04 March 2012

Looking through the lens of children’s rights

Munlika Hutamai, 17, is committed to do what she can to help promote children's rights.© UNICEF/Thailand/2012/Nattha Keenapan

Story by Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post on May 18, 2012)

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – To many people, a Ministry of Education regulation that  stipulates a specific hair length for female students in public schools may not appear worthy of discussion by a United Nations committee. But for 17-year-old Munlika Hutamai, who had a chance to voice her opinions about the rights of children in Thailand to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this year, the issue reflects what she sees as a major obstacle towards the realization of children’s rights in Thailand: the attitude of adults towards children.

“Many adults think they have all the power when it comes to dealing with children,” said Munlika, a Grade 12 student in Ayutthaya Province. “Some of my friends were not allowed to take exams just because their hair was a bit longer than the required length. I think our academic achievement should not have anything to do with how long our hair is.”

Munlika was one of two children who joined Thailand’s official delegation in Geneva in January, when the Minister of Social Development and Human Security and other senior officials presented the country’s report on what it is doing to ensure children’s rights are respected. As one of  193 countries that has ratified the Conventions of the Rights of the Child (CRC), Thailand is obligated to undertake the actions needed to promote and protect the rights of all children and to report on the progress it has made to the Committee every five years.

By ratifying the CRC in 1992, Thailand agreed to ensure that children – without discrimination in any form – benefit from special protection measures and assistance; have access to services such as education and health care; can develop their personalities, abilities and talents to the fullest potential; grow up in an environment of happiness, love and understanding; and are informed about and participate in achieving their rights.

The Thai delegation reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the progress Thailand has made in ensuring these rights, including improved legislation and policies to protect children, improved access to health services and education, and progress towards universal birth registration, Munlika, however, focused on a different agenda. To her, children’s participation is the issue that is central to all other child rights, but which is too often overlooked.

“Thai adults don’t really listen to children,” said Munlika, a straight-A student who was chosen from among 60 short-listed students nationwide to represent Thailand’s youth in Geneva.  “When we share our opinions in class, some of the teachers think we were trying to argue with them. We are not free to say what we think, and I believe this is due to problems related to both our culture and adults’ attitudes.”

Munlika gets to voice her opinion about the rights of children in Thailand to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland. .© Photo courtesy of Munlika.

Munlika said when children are not encouraged to speak out, they find it difficult to share their opinions in a constructive way when they grow up. In addition, Munlika believes that when children are not trained to think on their own, they end up lacking the analytical skills that are key to their overall development and reaching their full potential. And as a result, Munlika says, when children lag behind, the country also lags behind.

Munlika’s says her travel  with the official Thai delegation  to Geneva, which was supported by UNICEF, helped her realize that hundreds of thousands of children in Thailand still live in poverty, are not in school and are at risk of abuse and exploitation. In her own community in Ayutthaya, Munlika says drugs, gangs and violence remain major problems.

Such problems are also common in the far south, which is home to Peemrapat Rongsuwat, 17, the other child chosen to represent Thailand.

Peemrapat, is from Narathiwat Province, one of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, where violence has claimed more than 5,200 lives since early 2004. Peemrapat says poverty and the lack of education are the two biggest challenges facing children in his community.

“Every day on my way to school I see children my age just hanging out because their parents cannot afford to send them to school,” said Peemrapat, who was born and grew up in Narathiwat Province. "Some families have many children, and their parents are not always able to take good care of all of them. As a result, some turn to drugs, and some are lured into insurgency groups. This is sad." 

Despite living with the on-going violence, Peemrapat chooses to see life in a positive way. Peemrapat, a Buddhist whose best friend is a Muslim, strongly believes that religion is not the cause of the unrest in the south and that life in Narathiwat is not as scary as it appears in media reports. He was proud to tell the CRC Committee and other people he met in Geneva that Buddhists and Muslims in his neighborhood are living in harmony.

Munlika and Peemrapat said the experience with the delegation helped them realize that children are extremely valuable to society. Both have shared their experiences in Geneva with media and also with friends, and both said they are committed to do what they can to help promote and protect children's rights.

"Now I think less about myself and more about other children who are less fortunate," said Munlika. “I now look at things through the lens of children's rights."

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