Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Friends in need: children living in Bangkok slums

Nuch selling flower garlands on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Like any large city, Bangkok is multi-faceted and the view you get can be radically different depending on your perspective. Having seen the city from the viewpoint of a tourist and an office worker, my next job was to see the same locations from the perspective of the urban poor: in particular children living in slums and working on the streets.

I went on three project visits around Bangkok with my colleagues from the Thailand office, Tum and Cherry, and a local photographer, Chum. I’m working with Tum and Cherry to create stories for the UNICEF Thailand website on the right to an education, while training them up on producing different types of content, including audio, video and social media.

As well as doing freelance work for UNICEF, Chum is an award winning photo journalist. His pictures from the front line of the Red Shirt riots last year paint a vivid picture of anger, bloodshed and arson among the normally placid Thai people. “It’s hard to get natural shots,” Chum explained. “Even during the violence, people would smile and wave at the camera. These were the best 15 pictures from thousands.” I’d just taken my own photos of Red Shirts on their way to a weekend rally, so it was fascinating to see Chum’s much edgier work.


The projects we visited were run by Peuan Peuan (‘Friends’ in Thai), part of the NGO Friends International, which gets support from UNICEF. For the first visit, we drove a short distance from the UNICEF office to a slum community near the flower market on the opposite bank of Chao Praya, a wide river that flows through the heart of Bangkok.

There we met 12-year-old Nuch (not her real name), a slight, quietly-spoken girl in a red t-shirt with a pigtail in her hair. She was living with her mother Dao, stepfather and five siblings in a single room hut. Nuch used to go out begging in Bangkok’s commercial district, but her mother decided to find another way to earn a living. Now, Dao goes to the market early each morning to buy flowers. She uses these to make garlands, which Nuch and her siblings sell to tourists and worshipers in the temple district of Banglumpu, undercutting the prices in shops.

“I leave the house with my mom, brothers and sisters around 5 or 6pm,” Nuch told us. “We go to Banglumpu area with 400 garlands. My mum sells some on the pavement with my youngest brother, who is two and a half. I walk around the area with my other brothers and sisters to sell the rest. We only return after we sell them all, which can be anytime from 11.30pm to 2am.”

Working late at night on the streets puts children like Nuch at risk of abuse and exploitation. Her brother had already been detained by the police and sent to a shelter, although he was now back with the family. Nuch also frequently misses school because of work. “I don’t usually go to school,” Nuch says. “Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. If mum doesn’t sell anything, she doesn’t have money for us to go. I like going to school but I’m still in Grade One because I flunked my exams so many times.”

Making ends meet is a constant struggle for the family. “We make around 500 baht [£10] a day selling garlands,” Dao explained, while chopping chili peppers and preparing dinner for the children on a small gas burner outside their hut. “The rent is only 1,500 baht [£30] a month, but I have to feed the children and pay for them to go to school. Yesterday Nuch left her earnings in a tuk-tuk, so today we have no money to buy flowers.”

School's out

Nuch draws a picture of a house by a waterfall at the community classroom.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
The slum where we met Nuch is not the best environment for a child. It is a small settlement of 50 households, squeezed into a small plot of land between a school and main road. Except for the slum owner’s house, the homes were dilapidated wooden shacks, often on the verge of collapse, with electric wires hanging low across the walkways. There were attempts at decoration, with bird cages and pictures of celebrities torn from magazines outside some huts. In the centre of the slum, an old tree had been turned into a shrine with flower garlands, incense sticks and a small Buddha statue. Everywhere we went rubbish littered the ground, which the children ran across with bare feet.

The settlement was much smaller than those in Manila, which are home to around 50 per cent of the population, but it lacked the infrastructure and community of the larger, more established Filipino slums. In Thailand, slums are usually home to marginalised people like foreign migrant workers and street prostitutes, who rent shacks by the day for 50 baht [£1]. Although the settlement where Nuch lives is next to a large, well-equipped school, the families cannot afford to send their children there. Instead, those lucky enough to go to school have to travel to a free temple school some distance away.

