by Pim Kemasingki
The President of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW), Chonchanok Viravan, said in a speech in Seoul in 2008 that Thai women were one of the most entrepreneurial groups of women in the world.
This claim has unfortunately not been verified, but as president of an association boasting 45 chapters in 100 nations with a membership of over a quarter of a million, she may be more in the know and closer to the truth than we think.
While Thai women have often been painted with such brushes as prostitutes, hind legs of elephants and meek 'n' mild housewives, the fact remains that millions go to work every day in all sectors and more and more of us are bringing home chunks of bacon, from a street vendor selling noodles to a grandmother making dolls. However, gender issues still persist in Thailand. Women's rights are not always upheld or enforced, educational opportunities are not always equal, old-school tradition often means that women do not have as much choice or support in their careers and a myriad of other women's issues are still cause for concern and address.
As you all know, we now have our first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Whatever your politics, it is gratifying to know that she is the first prime minister to shine a spotlight on women's issues in Thailand by establishing the Thai Women Empowerment Fund. The aim is to empower women from grassroots to national levels, creating a force, driven by women and for women, to further develop the nation. In practice, it means that 7.7 billion baht (between 80 and 130 million baht per province) has been allocated to help not just the already registered 10 million members, but all women in need, and to fund (so far) 35,000 women-focused projects nationwide. Projects are self-proposed by housewives' groups, co-ops, all the way up to district, provincial and national levels. They range from low- to no-interest loans to create opportunities for women, grants to develop women's potential and women's networks which care for women, budgets to solve women's issues in all dimensions as well as funding to support various women's projects such as training, up-skilling, education and career advice. With such a wide-reaching aim - which also encompasses social issues such as domestic violence prevention, legal issues such as equal rights, financial issues like loans, educational reform and outreach all the way to healthcare services - it is no wonder the project comes with such a huge price tag.
At its head is the prime minister, founder of the Thai Women Empowerment Fund, and surrounding her is a committee of five women's issues experts, 13 relevant government personnel and 15 handpicked female leaders in a variety of fields.
Chiang Mai's own Vacharee Sritrkul sits on the committee as one of the 15 female leaders.
Originally from Phuket, Vacharee moved to Chiang Mai to do her master's degree in Business at CMU, following her bureaucrat parents. She founded her company, Plauk Mai Décor, in 1993: a souvenir export business which became a large exporter of handcrafted wooden souvenirs ranging from candlesticks to key chains. Being an entrepreneurial single woman in the 90s in Chiang Mai was heady, she says. Export was brisk, business was fantastic and she travelled the world meeting clients and selling her products. As Vietnam and eventually China emerged as strong competitors, Vacharee utilised modern technology (at the time!) such as email, websites and good English skills to stay ahead. Following her success, she was voted in as secretary for the Northern Handicrafts Manufacturers and Exporters Association (NOHMEX), which has over 250 members. There she discovered in herself a great aptitude and love for working in Committees, addressing shared problems and finding shared solutions. Thirteen years ago she joined Chiang Mai's chapter of BPW, eventually being elected in 2010 as its president.
"My business is not as big as it was in the early days," said Vacharee, "but by adapting and being compromising, I have managed to survive quite well. Instead of seeing China as competition, I have simply worked and collaborated with them. They can make masses of items at prices I can't even talk about, but when it comes to finesse and quality, we still have the edge. So, let's say a key chain and its attached doll comes from China; they will now ship it to us to do the finishing touches and decorate it, putting it all together. This is a nice way to work for me."
Vacharee brings this understanding of compromise and the ability to adapt to her committees.
"I loved working for NOHMEX and BPW, sorting out differences of opinions, finding a mutually satisfying solution, working with strong, intelligent people; for me this is fun!" During her tenure as BPW president, Vacharee created the "First Grade Diamond" project, an initiative which worked to empower and prepare women in prison for their release. "We set up numerous programmes such as English language and our highly successful beauty school training. It was wonderful to see these women learning to be beauticians, and getting certified for it. We still hear of their post-release success stories today," she beamed.
In fact, her project was so successful that following the amazing fashion show she organised at Chiang Mai's Women's Correctional Institute, she won an award of excellence from Princess Sirindhorn.
So, when it came time for the prime minister to pick 15 women as advisors, Vacharee's name was put forth and immediately snapped up. "I was so excited the first day I arrived at Government House," she recalled. "It was such an honour. I had no idea what to expect."
"What I didn't expect was how hard we would all work," continued Vacharee, who has now been on the committee for one year. "We work directly with the prime minister. We are given thick pages of agendas which we have to research, comment on, discuss, decide and then follow up on. Yingluck is no figurehead. She knows each and every minute detail of our projects. She strategises with us, she has the facts stored in her head, she listens and allows her mind to be changed and she is decisive and firm in her decisions. I must admit that I am very impressed."
The committee itself meets once a month for a long session to discuss ideas, policy, funding, and other matters. Any woman in Thailand over the age of 15 may submit a proposal either directly to the PM's committee or in local chapters. Each province is allocated a budget and has a committee which then oversees smaller and smaller committees, going all the way down to village groups. Chiang Mai's budget is 130 million baht and is overseen by Wilai Buranupakorn of the prolific political clan Buranupakorn.
Although there have been some articles in the press about lack of transparency for the project, Vacharee says that it is well-controlled: "There are so many committees overseeing committees that this really is run by women for women."
"I am most proud of our latest project, the 'Smart Lady Thailand' initiative. The tagline to this project is something I love; it is 'women are beautiful because of their minds'. To get people really excited and understanding of what we are doing, we are making it very current and very public. Female applicants from all over the nation between the ages of 18-35 can apply to become the 'Smart Lady Thailand' and in October, the first round of those selected will be brought to Bangkok to train and be observed for a day. After that, 12 contestants will be selected to live in the Smart Lady house and will be filmed 24 hours a day, facing all sorts of challenges and receiving training and advice by experts in character, creativity, setting up projects, working as a team and finding ways to do activities for the greater good of society. It is a reality show and at the end of one month, the winner will be rewarded with the incredible prize of following the prime minister around, being by her side, for one whole year…travelling the world. We really believe that this will raise the profile of our entire fund and hopefully get more women joining in and submitting requests for various projects."
"I feel so empowered myself working at the national level and having the opportunity to do things which will truly affect change on such a national scale," said Vacharee. "And working with women for women is something that I find I really enjoy. Thai women are dynamic, intelligent, creative and able, and we are going to make sure that more and more women know this."
The Thailand Women Fund has so far also created numerous language learning centres to prepare women for the upcoming AEC. They've also set up a hotline - 1111, press 6 - to support any enquiries, and continue to approve funding for a wide-reaching number of projects nationwide.
For more information, visit: www.womenfund.in.th. To apply to join Smart Lady Thailand, visit: www.smartlady-thailand.com. The programme will be aired between the 16th of November and 15th of December on channel 60 on True Vision of HD 110.