Beyond an Ice Cream Café: An Open Space for Thai Society to Celebrate and Co-create Family Diversity Policy

Author: Pattamon Rungchavalnont, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand, in collaboration with Karnklon Raktham, Policy Communication and Engagement Specialist, Thailand Policy Lab

July 31, 2023

“Do you want to have children?” This is a fairly common question one gets, but when it comes from your physician to determine the course of your medical treatment, it is something very different. When I know the answer could lead to the removal of my major reproductive organs, it pushed up the decision that I thought I still had years to take. As a member of the LGBTI community, I immediately picked up the phone and called facilities that offer reproductive technology services, hoping to obtain information that would assist me in my decision on childbearing. It was only to find out that all the advanced technologies that we have today are only available to legally married couples; and the Thai law currently only recognizes heterosexual unions. Despite all the advertisements on reproductive technology services that become increasingly common in Bangkok, those services are, in fact, not accessible for an LGBTI like me. Sadness and anger coursed through me as I felt the choice being taken away from me, not by the limitation of nature but by the laws that our society creates to dictate who has the right to what services.

The Thailand Policy Lab, the “child” of UNDP and the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC), has been working on the issue of the declining population in Thailand. Like many developed countries, Thailand has become an aging society with a declining birth rate. The common question often revolves around “Why don’t the new generations want to have children?”. However, the personal story above also raises a question from the other side, “Why can’t some people who want to have children do so?”. The legal limitations do not only affect LGBTI communities but also single individuals who feel strongly about having children and are willing to be single parents. The conventional view of family may paint a rigid picture of two heterosexual parents and their biological children, but the lived experiences reflect much more diverse forms of family- from same-sex families to single parents, couples who enjoy their lives without children, people who happily live in solitude or with their pets, etc. Suddenly, the conversation around population issues becomes one about diversity and inclusivity as well. The whole ecosystem of policies, laws, and public services needs to adjust to the changing conception of family to reflect the diversity of experiences of people today.

Colliding with Pride Month in June, the Thailand Policy Lab in collaboration with UNDP Thailand’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion team and the UNDP Accelerator Lab Thailand set out to open the space of the redefinition of family, one that embraces diversity and fosters inclusiveness. Needless to say, I was thrilled to get on board with this initiative. My excitement came not only from 'what' we were trying to accomplish but also 'how' we were going to do it. After lively discussions and brainstorming, the teams co-designed the ‘Diversity Café’, inviting people to share their diverse perspectives on family forms. Instead of focusing only on the traditional perception of families, we open the space for embracing the diversity of families that people define for themselves. This is our first step in trying to understand how people think of family today, so that we may shape policies that correspond to the changing reality. This blog is to reflect on creative communication strategies to open space for exploring family diversity and create a new participatory experience for citizens to shape public policy. Perhaps we can cherish family diversity like we love diverse ice cream flavours!


What is going on with demographic changes and the concept of family in Thailand?

First of all, let's have a look at how the composition of the population is changing in Thailand. The country now has fewer children, more elderly, and a shrinking working age population. I see this pattern everywhere, even in my own family: I have only one brother while my mother has seven siblings. The statistics confirm it too. From an average of six children in 1964, the average number of births per reproductive-aged woman (15-49 years) in 2014 has dropped to less than two. As a result, the share of children in the total population has dropped from 38.3% in 1980 to 19.2% in 2010. Meanwhile, the proportion of elderly in the population has increased from 5.5% in 1980 to 12.9% in 2010 (UNFPA, 2015). There are many factors contributing to the declined birth rate, for example, more women having higher education and entering the workforce, delayed age of marriage and lower fertility, and increased costs of raising a child, among others. In addition, there is also a shift in personal value; more and more people are living alone- from 6% in 1987 to 14% in 2013 (UNFPA, 2015). 

Considering these demographic changes, the notion of family must be re-defined to recognize the diverse reality of lived experiences. Some families are formed through bloodline connections, while others are chosen by individuals themselves. Consider LGBTI couples — they definitely have their own definitions of families but are not yet recognized by law. Friends or pets are also defined by some as family members. The forms of families are becoming more diverse while their size is getting smaller. This raises an important question: Are policies, laws, and public services able to meet the changing needs? Have we legalized same-sex marriage? Do we have adequate welfare support for single parents or those who choose to live alone? To design inclusive policies, we need to listen to the lived stories and diverse needs of families, to truly understand them. Families and relationships form the foundation of human life, and this foundation is built on diverse forms of love that transcend age, gender, ethnicity, or religion. If we do listen with our heart, we will start to understand the diversity of families and we will see that beyond the horizon, there are families who are waiting to be accepted and supported by us all.

Inspiring, Impactful and Innovative Communication: Families as Ice Cream Flavours

When we talk about the Right to Family for everyone regardless of their gender identities or other backgrounds, it can be a heavy and sensitive subject. The conventional notion of family remains strong, so efforts to broaden the discussion can be difficult to push. We need to develop a creative communication strategy that would allow us to open this Pandora’s box and create a space for honest sharing to gain insights into people’s views of families. This is the origin of the Diversity Café, an interactive exhibition space where people can explore the world of family diversity and share their opinions through an online survey – where offline and online communication collided to stay in touch with people on the ground yet utilize digital technology for wider engagement. The highlight is the ice cream that they would get at the end of the survey! 

