Submission to UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women in Thailand

Human Rights Watch

We write in advance of the 85th pre-session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and its adoption of a list of issues prior to reporting regarding Thailand’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This submission addresses articles 1 and 10 of the Convention and includes information on protection of education from attack, access to education during the Covid-19 pandemic for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary students, and discrimination against transgender people based on gender identity.

Protection of Education from Attack (article 10)

Since January 2004, an ethnic Malay Muslim insurgency affiliated with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) armed group has attacked numerous schools, killing and wounding students, teachers, and other education personnel. The insurgents consider school officials to be representative of the Thai Buddhist state’s occupation of Malay Muslim territory. They have frequently targeted security personnel assigned to provide students and teachers safe passage to and from school or protecting the school grounds.[1]

In January 2020, the BRN armed group signed Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict, which includes protections for education and a commitment to not recruit children during military operations.[2] The armed conflict has persisted in Thailand’s southern Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla provinces, despite peace dialogues and decreasing violence in recent years.[3]

During initial lockdowns in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) noted a reduction in attacks on education in Thailand. After several months without reported incidents, however, attacks on education increased in the months following the reopening of schools in July 2020.

Attacks on schools

From 2017 to 2021, GCPEA identified 14 attacks on schools, many of which routinely involved explosive weapons.[4] Some examples of attacks include:

  • On January 8, 2019, insurgents detonated a bomb outside Thairath Wittaya School 52 in Pattani province’s Yarang district, severely wounding a 12-year-old student, Nuriman Naesae, and a soldier assigned to guard the school.[5]
  • On September 16, 2019, unidentified members of a non-state armed group reportedly detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) at the entrance of a school in Khok Pho district, Pattani province. The explosion reportedly injured members of a teacher security convoy, who then exchanged fire with the attackers. According to local media sources, no teachers or students were injured.[6]

Attacks on school students, teachers, and staff

GCPEA documented from 2017 to 2021 approximately 26 incidents of attacks on school students, teachers, and staff. Many attacks involved the targeting of police or volunteer defense guards tasked with protecting schools, as well as teachers and students, which put them at risk.[7]

Some examples of attacks include:

  • On September 19, 2019, unidentified armed individuals reportedly fired on security guards at Baan Siyoh School, while teachers and students arrived at the school, in Yaha district, Yala province, according to the Daily News. No injuries were reported; however, the attack allegedly left the school with several bullet holes in the perimeter wall.[8] The UN reported that an IED attack occurred 50 meters from the school on February 6, 2018.[9]
  • Local media reported that on January 10, 2019, unidentified armed individuals allegedly shot and killed four defense volunteers inside Bukoh school, in Yarang district, Pattani province, during school hours. The UN reported to media sources that at least one child was injured, and many others were at risk of psychological harm after witnessing the violent event.[10]
  • On August 13, 2020, alleged non-state armed group members detonated an IED along the road leading to Pakaluesong Primary School in Nong Chik district, Pattani province, targeting soldiers as they escorted teachers and students to the school. According to media outlets Benar News and Bangkok Post, one soldier was killed while others were wounded.[11]
  • On the same day, in a reportedly coordinated attack with the above-mentioned incident, an alleged non-state armed group detonated an IED along the road leading to Kalisa Primary School in Rangae district, Narathiwat province. Local media reported that the explosion targeted and killed one soldier and injured at least three others while they were guarding teachers on the route to school.[12] The two attacks on August 13, 2020, were reportedly the first such attacks since schools in the southern provinces reopened for in-person classes after Covid-19 closures.[13]

Attacks on students and schools disproportionately affect girls, who are sometimes the focus of targeted attacks and are more likely to be kept out of school due to security concerns, as recognized by this Committee in its General Recommendation No. 30.[14]

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict[15]; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[16] At time of writing, 114 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. The UN Secretary-General has explicitly called upon Thailand to endorse the Declaration.[17] However, Thailand has not done so.[18]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Thailand:

  • Have any individuals been investigated for attacks on schools, students, teachers, and staff during the reporting period? If so, how many, and what have been the outcomes of such investigations?
  • Human Rights Watch documented the use of schools for military purposes by government security forces in 2010, including using schools for military purposes alongside girl students.[19] Have government security forces continued this practice? If so, why did they do so? If so, were any changes made in armed forces policy, orders, or trainings to minimize or end this tactic?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Thailand to:

  • Endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.

