Muslim women in Thailand’s insurgency-plagued southern region face problems of discrimination under state and religious law, as well as cultural norms, that are exceedingly difficult to address, a prominent human rights activist told TrustLaw.

“Women’s rights in Thailand, from my opinion, are OK,” said Angkhana Neelapaijit, chairperson of the Working Group on Justice for Peace (WGJP). “But when we talk about women in the minority groups, it’s still very poor.”

Islamic laws on inheritance, divorce and polygamy, which favour men, leave wives in the Muslim-majority southern provinces with mounting debts when their husbands die or leave them for other women. At the same time, a social tradition that considers domestic violence a private matter prevents abused women from seeking help and legal redress.

Neelapaijit, who published a report on this issue in May 2010, also pointed out that women whose husbands are detained as suspected insurgents by the government or mysteriously disappear suddenly find themselves to be the sole family breadwinners, with little help from the state to survive or even to find out what happened to their spouses.

A woman widowed as a result of insurgency-related violence will not get the full 300,000 baht ($10,000) government assistance to widows because religious elders see this as inheritance and will divide the money among the relatives, she said.

The violence in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where ethnic Malay Muslim separatists are fighting for autonomy from the majority Buddhist country, has killed over 4,500 people and injured more than 7,500 since the conflict began in 2004. Currently, some 600 people are detained as suspected insurgents.

“The people behind the sons and the husbands that are killed are women – they are the real victims,” said Neelapaijit. “And they have to change from victims to survivors and also help the society.”

Neelapaijit would know. Her own husband, Somchai Neelapaijit, was a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer. He was abducted in 2004 in a case that rights activists say involved obstruction of justice by police and government officials.

On March 11, a Thai appeals court acquitted a police officer accused of involvement of Somchai's disappearance. "The witnesses were threatened. I was threatened," Neelapaijit told AFP, vowing to take the case to the Supreme Court.

The award-winning human rights campaigner set up WGJP in 2006 to “help ordinary people like me get access to justice,” she said. “It’s not easy for ordinary people to bring cases of human rights abuses especially if the perpetrator is a state officer.”

DISCRIMINATION UNDER RELIGIOUS LAW MOST DIFFICULT TO ADDRESS

However, she said, “When women receive unfair treatment from the state, they can go to human rights activists and complain about this. But when they receive unfair treatment from the imam or other religious leaders, it is very difficult for them to access justice.”

More than 80 percent of the population in southernmost Thailand are ethnic Malay Muslims. A Muslim Attorney Centre provides free legal help to the primarily male detainees, but there are no law firms specialising in women’s rights.

Domestic violence is common in these southern areas, Neelapaijit said, but women find themselves unable to get help because religious leaders and social tradition consider it an internal problem and “a good woman will not talk about it.”

The same holds true for women living with HIV/AIDS. Regardless of how they were infected, they are seen as sinful. As a result, many women do not seek treatment from the public health system for fear of being ostracised.

But the most difficult problems are faced by the families of men who are the victims of forced disappearance, she said. The problems are both financial and social because the wives of such men women cannot remarry. Neelapaijit said Islamic scholars told her a person can be considered dead if disappeared for over 90 years.

“I’m not sure whether it’s under Islamic law or the Malay tradition, but manyof them say this... but when the wife is only 20 or 22 when the husband disappeared, that’s a long life,” she said.

“How can she be in mourning all her life? The scholars say Somchai’s case is very popular so it can be assumed he is dead,” she said of her missing husband. “But what about the others?”

SITUATION MAY NOT IMPROVE WITH NEW GENDER EQUALITY LAW

“It’s not the religion that violates women – it’s when men interpret it in their own way for their benefit,” said Neelapaijit.

The situation may not improve with the planned Gender Equality Bill.

“Article three of the planned law says no one must be discriminated unless the reason is academic or religious or for public good,” she said. “What’s the meaning of equal then?”

Neelapaijit said the refusal of Thai government to classify the situation in its southernmost regions as ‘an armed conflict’ – it has been called ‘unrest’, ‘disturbance’ and ‘restive’ by the authorities – also makes it more difficult for Muslim women to get protection.

In an armed conflict, the rights of women and girls must be protected under the Security Council resolution 1325. “But when it is not considered an armed conflict, everything could happen,” she told TrustLaw.

Saying there is an armed conflict in southern Thailand could attract neighbouring countries to get involved, something Thailand is keen to avoid. The country has long maintained the issue is an internal matter and Neelapaijit said she’s been told by a Thai diplomat not to “name and shame your country.”

But Neelapaijit said the experience from other countries show the importance of women in the peace process. In southern Thailand, women are not empowered and cannot say ‘No’ to their husbands, and therefore become involved in the violence as victims.

“If we want to solve the conflict problem, to have a sustainable solution, we need to be thinking about women and family. If the family bond is strong, then she can protect her family members,” she said.

Neelapaijit admitted to being afraid herself, having been threatened every time a verdict on her husband’s case has been scheduled – it has been postponed four times – and is worried she may have upset Islamic leaders. But she is not stopping.

“I don’t think of it as this is my call or not,” she says. “Because for me, I think I’m not called to fight (the system). I just think it is my right.”