is a man’s arena.

“Stereotyping women as being technologically challenged, that’s a major factor in impeding growth of women studying STEM,” she said. “Media has an influencing power as a role model. If girls and women see that there are experts in science and technology, they will have more confidence.”

The root of these disparities could lie within the culture of media organizations themselves, said Chanette Tinnam, a lecturer with Mahidol University’s Contemplative Education Centre. She presented her research on the gender makeup and policies of Thai media organizations, which found that men significantly outnumber women in positions of authority. Women were seen as having the “burden of being a mother, wife and daughter” and as such unsuitable for executive roles, she said.

Speaking from a policy perspective, Supinya Klangnarong, Commissioner with the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, said that the NBTC has a code of ethics for media that includes gender sensitivity, though she says that with no binding mechanism obliging broadcasters to follow such edicts, they often “gather dust”. The NBTC instead prefers to promote debate and dialogue among broadcasters to help them better understand gender issues and improve sensitivity in their workplaces.

The Women Make the News – Thailand database is part of UNESCO’s global
Women Make the News initiative, and was initiated and developed by UNESCO Bangkok, with the support of Sweden and implemented in cooperation with CCDKM and Akin Asia. Australian Aid is sponsoring training opportunities for experts in March.