11 August 2012

Life in the hills without an education

Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post on August 13, 2012)

MAE HONG SON, Thailand - Thanya Jateekoi, 9, is the middle child of an ethnic Lahu family living in remote Hua Pai village in the mountains of Mae Hong Son, Thailand’s most northwestern province. While her older sister goes to school, Thanya has to stay at home to look after her younger brother and help with chores around the house.

Thanya’s father, Jamu, says he can only afford to send one of his children to school.

“I am worried about my daughter’s future because she does not get to study like other children,” says Jamu, who makes a living growing rice and corn or by being hired to work in the fields of other village residents. “Without an education, she will have to work in the fields when she grows up, just like me.”

Jamu, 24, earns about 400 to 500 baht (US$ 13-16) a month working in the fields. But once the crops are harvested, he has no other way to earn income.

Jamu, says he feels sorry for his daughter when he sees her doing chores or carrying heavy buckets of water for household use, but there is nothing that he can do about it.

“I have no money to send her to school, and there is no one to take her there,” he says.

Jamu has no motorcycle of his own, so he asks people in the village who own motorcycles to give his eldest daughter a ride to a boarding school, which is located some 15 kilometres away in the valley. He usually pays for the petrol for the weekly trip, but when he has no money he exchanges work in the fields for his daughter’s transport.

Thanya’s daily life

Not long after roosters stop crowing, Thanya gets up and makes her bed, a simple thin mattress and some blankets on the floor. Six o’clock is the usual start of her day, and it is also when she begins her working day.

Every morning Thanya helps her mother cook for the family and prepare food for the pigs they raise. The family’s daily staple is rice with some chilli paste. When there is nothing else to eat, they scavange for wild vegetables in the forest. The pigs are raised to earn income and are only eaten when there is a special feast.

After breakfast, she feeds the pigs boiled squash and carries buckets of water from the river for the household chores. She then washes the dishes and takes care of her little brother, who is 5.

“I give him a shower and look after him,” says Thanya, who can speak and understand only Lahu. After cleaning up her brother, she dries and wraps him with a piece of cloth, and carries him on her back as she walks around the village.

Thanya sometimes also works in the field. Since she is still too small to use a hoe, she uses her bare hands to help pull the wild grass from the fields her parents are preparing for planting.

If she is not helping in the fields, Thanya stays home and washes the family’s clothes. She also cooks rice for her parents in the evening. If they return home from the fields late, she prepares the evening meal for herself and her brother, pounding dried chillies, mixing in a bit of MSG, and then having this with some rice. 

During her free time, she likes to sit in an old tire swing tied to a beam under her family’s house, and look out at the rutted and dusty trail that is the only road into the village.
“I want to go to school,” she says in Lahu. “I want to be able to speak Thai. And I want to be police woman when I grow up.”

Thanya 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 home.
Hua Pai village

Hua Pai, where Thanya lives, is situated in the rugged mountains of Mae Hong Son’s Pai District. There is no electricity or tap water there. Villagers use solar cells to store electricity for limited use at night, and rely on water from the river.

There are about 150 people in the village, 48 of them children. According to community leader Paku Jateekoi, about 15 of these children are over 7 years old but are not receiving an education.

The closest school is about 15 kilometres – or about a three hour walk – from the village. It takes longer than an hour to travel by motorcycle from the village to this boarding school in the valley due to the steepness of the road and its many winding curves. Students stay at the school from Monday through Friday and return home on weekends.

Getting children to and from the school is a problem for many families due to both the distance and the cost of petrol. Paku says it costs about 200 baht in petrol to take his daughter to and from school each week, so he sometimes leaves her at school for two to four weeks before he goes to pick her up again.

“All the children here want to go to school,” Paku says. “But because of the difficulty in getting there, they cannot. It would be great if there was a school near the village, so the children who do not have the opportunity to go to school can get an education.”

UNICEF education project

UNICEF is committed to getting all children into school regardless of their gender, social and economic status, or their ethnicity and religious beliefs. Since 2005, UNICEF has been supporting a project that provides ethnic hill tribe children in poor and remote rural areas of Mae Hong Son with access to a primary level education.

“The goal is to ensure that all children have access to schools where they are taught to read and write Thai and do basic math so that they can communicate with others and earn a living when they grow up,” says Rangsun Wiboonuppatum, Chief of the Education for UNICEF in Thailand.

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.

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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