A guest post by Christine Rose, SOLD Project Bay Area Representative and Volunteer.
Don’t you hate predictable endings?
None of us enjoy a movie where the plot has no imagination, the characters progress as expected, or the outcome is as anticipated. We love plot twists, surprise endings, and dramatic interventions that rescue, transform, and redeem. We love stories that create unlikely heroes.
Tragically, for children in rural northern Thailand, very little imagination is required to predict the typical outcomes of their lives. For many, their stories are set in extreme poverty, limiting the number of possible options and increasing the risk of exploitation.
The unlikely heroes of this story are Fah and Chai, sister and brother, ages 13 and 11. Their father is uneducated and works as a field laborer for $5 per day (half of the official minimum wage of $10 per day). Like many men in the community, he struggles with alcoholism. Two years ago, he left their family. One year ago, Fah and Chai’s mother passed away in a motorcycle accident. After living with their aunts for a few months, their father returned to care for the children. Whether or not his return has improved their lives is, unfortunately, questionable. The financial death benefit from the government long gone, he continues to drink, leaving the children alone and with no food for extended periods of time.
Recent history has taught us that, most likely, their path will go one of two directions. If they choose to stay in their village, Fah will be prone to abuse and exploitation, have very little education, become pregnant by the age of 16, and become a field laborer or factory worker earning minimum wage. Chai will likely follow in his father’s footsteps: working in the fields by day, drinking by night. It is unlikely Fah or Chai will ever earn more than $5 per day.
What does life look like on $5 per day? Many families augment this small wage by growing a vegetable garden, or perhaps raising a few chickens. $5 can only purchase rice for meals, fuel for the stove, and other bare necessities. Owning a motorbike (the preferred method of transportation) is unlikely. Paying for costs required for schooling is simply out of the question. Nothing is easy. Nothing is simple. Nothing is convenient.
While education is technically free in Thailand, the required textbooks, uniforms, and transportation to/from school are not. For those in the most rural areas with the least discretional income, the extra transportation cost to school is enough to rule out education past grade eight. The Thai government is working to make university education affordable, but what benefit is that to Fah and Chai if they can’t afford a high school education?
There is an increasing gap in the socio-economic quality of life between those living in rural Thailand and the rest of the country. Agriculture accounts for nearly 40 percent of all hours worked in Thailand and yet those workers receive only a little more than 10 percent share of Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP). Compare that to Industry, which accounts for barely 20 percent of the working hours and receives well over 40 percent of the GDP. The lure of greater wages is a key contributor to more than one million people a year migrating from rural villages to urban centers. This migration places increased demands on government and NGO resources, making them less available in places where young people like Fah and Chai live.
Northern Thailand is also home to a vast majority of indigenous, or hilltribe, people. Many are generational refugees from oppressive regimes in surrounding countries. It is estimated that 50 percent of hilltribe people are unregistered, leaving them entirely without access to government resources. This includes education, legal recourse, financial aid, and health care. These people are off the radar in terms of receiving assistance and support.
Poverty is one of the universal factors that place a child at risk for exploitation. “Off radar” is a dangerous place to be.
The other path Fah and Chai could take is to accept one of the several “offers” that will come their way to move to the city, get a job in a restaurant or factory, and have money to send back home to their father and aunts. Tempting, considering their options. But the last few decades have consistently proven that these “offers” are often a ruse to entrap young children, sexually exploit them, and cast their new story in a setting of indentured servitude, inflicting both emotional and physical abuse.
That’s the plight of our two heroes. The tragic loss of their mother, combined with their already tenuous living conditions, increases their risk to the sexual and physical exploitation that is always lurking for vulnerable children in this part of the world. No one wants to see this movie…it’s both predictable and depressing.
Fah and Chai come from a village where The SOLD Project is working to disrupt the predictable trajectory of at-risk children living in northern Thailand. SOLD deliberately chooses to work with those furthest removed from opportunity and resources.
SOLD offers scholarships that defray the cost of uniforms, supplies, and transportation for elementary education, continuing that sponsorship through university. SOLD set up a Resource Center in Fah and Chai’s village where the village children can receive tutoring and even access the internet to learn computer skills. In addition, SOLD offers critical mentorship for the children and community awareness of exploitation risks for the village families. Education, resources, mentorship, and awareness are the core program elements of SOLD.