Access to Education During Covid-19 School Closures (articles 1, 10)

From March 2020 to March 2022, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Thai schools were fully closed for 16 weeks and partially open for 53 weeks.[20] According to UNICEF, school closures in 2020 affected almost nine million children ages 3 to 17, and early learning center closures affected 86 percent of children ages 36 to 59 months.[21] In May 2022, the education ministry announced most schools would reopen, but that children would still have the option to attend online classes.[22]

In July 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed six students in Thailand: one of whom was bisexual; two were tomboys, including one lesbian girl; one was nonbinary; and two were transgender.[23] Students said that distance learning negatively impacted their education, while at the same time providing respite from bullying and discrimination they experienced at school before the pandemic.

Educational institutions in Thailand reinforce rigid social gender norms. Transgender students in Thai schools face harassment, bullying, and discrimination, all of which is undergirded by the enforcement of appearance standards that force students to dress according to their sex assigned at birth. From early years and even at most universities, the enforcement of school uniform regulations has acted as a barrier, and a source of stress and humiliation, for transgender students.[24]

Students described how distance learning was delivered in various formats. J.J., a 16-year-old tomboy and lesbian girl, said Google Classrooms was used for distance learning, but that “it was very complicated” because some students needed to “figure the technical things out,” and some teachers didn’t “even know how to use the application,” and so a “lot of time has been wasted.”[25] E.E., a 17-year-old student who uses she/her pronouns and describes herself as a tomboy, said teachers would send PowerPoint presentations to study and then do assignments, and that teachers were “happy to take questions via text message but it [was] not quite as effective … and responses are not thorough.”[26]

Many students shared concerns they were falling behind in learning and were worried about how this would impact their ability to enter university, start jobs, or learn new material when classes resumed. N.N., a 17-year-old trans girl, said that internships-necessary in vocational school-were cancelled during the pandemic. “The internship is very important for vocational students-it’s like a ticket to a job in the future,” she said. “If there’s no internship, I can’t learn my course or get a job.”[27]

Efforts to catch up on lost learning were inconsistent for students. J.J. said: “There was an announcement that all online classes would be re-taught again…. So that means more content. But now we go to school only every other day, so it’s less time and more material-that’s a lot of pressure.”[28] However, N.N. said that when schools reopened, “we just went back as if nothing happened-there’s been no make-up activities.”[29]

Students said that when they or their peers did not have access to laptops, they were forced to rely on mobile devices, or had internet connectivity issues, all of which made learning difficult. E.E. said that her school hadn’t offered help with internet fees or laptops, and that “every student has to find their own way.”[30] J.N., a 17-year-old nonbinary student, said: “I don’t have any computer at home and that is the situation for many of my classmates, so an offline option is necessary for us or we can’t get anything done. We all have mobile phones but it’s not the same as a laptop for doing assignments.”[31] P.P., a 17-year-old trans girl, described the impact on her learning: “There were a lot of internet connectivity problems … There was a direct impact on my grades-I didn’t do as well. We all find it hard to focus.”[32]

Because of distance learning, J.N. worked to help their family: “Sometimes I couldn’t attend the online classes because my family owns small local shops and I had to help them … I’m not sure if they would have asked me to work in the shop if I physically needed to be in school though.”[33]

Remote Learning for LGBT Students

School shutdowns affected lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-diverse students in Thailand in different ways.

