Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Contesting Cultures? Statelessness Programme intern Deirdre Brennan reflects on her research on statelessness in Thailand

Completing an internship is a mandatory component of my master’s programme and in November of last year I began my search for a position with an organisation working in the area of statelessness. My interest in statelessness began in 2011 when I interned at the human trafficking prevention non-governmental organisation DEPDC/GMS in northern Thailand. A large number of DEPDC/GMS’s target group are stateless hill tribe people, many of whom became, and still are, dear friends of mine. As is described in the series of short blogs dedicated to the situation of statelessness in Thailand, there are several impediments facing the 500,000 stateless people there. Personally, I was most taken aback by their restricted movement. Some of the people attending DEPDC/GMS had never left the immediate area, and the multiple check-points scattered along the surrounding roads ensure that it stays that way. The idea that friends of mine live with this kind of uncontrollable claustrophobia has stuck with me ever since. And so, here I am, thrilled to be part of a crucial project that aims to map the link between human trafficking and statelessness. I was also a culprit of regurgitating this so-called link without acknowledging that it had not been methodologically confirmed. While we eagerly await the findings of the surveys being conducted in northern Thailand, I have been busy transcribing interviews and composing a discussion note on recommendations for a planned intervention strategy that is due to be piloted this summer.
Already, much of the information garnered through interviews has got our minds grappling with the multifaceted relationship between human trafficking and statelessness, and with the complexities of an ever-changing human trafficking modus operandi. As with many research projects, new and previously unaccounted pieces of information arise as the research kicks into full swing. The cultural aspect was one piece of the puzzle not wholly taken into consideration before the Thailand Project team took off to the field. Several key informants flagged aspects of Thai culture as potential catalysts to the causes of human trafficking. The interviewees’ reflection on the Thai custom known as ‘bun khun’ caught my attention. Simply put ‘bun khun’ is a customary belief that children should give back to their parents or respected elders from the ages of twelve and upward. Out of obligation and respect for parents for giving their child life and raising them, the child should “make merit” to their parents. For boys this usually means entering monkhood for a duration of time. Due to Buddhism’s female-exclusionary traditions a girl cannot make merit in this way and her obligation of ‘bun khun’ is commonly redeemed through monetary means. How can stateless women, or girls, meet this expectation when formal channels to employment are inaccessible? I want to investigate this from the standpoint of our target group; is this practise still prevalent and how is it affecting the lives of stateless women in northern Thailand?
At the same time, how to work in a developing country context as a non-native has become a fervent interest of mine since beginning a Masters degree in Women’s Studies. Prior to the Masters programme I had completed a Bachelor degree in International Development and Food Policy. Transitioning from a social science programme to studying within the humanities has challenged me to engage in a new way of critical thinking. My overriding concerns lie with how development organisations can avoid accusations of modern-day imperialism or Westernization. Furthermore, what approach does one use to address and represent the subordination of women in different cultural contexts in a world where ‘female emancipation’ is a miscellaneous definition? Suggesting women should adhere to a specific level of liberation can fall subject to relativistic linking of differences. Alternatively, feminist scholars have argued that “respecting cultural difference” is a euphemism for denying women’s rights. Is there a ‘happy medium’ between these polar positions?
My Masters thesis aims to address the cultural component of Thailand Project’s planned intervention strategy. I want to employ a feminist lens to examine how we can take cultural and gender expectations into account during the development of this intervention strategy. Adding feminist theory to this development means engaging stateless women’s situated knowledge and being cognisant of issues of patriarchy, power and difference. To develop a deeper understanding of women’s lived experiences and how they relate to their social structures I am conducting interviews with women in Thailand via Skype. So far all I can say is I’m unsure whether it is ‘bun khun’ or, as one interviewee described it, “the new culture” of modernisation that is more of a concern for stateless women in northern Thailand. Nonetheless this makes for an intriguing study in a topic I continue to be passionate about, and a true challenge to my struggle with contesting cultures.
Deirdre Brennan, Statelessness Programme Intern

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