Friday, 21 October 2011

Exile on main street: Chiang Mai street children

Four-year-old Tong makes a tie-dye t-shirt for sale in the centre’s gift shop.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Last week, we took a group of popular Thai bloggers to see projects for marginalised children in Thailand’s Chiang Mai district. After two days visiting orchard schools in Fang (see part two of this blog), we returned to Chiang Mai itself to visit a drop-in centre for street children.

Run by the Volunteers for Children Development Foundation, the centre focuses on preventing and supporting the victims of sexual abuse. Many of the street children in Chiang Mai were sold to child traffickers at the Burmese border and brought into Thailand to work in the sex industry. Once in Thailand, these children are considered ‘stateless people’ and are not entitled to identity cards. This denies them the right to education, healthcare and – when they grow up – to legal work.

The Foundation helps these children by providing life skills training and sexual health education. Condoms and pregnancy tests are available free of charge. UNICEF helped fund the centre’s HIV prevention work and is now evaluating it. “We do outreach to around 800 children in Chiang Mai,” Foundation Director Ake told us. “They come from ethnic minorities and broken homes. Lots of children end up here because of the sex trade. We build their trust on the streets, then we invite them to visit the centre. Here they can get food, milk and informal education.”

The drop-in centre was a small building in a side street, with an open-plan play area on the ground floor and an office upstairs. While Ake told our bloggers more about the project, I started taking photos of the children. Most of them were ethnic Shan Burmese, as in Fang, but some of them were Thai. They were watching an exercise video and copying the dance moves. A girl in a white vest punched the air enthusiastically in time to the music.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fruits of labour: schools for migrant children

A boy holds up an orange during a maths class at the orchard day school.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
I was in Chiang Mai district last week, introducing a group of Thai bloggers to UNICEF-supported projects for marginalised children. After our visit to the orchard night school (see part one of this blog), we went to see a day school in the same area.

We got up early and set off in our vans for an orange orchard outside Fang town. We drove through wide paddy fields, criss-crossed by irrigation canals and filled with a host of yellow grass blades glistening in the morning sun. Here and there, women in straw hats were working in the fields, breaking the earth with wooden hoes. The landscape was layered: beyond the rice fields was a line of low trees that marked the start of the orchards. Behind them, craggy mountains rose up with forested flanks. It was a beautiful scene, but Fang is not a tourist destination. Instead, it’s the centre of a sometimes harsh agricultural industry.

After a half hour drive, we arrived at the orchard day school. While the bloggers listened to an introduction from Khun Adun, Director of the local NGO Group for Children, I started to look around. The centre was larger and better equipped than the night school. It was a well-built wooden structure with three classrooms and a sleeping area, where blue mosquito nets hung down from the ceiling. There were also two outdoor classrooms, a kitchen and a play area for younger children, who were happily digging in a sandpit with plastic buckets and spades.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Evening class: visiting Thailand's orchard schools

Children at the orchard day school in Fang, Chiang Ma.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

Thailand is rightly famous for the quality of its fruit. The sois (small streets) where I live in Bangkok’s Aree neighbourhood are lined with stalls selling oranges, dragon fruit, mangos and whatever else is in season. The brightly coloured fruit is piled up on mobile trailers: fresh, plentiful and cheap. But this abundance comes at a price. As we discovered during a trip to Chiang Mai province in the north of the country, many of Thailand’s fruit orchards are staffed by low-paid migrant workers, whose children rarely get to go to school.

The trip was part of a project to reach a wider audience in Thailand by taking 12 well-known Thai bloggers and social media influencers to visit UNICEF-supported projects. We hoped that by introducing the bloggers to issues affecting disadvantaged children, they would spread the word to their fans and followers, many of whom may not have thought about children’s rights before.

Our Thai bloggers included Chayapa ‘Bubble’ Boonmana, who uses social media to talk about nails and beauty; Kongdej ‘Kafaak’ Keesukpan, who blogs about IT and gadgets; Sresuda Vinijsuwan, a news reporter for Channel 9 TV; and Thanaboon ‘Ace’ Somboon, who runs forums for arts professionals and volunteers. The trip was sponsored by Sansiri Plc, a corporate partner of UNICEF Thailand.

After an orientation at the UNICEF office, we took a flight to Chiang Mai and then a two hour van drive to Fang, a town in the centre of the orange-growing region. Only a few days before the area had been under water, following Thailand’s worst floods in decades. “The flood waters came up to here," our driver said, holding his hand above his waist. But now it was clear and the sun was shining. We drove along twisting, turning mountain roads, past bamboo forests, roadside shrines to local spirits and tall jagged hills that disappeared into a bank of clouds high above.