Some students told Human Rights Watch that being away from school during remote learning meant they were away from bullying and mistreatment from teachers.[34] A 19-year-old bisexual woman told us that “teachers cannot accept the way that they [tomboys] are,” and described an incident where a teacher pulled the hair of a friend who identified as a tomboy, and asked: “Why did you cut [your] hair like a boy, why don’t you act feminine or like a girl, why is it necessary for you to be so masculine?”[35] Another student said that teachers “have assumptions that gender diverse students will perform badly at school.” [36] The student said that due to having short hair, a teacher could not believe the student was in the class for children excelling in their studies, and “because of the way I looked I would never survive in science and math.”[37]

Online learning may have provided respite from discrimination by teachers, but it also meant removal from a school environment where some LGBT students might have felt freer to express their identity and receive support from their peers. Some students said that school was a supportive environment because they were “surrounded by friends from my same generation who understand these issues.”[38] So, when schools closed and students were learning online, they did not have the same connection with friends. “When school shut down, I missed my friends a lot,” a 17-year-old trans girl said. “I missed chatting with them and interacting with them.”[39] As one student remarked, “I can overlook the comments from the teachers, but I really missed interacting with my friends.”[40]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Thailand:

  • What specific measures does the government plan to take to remedy lost learning time of all girls, including lesbian, bisexual, and transgender girls; students who identify as nonbinary; and children from low-income backgrounds? How are their unique perspectives being included in national plans and their unique impacts being addressed in these plans?
  • How does the government plan to mitigate the learning inequities that resulted from disparate access to devices and internet between children from low-income and higher-income households?
  • What measures has the government adopted, or does it plan to adopt, to provide affordable, reliable, quality, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access to the internet for educational content, and capable devices for every student?
  • How is the extent of children’s learning loss being assessed?
  • How will measures to remedy lost learning be applied to schools across the country, and on what timeline?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Thailand to:

  • Enable schools, now that they are open, to assess students’ level of learning in each subject, and provide needed support to improve levels, including through free extra tutoring and counselling, as necessary, and provide targeted support for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary students, and students of low-income households.
  • Ensure that schools-whether in-person or online-provide a space where all students, including lesbian, bisexual, transgender girls, and nonbinary students, are encouraged and safe to participate, free of bullying and discrimination from teachers and peers.
  • Explicitly allocate educational resources strategically to vulnerable and low-income groups, children traditionally at risk of exclusion from education, and those shown to have been particularly affected in their education during the pandemic.
  • Ensure that children most likely to be excluded or have inadequate access to internet and capable devices, including those from marginalized or vulnerable communities or living in low-income households, receive targeted support and are included in any measures the government adopts, or plans to adopt.

Discrimination Against Transgender People Based on Gender Identity (article 10)

Transgender people in Thailand currently enjoy few legal protections against discrimination and those protections that are in place are not fully enforced. There is no route for transgender people to obtain legal documentation that reflects their gender identity, and the affirmative policies that exist (including the ability to change one’s first name) leave discretionary power in the hands of administrative officials. The result, as documented by Human Rights Watch in a 2021 report,[41] is that transgender people in Thailand experience numerous barriers to their rights to health, education, work, freedom of movement, and non-discrimination.

Some transgender women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that potential employers asked them during job interviews if they would alter their appearance and dress as a man. Others explained that they were told in job interviews that they were not hired because they were transgender. Research by the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network and Curtin University found that:

  • Even with equal experience and qualifications the cisgender applicants received 24 percent more positive responses to job applications than transgender applicants.
  • The job market was challenging for all applicants. The 800 job applications resulted in only 177 invitations to interview for cisgender applicants. Yet it was even more challenging for transgender applicants: only 133 transgender applicants were called to interview, 44 fewer, even though both sets of applicants were equally qualified and experienced.[42]

Thailand’s 2015 Gender Equality Act, the first national legislation in Southeast Asia to specifically protect against discrimination on the grounds of gender expression, specifically prohibits any form of discrimination if someone is “of a different appearance from his/her own sex by birth,” a critical clause for protecting transgender people. The majority of cases brought before the committee responsible for enforcing the act have been brought by transgender people facing discrimination in education, employment, and access to public spaces.[43]