Diversity is what defines families, much like the variety of flavours in ice cream. Each person has their own unique definition of family, so we offer ice creams that reflect their notion of family. We collaborated with Jinta Homemade Ice Cream to co-create ice cream flavours that represent diverse forms of families. Let’s have a look at what they are: 

  • 'Family Delight' flavour, a special flavour to celebrate any non-traditional forms of family, made of coconut, butterfly pea, flowers and lime sauce, its diversity and variety of the ingredients represent different choices of the people in defining their families. Your family member can be your friend or community. You define it! 
  • ‘Parental Bliss’ flavour represents a family in which children play a crucial part, made of chocolate and passion fruit. Chocolate, as kids’ favourite sweet, is a main ingredient of this flavour to represent a family with children. It is not limited to couples of opposite gender assigned at birth but includes LGBTI families who desire to have children, but are not yet supported by laws. It also includes a single-parent family.
  • ‘Equal WE WE’ flavour is created for a family consisting of partner(s), regardless of their gender identities. This form of family is not constrained by societal expectations to have children. The flavour is made of watermelon and dried fish, the two ingredients of a classic Thai dish.
  • ‘MEJoy’ flavour, a special flavour to embrace and celebrate a happy-solitude family which should not be judged or discriminated against by society, as everyone has the right to choose their own way of living. MEjoy flavour is made of pineapple and salt and ground red/green peppers, a fresh fruit as a main ingredient represents a happiness of a happy-solitude family.
  • ‘Generational Crunchy’ flavour, made of a rare combination of bitter melon and cheesecake, represents a multi-generational family where love glues them together. When people think about a bitter melon, a bitter melon soup often comes to their minds, it is a traditional Chinese dish cooked by grandparents at home, while a cheesecake is a popular dessert among young generations in Thailand.

Of course, I did not miss the chance to do the survey and get the ice cream myself. I was happy to have a chance to share my voice that regardless of my gender identity and sexual orientation, I also want to have the choice of how I want to build my family. Also, like other people, I have many concerns and factors for consideration when it comes to having children - from financial stability to legal aspects and so on. What I did not expect from this experience at the diversity cafe was that it gave me and my mother a space to talk about our different views of family building. For example, while financial stability is a major concern for me and many from my generation (nowadays, raising kids can be so expensive!), my mother shared that people in her generation did not think of financial stability as a prerequisite at all. Countless families build their wealth while raising their children, not waiting to become financially secured before having one. Going back a generation further, my grandmother’s generation even preferred having many children so they could help with work, bring income into the family, or serve as a trusted team to grow a family business. Having children to take care of them in old age was also a common form of retirement and pension scheme. From that dialogue, I came to see an evolution of what people think of family and children- the diversity that changes with time and must be understood by policymakers.

Power of positive deviance, how families of unconventional forms navigate in the inconducive environment

Turning the subject into something light and easily relatable is a good start but not enough. We also need to shine the light on the diverse family forms out there and how they navigate in the inconducive environment – real-life stories showing that love wins despite all. This is where we turn to positive deviance, a method in social sciences that urges us to look for uncommon but successful behaviors of individuals or communities that enable them to find better solutions. Despite facing common challenges and restrictions, some individuals are able to reach desired outcomes while others cannot. 

Among the many stories presented at the Diversity Café, one is the story of Jeab (Matcha Phorn-in), Joom (Veerawan Wanna), and Hong (Siriwan Phorn-in) - a lesbian couple and their adopted daughter. As members of an ethnic community, their same-sex relationship is not accepted. Jeab and Joom have resisted the social pressure and founded their family with love and courage. They have been raising Hong who is Jeab’s biological niece. As Thai law allows one person to adopt a child, Jeab wanted to legally adopt Hong. However, the twist came when the extended family did not allow this plan to proceed as they do not accept Jeab and Joom’s same-sex relationship. If Jeab was single, the adoption would have been accepted. Thus, this is the case where the problem lies in social acceptance and not the law. The family has also been a victim of gender-based hate crimes and bullying. Their struggle drove them to become gender equality activists at the national and global levels through the Sangsan Aanakot Yawachon organization and the International Family Equality Day community, and after years of patience, Hong is now of legal age to consent to her own adoption. She formalizes her ‘family of choice’ by signing her own adoption paper which legally recognizes Jeab as her mother. People usually say, “have a child when you are ready” but in Hong’s case, it is the reverse: “have a mother when you are ready”. The story of Jeab-Joom-Hong family is an inspiration for all families to stand up for the people they love and call for changes at all levels to embrace the diversity of families. 

Left to right: Joom Veerawan Wanna, Hong Siriwan Phorn-in, Jeab Matcha Phorn-in

Looking back, looking forward 

During the five days of the exhibition, the Thailand Policy Lab, the Accelerator Lab Thailand, and the UNDP Thailand's Gender Equality and Social Inclusion teams felt truly empowered by the exhibition visitors. The hopes for our country, as projected by the people, were loud and clear. Conversations, motivations, and inspirations were shared within our open space, driving for changes. "Thank you for including us in your policy design" was a comment we often received at the exhibition. We have learned that an open space can show people that they are not alone in this long journey, and every gender identity is embraced. Creating a new participatory space like our ice-cream café brings us to the new edge of 'inclusivity'.

Now that we have set the scene and collected the data from over 1,000 survey correspondences, Thailand Policy Lab and Accelerator Lab Thailand will analyse the data to generate insights into how people now think about family forms and the factors that influence their decision to have children. These insights will be the foundation for inclusive policies that promote the Right to Family for all people. Through this initiative, I got to turn my frustration with the current situation into a creative force for a better, more inclusive tomorrow. I know it is still a very long way, but I sure am hopeful that our effort will inspire a mindset change and policy shift in Thailand so that everyone can follow their hearts and build their families in their own chosen ways. That will be the kind of society I want to live in. Would you want that for yourself and your family?