BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – The abuse started when Areewan Jatuthong refused to move in with her boyfriend of a few months. He became angry and pulled her roughly, before saying “Let’s get married then.”
The former nursing student didn’t want to marry him. She was only 24 and not ready to settle down. Only two years earlier, she had been crowned the third most beautiful woman in Thailand.
“But I thought if I did what he wanted, it wouldn’t happen again and that he treated me this way because of love,” she told TrustLaw.
Areewan had many suitors but she dismissed the rich kids as only after her beauty and chose her husband for his attentiveness. Also, he wasn’t too different from her in terms of education level and wealth.
It turned out the beauty married the beast.
She wanted to wait before registering the marriage officially. He hit her. She gave in.
“He learnt then he could get what he wanted by hitting me because he couldn’t win by speaking or debating rationally,” she said.
Over almost a year the abuse got progressively worse. He hit her, poured hot candle wax on her body and once forced her at gunpoint to walk naked down the street, she said.
Neighbours knew but were scared to intervene. Her husband, the son of a retired army general, had guns.
He also forced her to sleep with him when she did not want to. This was 1996 and Thailand had not yet made marital rape a crime.
TAUGHT TO ACCEPT ABUSE
“Thai culture says if you get married, you stay married, and I was taught that as a wife you bear with it. Because of that and my celebrity status, I put up with it,” said the 41-year-old, who has retained her stunning looks, sitting in a cafe in the outskirts of Bangkok, dressed in a grey polo shirt that says "Will Work for Social Change" and white trousers.
One day, her husband fired his gun at the wall and the bullet flew past her. She decided to leave. She climbed the wall around their home, ran away and hid in a friend’s house.
Her husband threatened to kill her but he spoke to the press first, saying she had run away because of jealousy. This forced her to tell her side of the story.
“Then he said maybe I have HIV. So I had to go to the hospital, take a test and prove that I don’t have HIV,” she said.
The media circus went on for weeks but there was a silver lining. A women’s organisation contacted Areewan and sent a lawyer to advise her.
“That was the first time I learned I actually have rights over my own body and no one can hurt it, not even my husband,” she said.
She also learned how unfair the process could be after she filed charges against him. The burden is on women to prove they are victims of violence and law enforcement officials can’t do much to investigate it, she said.
“I tried to get the neighbours to give evidence but they declined, saying “You’ve left the neighbourhood but we still have to live here.””
Since then Areewan, now a constitutional law expert, has become an outspoken advocate for victims of domestic violence. She speaks publicly at schools and other places to throw light on an issue many in Thailand still regard as a family affair that should be kept quiet.
It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation but according to a 2011 government report, a survey in 2009 found that more than 350,000 women, 2.9 percent of the married women in Thailand, had experienced physical violence at the hands of their husbands in the previous year.
As a result of her ordeal, Areewan became interested in law. For four years, she worked during the day and studied in the evenings and graduated at the top of her class.
“When I studied law, I found that the first problem is that Thai society is discriminatory,” partly because the people who make the laws still believe men are superior, she said. “So I decided to study public law and human rights for my Masters.”
Thailand’s government is overwhelmingly male. The country has a female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and the population has one million more women than men, yet women fill only four percent of 7,000 local government positions, according to the United Nations.
Areewan’s husband is on a different trajectory. In 1998, he was sentenced to 6-1/2 years’ jail for abusing her. He was later sentenced to 18 years in jail after storming a police station armed with an M-16, and two years after his release he was arrested again in 2009 for the alleged rape of a student.
“Now that I’m a lawyer I look at the law through the eyes of someone who has been abused,” said Areewan. “There are a lot of women who put up with domestic violence, but if you’re being abused so often, the woman may snap one day and kill her husband,” she added. “I decided to run away so I didn’t have to kill him or myself.”
Areewan believes Thai society’s attitude to such things will and must change.
“That’s why I chose this path of working with people, because I feel one day it will change, even though it’s like moving a mountain.”