In recent years, the Thai government has begun to engage with civil society organizations and United Nations agencies to discuss and develop a legal gender recognition procedure. However, despite rights-based proposals being submitted by civil society groups, the government has not acted on several occasions and the process remains stalled.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Thailand to:

  • Develop legislation, with the input of civil society groups, that enables transgender people to be recognized according to their gender identity and change their legal name and gender without any medical requirements.
  • Take a leadership role under the powers vested in the minister of social development and human security under section 5 of the Gender Equality Act and develop a robust and inclusive definition of “gender identity” to be formally published in the royal gazette and cited thereafter in legal deliberations and developments.
  • Adopt via a Ministry of Labor regulation provisions on non-discrimination from the Gender Equality Act to ensure the ministry’s enforcement of equal access to employment.

[1] “Thailand: Insurgents Bomb School, Attack Hospital,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 10, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/01/10/thailand-insurgents-bomb-school-attack-hospital.

[2] “Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani commits to greater protection of children,” Geneva Call, March 19, 2020, https://www.genevacall.org/barisan-revolusi-nasional-melayu-patani-commits-to-greater-protection-of-children/ (accessed September 23, 2022).

[3] International Crisis Group, Southern Thailand’s Peace Dialogue: Giving Substance to Form (Brussels: International Crisis Group, January 21, 2020); Caleb Quinley, “In Thailand’s deep south conflict, a ‘glimpse of hope’, but no momentum to sustain a COVID-19 ceasefire,” The New Humanitarian, August 3, 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2020/08/03/Thailand-deep-south-conflict-coronavirus-ceasefire (accessed September 30, 2022).

[4] Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), Education under Attack 2020 (New York, GCPEA: 2021), https://protectingeducation.org/publication/education-under-attack-2020/ (accessed August 8, 2022), pp. 232-233; GCPEA, Education Under Attack 2022.

[5] “Thailand: Insurgents Bomb School, Attack Hospital,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 10, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/01/10/thailand-insurgents-bomb-school-attack-hospital.

[6] Thai Rath, as cited in ACLED, Event ID THA7348,”Outlaw bandits snatched the bombs. 1 hurt. 1 believe the group created a turbulent situation,” September 17, 2019; “Court approves detention of insurgent suspect,” Bangkok Post, October 4, 2019, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1765009/court-approves-detention-of-insurgent-suspect (accessed September 30, 2022).

[7] GCPEA, Education Under Attack 2022.

[8] Isranews Agency, as cited in ACLED, Event ID THA7354, “The director ordered to close the school immediately. Mysterious bullet fired through the wall,” Daily News, September 19, 2019.

[9] UN General Assembly and Security Council, “Children and armed conflict: Report of the Secretary-General,” S/2019/509, July 30, 2019, para. 233.

[10] Bangkok Post, as cited in ACLED, Event ID THA3024, Abdullah Benjakat, “Security detail slain inside Pattani school during classes,” Bangkok Post, January 10, 2019; “Two linked to Thai school shooting killed,” The Asean Post, January 14, 2019, https://theaseanpost.com/article/two-linked-thai-school-shooting-killed (accessed September 30, 2022); Jintamas Saksornchai “Four soldiers shot dead on Pattani school campus,” Khaosod English, January 10, 2019, https://www.khaosodenglish.com/news/crimecourtscalamity/2019/01/10/four-soldiers-shot-dead-on-pattani-school-campus/ (accessed September 30, 2022).

[11] Mariyam Ahmad and Matahari Ismail, “Thailand: Soldiers Killed, Injured in Deep South Bomb Attacks,” Benar News, August 13, 2020, https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/thai/insurgent-attack-08132020155349.html (accessed September 30, 2022); Abdullah Benjakat, “Two rangers killed, others wounded by bombs in far South,” Bangkok Post, August 13, 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1967631/two-rangers-killed-others-wounded-by-bombs-in-far-south (accessed September 30, 2022).

