Voices That Must Not Be Forgotten

Text and photo by Werapong Prapha

Since January 2004, the Deep South of Thailand (Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwas) has been confronted with persisting conflict by the religious separatist insurgency groups who have demanded for a separation of the Deep South to be independent from the Thai state. According to the Deep South Watch, an independent organisation based at Prince of Songkhla University’s Pattani campus, the violent incidents are totalled at 14,741 (as at April 2015) – with 6,321 reported death and 11,408 injuries caused. Furthermore, it is estimated that the violent conflict has resulted in approximately 3,000 widows and 6,000 dependents.

These vulnerable groups of population are without their main income earners and thus are facing a real development challenge in a complex emergency. With recent escalating conflicts, it is worrying that the voices and suffering of vulnerable women groups will be forgotten and neglected by the tightening security controls of the military government.

However, there are groups of women in the Deep South who have suffered through the adversities of the conflicts but yet are determined to overcome their personal tragedies and provide for their remaining family members. These are women who have mostly lost someone or several members of their families to the conflict.

They are gaining their livelihoods back through engaging in community enterprises – based on locally sourced products and products that reflect their local customs and identity. For the past two years, some have grown steadily while others are turbo-charging their enterprises, hoping that they would become thriving small medium enterprises (SMEs).

A former teacher, Mananya or affectionately known as ‘Mama’, started a small enterprise in her kitchen to make a popular snack made of local herbs and nuts, known as ‘Miang-Kham’. Mama’s Miang-Kham is served as a convenient and healthy snack where one can eat anywhere, anytime. However, the most interesting factor about her enterprise is that entrepreneurs like Mananya seems to never stop learning and growing. The group grew in size and in sales, and is now looking for ways to connect with consumers outside the Deep South areas.

Nevertheless, incubating one’s enterprise in a conflict zone is never easy. Many of the women groups have expressed the following key concerns:

Inadequate development assistance: First, they have poor access to high quality services of economic empowerment – such as effective training programmes, trade facilitation to access markets and consumers, ability to improve their products to high standards. Some groups wish to remain producer groups, while others wish to become successful SMEs. Their needs are invariably different, but development assistance in the Deep South area is currently unable to cater for these.

Lack of coordination and partnership: Secondly, there is a lack of local and urban coordination between agencies working on similar issues. At the local level, it was found that local civil society organisations (CSOs) and public agencies do not share information and resources even though many are working on similar issues. Furthermore, the private sector in Bangkok and other national actors do not have appropriate channels to work in the Deep South. Given the high political and safety risks, many private sector companies have not been actively engaged on this issue although many have expressed strong interests.

Gender stereotypes: Thirdly, gender perception towards Muslim Women in the Deep South is very biased. Some stakeholders (for example, men in the community and local authorities) still perceive the role of women differently, especially their economic/income-earning role. This means that women have to be cautious about going to training and the markets to sell their products. The general perception about the role of women are still that of followers and incapable of running her own enterprises and taking on decision-making role.

From the above, it can be seen that a new working approach is needed in order to contribute to peace-building through local economic development. Women’s groups must be able to easily access markets, product development and business management capacities in their areas. The training and assistance programmes should be tailored in accordance to each group’s needs and are easily accessible.

In addition, women’s groups need to be supported by local and national networks in order to ensure that they have room for scaling up and their enterprises remain sustainable. A committed mentors network, which consists of private sector, public agencies and local CSOs, can be a useful tool to bridge this gap. Mentors can provide the women’ groups with technical expertise, market access advice and draw resources from non-traditional resources to add innovations and new ways of scaling up their enterprises.

The conflict in the Deep South represents a prolonged period of national anxiety for Thailand. Inevitably, an effective collaboration between the local communities, civil society, public agencies and the private sector is needed in order to tackle this complex issue from a multi-dimensional perspective. Development assistance needs to be more structured and systematic in order to ensure that assistance is invested where it is most needed and that many women’s voices will not be silent by the sound of violence.

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