Men for Gender Awareness
It is more than a decade now since a small group of Thai women began to systematically raise gender questions. They had to struggle against all kinds of difficulties. First they had to clarify for themselves what the reality of the situation was between men and women and what kind of relationship they wanted between them, both universally and in the Thai context. Next, they had to decide what they should do to address related problems. At the same time, they had to raise the awareness of other women on the issues, create alliances and build a women's movement to address the rights and welfare of women. And, not least, they had to struggle against resistance or even hostile counterattacks from men who dominated society.
In the last few decades many men have been exposed to debates and various forms of educational processes on women's issues in the different social movements that have formed. One wonders, then, why there has been an absence of men supporting women's causes, considering the fact that there have always been caring fathers, brothers, relatives and male friends.
In other countries, many men on their own initiative or influenced by the women's movement, have realized that it was men's own patriarchal views that cause of many of today's problems--problems such as economic inequality, family abuse, and sexual abuse. Some men have begun to speak out and take action against these problems. In Australia, men formed groups such as Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) and Men Against Patriarchy (MAP) as forums. These groups educated the public, especially men, and lobbied decision makers, as well as provided support. They do not exclude the help of women or even women's participation. However, men do feel that by keeping the groups as ´men's groups', it is easier and more effective for men to help each other and to take action.
Something similar has happened in Thailand. Some men have taken action in support of women's equality. These men are from nearly all walks of life--government officials, teachers, academics, monks and priests, lawyers, journalists, painters, singers, writers and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers. With increasing awareness of human rights in Thai society and the current debates on gender-related issues like prostitution, a number of these men feel that the time is ripe to form a men's group in Thailand.
After several discussions among both men and women friends, a core group of three people consisting of Phra Mahasomchai Kusonlajitto, the Vice-Rector of Maha Chulalongkom Buddhist University, Piphop Udomitthiphong from the Thai Interreligious Committee for Development, and Chris McMahon from the Social Support for International Women came together. They agreed to play a central role in coordinating people who are interested in setting up a men's group. This group intends to promote gender awareness among men and to work towards an understanding by men of themselves, of other men, and of relationships between men and women. The group's name, especially the Thai one, has changed several times in order to avoid misunderstanding. At an October 3, 1993 meeting, the group agreed to call itself Men for Gender Awareness (MEGA). The group's formation, if not historic, is certainly unique in Thailand.
More than ten women have participated among the 30 people who've come to the last four meetings. MEGA intends to be a men's group for the same reasons men's groups have formed in other countries. They feel that it is easier for men to accept suggestions and criticisms from other men, and for the group to take action on gender issues. MEGA shares the belief that patriarchy is the root cause of many problems in Thai society. The group will mainly target men in an attempt to raise their awareness. Women can help as advisers and/or participate in many of the group's activities.
MEGA's objectives are:
- To arrange activities that will enable men to be more sensitive to each other and toward women, in order to find peace in themselves and in society.
- To cooperate with various organizations and individuals to campaign among men for greater gender understanding.
- Provide emotional support for members
- Support other groups and individuals working for greater understanding between women and men.
Monks and laypeople, foreigners and Thais are welcome to join the group. Members are encouraged to initiate their own activities, in MEGA's name, without having to consult other members, on the basis of mutual trust. "If we want to achieve a better understanding between men and women," a Buddhist monk said, "we should start with ourselves first and then turn to our family, friends and so on. The most important thing is that men should understand themselves and that will help them to understand women because men's sufferings are similar to women's sufferings."
To attract new members, the group will write letters to newspapers, organize seminars and public talks, and direct campaigns to publicize their work.
The core group, many of whom work full time, will try to come up with ideas to offer to others. Every two months the core group meeting will be expanded to an open forum so non-members can attend. Resource people will be invited to lead discussions at these open forums on specific topics. On April 14, Thai Family Day, information was distributed about the group.
Some prominent Thai personalities, including attorneys, human rights activists and singers, have agreed to act as senior advisers to the group.
It was decided that the group should remain small for a few years and work toward developing a grassroots network, rather than aim for an organizational structure immediately. This is how women's groups have developed into permanent structures. MEGA has already gained the support of several other organizations.
There has been discussion about a campaign against prostitution. Campaigns in the past have mostly been done by women's groups, reflecting a women's perspective on the issue. A campaign against prostitution led by a men's group would lend more legitimacy. It is also one of the more obvious issues that all people, including men, can campaign against.
MEGA members feel that we should emphasize family values and related ideas, religious and secular. For instance, the third precept (a basic moral code adhered to by all Buddhists) is to abstain from sexual misconduct. One of MEGA's goals is to educate men that buying sex from a prostitute does not show manliness. Instead, it is treating women as sex objects and destroying their families, mentally and physically. The most common way to spread AIDS in Thailand is through heterosexual intercourse between men, prostitutes and wives. A MEGA campaign against prostitution would contribute to changing men's attitudes and behavior, consequently reducing the spread of AIDS.
MEGA's first bi-monthly meeting, in November 1993, looked at the proposed Prostitution Suppression Bill, then under review by the Thai House of Representatives. For the first time, this bill would make it illegal for a man to buy sex from a prostitute. MEGA members educated themselves both about the issue and about how to lobby decision makers. Contact: Men For Gender Awareness, 124 Wat Thong Nopphakhun, Somdej Cheophraya Road, Bangkok 10500, Thailand. Tel. +662 437 9445; fax +66 2 437 9450.
Reprinted from the Friends of Women English-language publication, FOW Newsletter, available for US $10 (international money order) from Friends of Women, 1379/30 Soi Praditchai, Phahonyothin Road, Samsen-nai, Bangkok 10400, Thailand.