New UNDP documentary shines light on political inequality in Thailand

08 Mar 2012

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Royal Thai Government launched today March 8, International Women’s Day, The Glass Ceiling, a 30-minute documentary which depicts the challenges women face when seeking public office in Thailand, also addressing policy options to improve women’s political participation—including through quota systems.

“Women’s empowerment is critical for human development,” UNDP Administrator Helen Clark says in the film. 

“And that means increasing the number of women participating in the process: From voting to being candidates…to being elected,” added Clark, who was New Zealand’s the first elected woman Prime Minister, serving three consecutive terms.

In Thailand there are one million more women than men, but women account for just four percent out of more than 7,000 local leadership positions. Women also hold only 16 percent of parliamentary seats—far from the Millennium Development Goal target of 30 percent of women in parliament by 2015.

“In reality, we see that Thai women play a big role, have a lot of endurance and have many capabilities; in some ways I have just received a bigger opportunity,” said Thailand’s first female Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the film. “I sincerely believe that many women, smarter than me, could do the job that I’m doing if the opportunity is provided.  It just happens that at this time the Thai people have given me this opportunity.”

Globally, women hold less than 20 percent of all parliamentary seats, but the Asia-Pacific region has the poorest performance outside of the Arab States: Around 18 percent of women in Asia and almost 15 percent in the Pacific hold seats in parliament. Regionally, numbers for women’s political representation at the local and provincial levels are even lower.

The Glass Ceiling chronicles the journey of a local political leader in Northern Thailand, Siriporn Panyasen, who was forced to leave school at the age of 16 to take care of her sick father, becoming the sole provider for a family of 12. Taking over family responsibilities and assisting her mother with village duties led many to respect the young Siriporn—also feeding her leadership aspirations.

When Thailand changed the law to allow women to run for political office, Siriporn was threatened and asked to step aside. She had hit “the glass ceiling”. With perseverance, love, and respect from her community, Siriporn became the chief of a local governmental unit in the Pichai sub-district, in Northern Thailand.

The film debuts on the heels of overwhelming public support in Thailand for political equality.  In 2011, UNDP and Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security commissioned a national study which surveyed public opinion on Thai attitudes towards women in politics. The results were remarkable: 86 percent of men and nearly 91 percent of women surveyed agreed that a gender quota system in Thai politics would help increase female participation and over 85 percent of respondents agreed that a gender quota system would improve equality and provide greater opportunities for women in Thailand to demonstrate their political skills.

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