07 March 2011

School's out

Story by Andy Brown/Video by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya

BANGKOK, Twelve-year-old Nuch (not her real name) lives with her mother Dao, stepfather and five siblings in a single room hut in a small slum settlement near the flower market in Bangkok. She used to go out begging in Bangkok’s commercial district but her mother decided to find another way to earn a living. Now, Dao goes to the market early each morning to buy flowers. She uses these to make garlands, which Nuch and her siblings sell to tourists and worshipers in the temple district of Banglumpu, undercutting the prices in shops.

“I leave the house with my mom, brothers and sisters around 5 or 6pm,” Nuch says. “We go to Banglumpu area with around 400 garlands. My mum sells some on pavement with my youngest brother, who is two and a half. I walk around the area with my other brothers and sisters to sell the rest. We only return after we sell them all, which can be anytime from 11.30pm to 2am.”

Working late at night on the streets puts children like Nuch at risk of abuse and exploitation. Her brother has already been detained by the police and sent to a shelter, although he’s back with the family now. Nuch also frequently misses school because of work. “I don’t usually go to school,” Nuch says. “Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. If mum doesn’t sell anything, she doesn’t have money for us to go. I like going to school but I’m still in Grade One because I flunked my exams so many times.

”Making ends meet is a constant struggle for the family. “We make around 500 baht a day selling garlands,” Dao explains, while preparing dinner for the children. “The rent is only 1,500 baht a month but I have to feed the children and pay for them to go to school. Yesterday Nuch left her earnings in a tuk-tuk so today we have no money to buy flowers.”

The slum is not the best environment for a child. It is a small settlement of 50 households, squeezed into a small plot of land between a school and main road. Except for the slum owner’s house, the homes are dilapidated wooden shacks, often on the verge of collapse, with electric wires hanging low across the walkways. There are attempts at decoration, with bird cages and pictures of celebrities torn from magazines outside some huts. Others are rented out for around 50 baht a day to migrant workers and prostitutes. Rubbish litters the ground, which the children run across with bare feet.

Although the settlement is next to a large, well-equipped school, the families cannot afford to send their children there. Instead, those lucky enough to go have to travel to a free temple school some distance away.

Right to an education

UNICEF Thailand is working to ensure that all children, including those living in Bangkok’s slum communities, get an education. “All children in Thailand have the right to access education by law,” UNICEF child protection officer Sirirath Chunnasart explains. “But officials often don’t realize this. They ask for identity documents like birth certificates that poor and migrant children rarely have. Children from other countries are often afraid to go to school in case they get arrested and deported.”

UNICEF is working with the Thai Government and local partners to develop a preventative approach to children out of school. Rather than taking them away from their families, we try to help the family out of poverty so that they can afford to keep their children in school. In Nuch’s community we are supporting Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in Thai), part of the NGO Friends International that does exactly that.

The organization works with the community in three ways. Firstly, they run a classroom in the settlement where staff provide life skills education to older children, along with a place to do their homework. Younger children come to the classroom for play activities, which provides an opportunity to deliver health care.

In the classroom, Nuch draws a picture of a house by a waterfall, surrounded by trees, butterflies and heart-shaped balloons. Her six-year-old brother Tor, meanwhile, plays with Lego bricks while a Friends worker cleans and dresses a cut on his foot. “The volunteers teach me how to do homework,” Nuch says. “Sometimes they ask me to draw pictures. I like it here because they are kind. It’s good that we have this classroom near our house because I walk there on the afternoons that I’m free. Mom never tells me not to go.”

“About half the children in the community come regularly to our center,” Ann Charoenpol from Friends comments. “We need to get to know them first, build their trust and find out about their situation. We give them an information card and they can call us if they have any problems.” The organization also works with the community to ensure the children get all the official documents they need. “We keep copies of all the documents in a file at our office. This helps ensure the children can get a place at school,” Ann adds.

Secondly, Friends runs a ‘child safe community’ scheme. They have trained 15 volunteers living in the settlement about child rights. The volunteers keep an eye on the children when their parents are not around and report any instances of abuse or domestic violence. “It’s a good thing to do,” says Nonglak Khaomok, 66. “If I see something wrong with the children, or if the family hits them, I will tell Friends. In the past there were lots of children who took drugs but now they are all good. The parents like it that we keep an eye on the children and take care of them.”

Income generation

Finally, the organization provides income generation activities for the families. They offer them funding, supplies and training to set up a small business such as making products from recyclable materials, which are then sold by Friends International. In return, the parents sign a contract promising to keep their children in school.

“I have six children and so many grandchildren I cannot count them,” says Noi, 59. “We used to sell groceries but the business had not been going well since the government evicted a lot of people from this area. Friends gave us the tools and training we needed to start a new business. Now my grown-up daughter makes necklaces with paper beads and I make shopping bags from old rice sacks. Friends buy the necklaces from us for 85 baht each and the bags for 60 baht.”

With support from UNICEF, Friends International is working in two slum areas of Bangkok, on the streets and in four shelters. But there are around 1,000 slums in Bangkok and many of the children living in them are still missing out on their education. You can help break this cycle by making a donation to UNICEF Thailand and supporting our campaign to get all children back in school.

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