Friends International runs a classroom in the slum, where staff provide life skills education, play activities and a place for children to do their homework. In the classroom, Nuch drew a picture of a large house by a waterfall, surrounded by trees, butterflies and heart-shaped balloons. I was struck by the stark contrast with her real home. Her six-year-old brother Tor, meanwhile, played with Lego bricks while a Friends worker cleaned and dressed a cut on his foot. “The staff teach me how to do homework,” Nuch said. “Sometimes they ask me to draw pictures. I like it here because they are kind. It’s good that we have this classroom near our house because I walk there on the afternoons that I’m free. Mom never tells me not to go.”

“About half the children in the community come regularly to our centre,” Ann Charoenpol from Friends explained. “We need to get to know them first, build their trust and find out about their situation.”

As well as the classroom, Friends runs a ‘child safe community’ scheme. They have trained 15 volunteers living in the settlement about child rights. The volunteers keep an eye on the children when their parents are not around and report any instances of abuse or domestic violence. The organisation also provides income generation activities for the families. They offer them funding, supplies and training to set up a small business such as making products from recyclable materials, which are then sold by Friends. In return, the parents sign a contract promising to keep their children in school.


An unaccompanied Cambodian boy waits to cross a busy Bangkok street.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Soi Cowboy

Our next visit was to a government-run shelter for homeless and trafficked children, where Friends International works with homeless and trafficked children from Laos, Cambodia and Burma to provide them with educational activities in their own language. They also help with family tracing. I’ll come back to this in my next blog.

For our final trip, we went out after work on Friday night to the sex tourism hotspots of central Bangkok, where street children beg or sell trinkets to tourists. We visited the infamous ‘Soi Cowboy’, where scantily-clad Thai women dance for seedy old men in front of bars and ‘massage parlours’ to the competing sounds of rock and dance music. I recognized some of the songs, but not the context. The usual street food stalls had been replaced by street bars, with stalls selling whisky shots to pedestrians. Above us, the sky was lit up by flashing neon lights, with a huge floodlit picture of a cowgirl in leather boots and a whip presiding over the debauchery below. Needless to say, none of this is a good environment for a child.

Compared to the Philippines, the street children here were fewer but more marginalised. The Thai Government has recently proposed a law making it illegal for children to be out on the streets after 10pm. “We find many children from Nuch’s community working here late at night,” Ann said. “We don’t want them to be arrested.”

Ann took us to meet Nang, an outreach worker with Friends International. It was the day of their quarterly street survey and Nang was particularly busy. She had been on the streets since 6am in the morning and was on her second to last shift – she wouldn’t finish until 2am the next day. Together we made our way on foot from Chit Lom to Sukhumvit, looking for street children. For a while we were trailed by two hyperactive Cambodian brothers who ran across the busy roads, careless of their own safety. Another boy, who was begging on the pavement with a puppy, happily posed for several photos for Chum.

We found several young children begging with their mothers or grandmothers on overpasses around the skytrain station. One young girl sat on her own on a staircase. It turned out her mother was just round the corner, but she earned more money if she was on her own. I knew some of these bridges from weekend trips to the malls and cinemas, but walking across them with Friends gave me a very different perspective, as if I were seeing them again for the first time through someone else’s eyes.

Nang comes from the border area between Thailand and Cambodia, which has been in the news recently due to fighting over the disputed sovereignty of a Hindu temple. As a result, she can speak Cambodian and was able to talk to all the mothers and children we met. She handed out information cards in different languages, so that the parents could get in touch with Friends if they had any problems. “Sometimes a mother will phone us up and say: ‘Have you seen my son? He’s been missing for four days’,” Ann commented.

“Most of the children in this area are Cambodian,” Nang told me as we walked to the next Skytrain station. “They cross the border in forest areas and then get a public bus to Bangkok for 250 baht [£5]. Often, the mother or grandmother comes with the youngest children, while the father stays in Cambodia with the older ones. They spend a few months begging, then they go home. When the money runs out, they come back to Bangkok.”

Nang will get to know the mothers and talk to them about children’s right to an education and the dangers they face on the streets. She tries to motivate them to give up begging and join Friends’ home-based production scheme, but it can be a tough sell. “A mother and baby can earn up to 10,000 baht [£200] a month begging on the streets,” Ann explained. “That’s a lot more than they can get doing a low-paid job, even in Thailand, so it can be hard to persuade them to change.” As if to prove her point, a middle-aged American woman stopped and handed 40 baht to a mother. “For the children,” she said.

Nang holds up a selection of information cards in Cambodian and other languages.
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

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