We recently added a new page to our website highlighting some results from our research. The research comes from surveys we’ve been developing, as part of a larger monitoring and evaluation agenda, to help us assess how well our prevention program is working and examine the depth of our impact.
There are two results in particular that merit some further discussion: the importance of education to our students and their understanding of gender equity.
The Importance of Education
We often cite numbers like “26% of guardians of our students never went to school” and that roughly half never made it to secondary school. But those numbers don’t really convey what it was like for us to hear things, like parents saying “if she makes it to [the equivalent of 7th grade], that’ll be enough.”
To be clear, education is highly valued in Thailand, and those with advanced degrees are often afforded a great deal of respect. However, when parents say making it through middle school is “good enough,” it’s not necessarily because they don’t value education. It’s because their economic reality means they don’t set aspirations very high. Eventually, expenses get in the way and when kids get old enough to be able to work, the calculus begins to shift. For a family struggling to get by day to day, the money an older child makes can make a huge difference for them in the short-term, even if it severely hampers them in the long-term.
So, when such a stunning majority of our students say that they should go to school AND work ONLY if it does not hurt their grades, there is a lot that is packed into that statement. We see evidence of the strong cultural expectation and the value our students place in the concept of family, and of supporting one’s family. But we also see how much they value education–they believe going to work to support their family should not come at the expense of their grades, and thus their prospects for their future. And the students we survey are our teens–the ones who are already making it past middle school–which means, they are achieving higher education levels and still continue to see the importance of furthering their education.
Of course, this doesn’t mean, in reality, that if their family is struggling, they will have the choice to stay in school. Their family, or the reality of the situation, may pressure them so much that they have to drop out. This is why our scholarship programs continue to be the cornerstone in helping ensure kids stay in school. But this also means that, the more kids are able to stay in school, the greater the value they place in it too. With an economic shift comes the cultural shift – and the two work in tandem to create change.
Views on Gender Equity
Another dynamic we had been witness to when we first started working in the field was that among some families (academic research suggests it is especially among rural families), there is a belief that investing in boys’ education is preferable to educating girls. Partly, this was due to the idea that, if girls become educated, then they would become less available to help take care of their parents as they got older, which was the cultural tradition. However, there were also safety concerns, to the extent that there weren’t schools in close proximity and the girls would have to leave home to continue their education. Parents worried about girls becoming sexually active and eloping–and the thought was that if a boy becomes sexually active it’s less shameful and burdensome for the family than when a girl does. Conversely, families repeatedly said that they preferred girls to migrate for work while boys continue with school because, girls “were more likely to send wages home, due to their traditional obligation to their families and the lower likelihood that they would spend their wages ‘unwisely’ on entertainment and fun with friends.” (Curran, Chung, Cadge, and Varangrat, 2016)
The gender gap has definitely shrunk over time–and this is good news not just for the prospects for girls, but for the implications for society as a whole, how positive benefits radiate outward when the education level of girls rises. However, the legacy of the traditional perspective is persistent enough that we were actually surprised to see our students say, so overwhelmingly, that it is equally important for both boys and girls to continue their education.
It’s unclear what prompts this shift per se, but perhaps the simple fact of choosing to invest in girls’ education when scholarships make that possible is signal enough to children that girls’ education is something worth value.
These survey responses may seem simple on the surface, but they hold a wealth of implications. We hope this discussion helps elucidate some of the depth of change that is occurring.