04 August 2012

Education – for some still an unattainable dream

Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya

Napakorn Jateekoi, who works side-by-side with his father every day tending to the rice paddy or labouring in his family’s blacksmith shop in a remote village in Mae Hong Son province, sometimes dreams about getting an education.

But he doesn’t know if that dream will ever come true.
“I want to go to school, but I still don’t know when I’ll get a chance,” says Napakorn, 11. “I don’t want to work in the fields for the rest of my life.”

Napakorn and his 48-year-old father, Yapho, leave early each morning to walk to their rice paddies, which is located about a half an hour away from their home in Hua Pai, an ethnic Lahu village. The paddies are accessible only by foot, and to get there they must navigate a steep path and cross a river.

Napakorn works at a steady pace in the paddies, using a hoe to clear dry grass and prepare the soil for planting. He stops occasionally to rest, wipe off the sweat and get a drink of water. His heavily calloused hands, tanned skin and the way he goes about the work show that he has been doing this for years.

When there is no work in the field, Napakorn and his father work at the family’s blacksmith shop. Napakorn lights the coals that fire the forge, and sometimes helps his father shape iron on the forge. After his work is done at the blacksmith shop, Napakorn goes home to feed the pigs and chickens.
“Sometimes I work 10 hours a day – from morning till evening,” says Napakorn. “I feel tired. My body sores, and my hands hurt. But if we do not work, we will have nothing to eat.”

Distance and accessibility to school

Napakorn is the family’s middle child. His 18-year-old older brother is a construction worker in Chiang Mai, while his younger sister, now 9, goes to a boarding school in the valley.

Napakorn is among some 600,000 primary school age children in Thailand who are either not currently attending schools or who enrol late. Many children still do not receive an education because they have to work to help support their families or because schools are too far away from their homes.

“Napakorn can’t go to school because I do not own a motorcycle, and otherwise it is too difficult to get there” says Yapho “My daughter can go only because she is still small enough to squeeze onto neighbours’ motorcycles when they take their children to school.”

The school is about 15 kilometres – or about a three hour walk – from the village. Students who attend the school in the valley live there during the week and return home on weekends.  Yapho says he does not want Napakorn walk to school because he is afraid the boy might get lost in the woods.

A few years ago, Yapho sent his son to be ordained at a temple in Chiang Mai after learning that the novice monks were being provided with a free education.  But when it turned out that only those novices who were already literate were being schooled, Napakorn, who had never been to school before and could not read or write, gave up and returned to the village.

“I was very angry when he came back,” said Yapho. “I understood why he came back but I want him to study. I want him to have a future.”

Napakorn can now speak Thai and write his name, but still cannot read. He says that his dream is to be a teacher teaching hill tribe children. “I want to teach them Thai language,” he adds.

Importance of an education

Paku Jateekoi, the Hua Pai community leader, says that “All parents here want to send their children to school, but not all can afford to do so.”

Many Hua Pai villagers do not understand Thai, and Paku said that “without an education, it can be hard for them to contact or communicate with anyone” who does not speak Lahu.

Children who go to school can help parents to communicate with doctors or nurses when they are sick, Paku noted, and can also help them read and understand documents they need to sign.

UNICEF education project

UNICEF education programmes focus on promoting access to primary and lower secondary learning at an appropriate age. UNICEF works with the government, local partners and private sector to ensure that children, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, economic and social status, have access to education.

For the past seven years, UNICEF has been working on a hill tribe school project to bring teachers to remote areas of Mae Hong Son province so children can attend school and develop to their fullest potential.

So far, 33 UNICEF-supported hill tribe schools have been established under the project in the Muang, Pang Mapha, Pai, KhunYuam, Mae Sariang,

Sobmei and Mae La Noi districts of Mae Hong Son. More than 900 hill tribe children are receiving an education at these schools, and UNICEF is working together with local Education Service Area Offices to identify other children and communities that could benefit from similar support.

 “It is very crucial that hill tribe children get a primary education, especially to learn Thai and basic math,” says Rangsun Wiboonuppatum, Chief of the Education for UNICEF in Thailand. “Without these skills, it is very difficult for them to communicate with others and earn a living.”

UNICEF will continue to support the hill tribe school project and to advocate for the adoption of policies that will ensure all children living in remote areas of the country have access to an education.
For more information, please call UNICEF TV donor service center at 02 975-5704-9

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