“We don’t know with 100 percent certainty what we can accomplish, but that doesn’t stop us from being involved and doing the best we can to affect change. We help the young people and families make healthier choices.” – Worn Donchai, SOLD Sustainable Program Director
The environment these young people live in is nothing new to the SOLD staff. Many of the staff members themselves have personally experienced what these students are living every day. Some were raised in the same region where SOLD has a presence; being a scholarship recipient from a western organization; being an orphan with the need for sponsorship; being raised in a hilltribe village without citizenship. The staff members share their compassion and personal experience with the students, showing by example that these hardships can indeed be overcome.
“The kids tell us everything now that they have someone they can trust. The kids learn from the staff’s example.” – Ketsara Thutsunti, Prevention Program Manager
Lek is a high school senior who has been receiving scholarships and mentoring from SOLD since 2008. She is delightful, poised, and determined. Her mother has a debilitating disease and Lek realized that the responsibility to care for her family was on her. With several of her friends already married with children of their own, Lek chose to focus on education to accomplish her goals of providing for herself and her family.
Lek will soon graduate from high school and has already been accepted to four universities. Quite remarkable, considering her upbringing. In the meantime, Lek leaves her home at 6:30 every morning to get to school on time. When she gets home, she does all the family chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, and dishes) before beginning her homework and regularly going to bed after midnight. With matter-of-fact resolve, she says that she’s tired now, but will have a better life for her and her family in the future. Lek reflects the spirit of SOLD – to provide opportunity for young people who are seeking it, intending to break the current cycle they see around them. Hopefully Fah can follow in Lek’s steps.
Thank you so much for this opportunity. You are like a light that shines in my life and gives me a great future.” – Lek, high school senior expressing gratitude to SOLD sponsors
Overcoming the challenges of poverty requires more than a high school or college diploma. Sociologists have long known that connection to caring and competent adults is foundational to child development, regardless of culture and economic class.
The SOLD Resource Center also provides awareness and training to the adults of the community. How does a caring adult become equipped to combat the lures and lies that their children are exposed to unless a trusted advisor educates and empowers them on ways to provide timely and essential support? How does someone whose entire life exists within a 20-kilometer circumference in northern Thailand learn of the opportunity and world available to them if they never access 21st century technology? The staff of SOLD both train the receptive adults in the community and serve as surrogate care providers to the students without that essential mentor and example of a different path.
“The villagers feel safe coming to SOLD and sharing their concern. It has taken us five years to get to a place of trust with the villagers.” – Worn Donchai – SOLD
Today, Lim and Bong are two of the newest young people benefitting from SOLD. These brothers, aged 13 and 12, were recently orphaned and live alone. Through the support of SOLD, they are able to go to school and pay rent, but food is scarce and the boys work in the school kitchen to bring home leftovers. Their house is tidy and clean, and they share in the chores together. The boys share a conviction beyond their young years to get a good education and build a better life for themselves. They confide that it is frightening to live on their own.
Recently, a teacher who said he could provide them a different living situation approached them. This has raised concern among SOLD staff, as young boys like these are prime victims of human traffickers. The boys have promised to keep SOLD involved in any conversations, as SOLD staff continue to mentor and guide them. How will their future unfold? What choices will they make? Only time will tell.
The tacit acceptance by some of alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse, and male dominance keep the demand for child victims high. Poverty and an absence of mentors, combined with these social norms, create the climate for exploitation. As long as children continue to be exploited, SOLD will be present in northern Thailand, seeking to disrupt the completely unacceptable script being played out day after day.
Want to help?
You can invest financially to sponsor a child, support the staff and provide resources for the program. An at-risk child can access a new narrative for as little as $45 per month. SOLD also wants to connect you to these young heroes in the making, help you exchange letters, and even facilitate a visit. SOLD can also arm you with whatever resources and inspiration you need to become an advocate for these kids in your own circle of influence. You can become a promoter of these transformational stories. We invite you to dream, create, and help the team at SOLD get better at disrupting this tragedy.
Will human exploitation ever be eradicated from our planet? Unfortunately, no. But with your help we can prevent it from happening in northern Thailand, rewriting the predictable story for young people at risk and helping them emerge as heroes. The stories must change, because we believe children should never be bought or sold for sex.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the students.
Lathapipat, Dilaka. 2010. “Changes in the Thai Educational Wage Structure, 1987 – 2006.” Thailand Development Research InstituteAustralian National University, and Dhurakij Pundit University
Rutter, M. 1987. “Psychosocial Resilience And Protective Mechanisms.” American Orthopsychiatric Association, 57(3): 316-331
All photos © Allison Harp Photography.