[12] Mariyam Ahmad and Matahari Ismail, “Thailand: Soldiers Killed, Injured in Deep South Bomb Attacks,” Benar News, https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/thai/insurgent-attack-08132020155349.html; Abdullah Benjakat, “Two rangers killed, others wounded by bombs in far South,” Bangkok Post, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1967631/two-rangers-killed-others-wounded-by-bombs-in-far-south.

[13] Mariyam Ahmad and Matahari Ismail, “Thailand: Soldiers Killed, Injured in Deep South Bomb Attacks,” Benar News, https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/thai/insurgent-attack-08132020155349.html.

[14] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 30, Access to Education, U.N Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/30 (2013), para. 48.

[15] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed January 23, 2020).

[16] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, https://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed January 23, 2020).

[17] UN Secretary-General, Report on Children and Armed Conflict, S/2019/509, June 20, 2019, para. 235.

[18] GCPEA, “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements,” undated, https://ssd.protectingeducation.org/endorsement/ (accessed August 4, 2022).

[19] Human Rights Watch, “Targets of Both Sides”: Violence against Students, Teachers, and Schools in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/09/20/targets-both-sides/violence-against-students-teachers-and-schools-thailands.

[20] UNESCO, Covid-19 Education Response, “Country Dashboard: Thailand,” March 2022, https://covid19.uis.unesco.org/global-monitoring-school-closures-covid19/country-dashboard/ (accessed September 23, 2022).

[21] “Five impacts of COVID-19 on children in Thailand,” UNICEF blog post, July 22, 2022, https://www.unicef.org/thailand/stories/five-impacts-covid-19-children-thailand (accessed September 23, 2022).

[22] “Most Thai schools ready to reopen for new semester next week,” The Nation Thailand, May 9, 2022, https://www.nationthailand.com/in-focus/40015382 (accessed September 26, 2022); “As schools prepare to reopen, what toll has COVID taken on Thailand’s children?” Thai PBS World, May 16, 2022, https://www.thaipbsworld.com/as-schools-prepare-to-reopen-what-toll-has-covid-taken-on-thailands-children/ (accessed September 26, 2022).

[23] In Thailand, the term “tomboy” refers to girls who dress and act in a masculine way.

[24] Human Rights Watch, “People Can’t Be Fit into Boxes”: Thailand’s Need for Legal Gender Recognition (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/12/15/people-cant-be-fit-boxes/thailands-need-legal-gender-recognition.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with J.J., 16-year-old student, Thailand, July 2, 2020.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with E.E., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 3, 2020.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with N.N., 17-year-old student, July 6, 2020.

[28] Human Rights Watch interview with J.J., 16-year-old student, Thailand, July 2, 2020.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with N.N., 17-year-old student, July 6, 2020.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with E.E., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 3, 2020.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with J.N., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 6, 2020.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with P.P., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 6, 2020.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with J.N., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 6, 2020.

[34] Human Rights Watch interviews with N.N., 19-year-old student, Thailand, July 1, 2020; J.J., 16-year-old student, Thailand, July 2, 2020; and E.E., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 3, 2020.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with N.N., 19-year-old student, Thailand, July 1, 2020.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with E.E., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 3, 2020.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with E.E., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 3, 2020.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with N.N., 17-year-old student, July 6, 2020.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with E.E., 17-year-old student, Thailand, July 3, 2020.

[41] Human Rights Watch, “People Can’t Be Fit into Boxes”: Thailand’s Need for Legal Gender Recognition.

[42] “Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) and Curtin University, Denied Work: An Audit of Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity in Thailand, December 18, 2018, https://www.undp.org/asia-pacific/publications/denied-work-%E2%80%93-audit-employment-discrimination-basis-gender-identity-south-east-asia (accessed September 30, 2022), p. 12.

[43] UNDP, “Review of the Progress of Enforcement of the Gender Equality Act 2015,” 2020, https://www.th.undp.org/content/dam/thailand/docs/UNDP%20TH_Gender%20Equality%20Act.pdf (accessed September 30, 2022).

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