Bigger Than Boxes: Gender and Literacy in Thailand

Bigger Than Boxes presented by GAD (Gender and Development Committee)
Rae Richards, 129 TESS


What is literacy and why is it life-changing? Literacy includes the ability to read and write, certainly, but also includes our capacity to think critically about the world, construct and convey meaning, and make informed decisions for ourselves.[1] Unfortunately, literacy is not accessible for all. The barriers that already make life difficult for people worldwide– too much work and too few freedoms–  make their acquisition of literacy difficult, as well. These numerous barriers are not placed equally across the gender spectrum, however; instead, the data suggests the greatest burdens for literacy fall on women, girls and gender-nonconforming people. Efforts to build a more just future necessarily include efforts to achieve literacy in all reaches of the work, regardless of gender, and part of this responsibility falls on educators. Educators must wield their knowledge about gender barriers in a way that seeks to serve as many people as possible, working to eradicate gender barriers all together.

Literacy in Thailand: An Overview

As stated in a 2012 UNESCO report on gender and literacy in Asia, “restrictions to movement, poverty, early marriage, domestic work, discrimination, violence, non-ownership of assets and political disenfranchisement are all intertwined causes of illiteracy.”[2] When we zoom in to the Asia-Pacific region, the relationship between gender and literacy in Thailand becomes slightly more clear. According to a 2017 UNESCO report, adult literacy rates have improved in nearly every Asia-Pacific region, and from 83% to 96% in South East Asia– an astounding feat. And while gendered barriers persist, overall female literacy in South East Asia has improved at a higher rate than overall males from 1990 until 2016, which is hopeful indeed.[3] Unfortunately, these statistics on literacy do not tell the full picture– to get a better sense of literacy in Thailand, additional metrics should be used.

Financial Literacy in Thailand

Beyond the classroom, it is helpful to look at financial literacy to more fully understand the relationship between gender and literacy in Thailand. In most countries, men’s financial literacy tests higher than women’s; however in Thailand, the opposite seems to be true. Thailand is one of few countries in the world where women and girls outperform men and boys when it comes to numeracy.

In a household survey on financial literacy, DIW Berlin researcher Antonia Grohmann found that the middle class women and men surveyed had almost no difference in image2literacy levels, with women slightly outperforming men. This idea held true when looking at data from rural provinces and less affluent provinces as well,[4] an incredible feat all things considered. What’s more, the Thai women surveyed scored higher on average than those in Germany and the USA.

This may be due to cultural expectations on Thai women and girls to heavily engage in the job market or it may be due to other informal modes of education– the reasons why are unclear. What is clear is this data suggests that in this particular facet of literacy, Thailand’s women and girls are not as excluded as one might assume.


Gender barriers to literacy in Thailand overall are not as pronounced as in other areas of the world. Women and girls in Thailand are, on average, more literate than their peers; the exception and not the rule, it would appear. Further yet, when it comes to financial literacy, Thai women and girls excell. However, it would be misguided to stop efforts to eradicate barriers to literacy in Thailand based on this cursory glance.

There are many populations of people living in Thailand who have very little (or no) representation in the above data sets– for example, the various ethnic minority groups in Northern Thailand– and from the data we do have, we find their literacy rates aren’t nearly as high as official reports may suggest.[5] Thus, we aren’t  able to fully assess entire groups’ gender barriers to literacy, a huge problem when trying to assess the relationship between gender and literacy overall. Educators must remain resolute in efforts to expand our knowledge and encourage literacy in our classrooms. Encouraging literacy, financial and otherwise, must remain the center of our focus.

Click here to find a classroom activity pertaining to this topic.

[1] Alberta Education. “What is Literacy?” (2010)
[2] Bangkok: UNESCO. ‘Removing Gender Barriers to Literacy for Women and Girls in Asia and the Pacific.” (2012)
[3] UNESCO. “Literacy rates rise from one generation to next, but challenges remain in region.” ( 2017)
[4] Grohmann, Antonia. “The gender gap in financial literacy: income, education, and experience offer only partial explanations.” DIW Economic Bulletin 6.46/47 (2016)
[5] Kosonen, Kimmo, and Kirk R. Person. “Languages, identities and education in Thailand.” Language, Education and Nation-Building. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014. 200-231.

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