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Four years ago her mother died of AIDS. Her father had disappeared long before that. She was depressed as a result of losing her parents and feeling ostracized in her community and rejected by her peers. Today, 14-year-old Soopit Chummeangyen is being cared for by her grandparents and helping out with their household chores. She is an active and enthusiastic high school student and is coming into her own as a strong young woman.
“She changed a lot since her mom passed away,” says Buajin Tueansong, Soopit’s grandmother. “I think she was missing her mom, that’s why she was closing down. When she came back from school, she didn’t want to play or talk with other kids. She was just sitting at home, that’s why she didn’t have many friends.”
But Soopit’s fortune changed once she started to attend Baan Pong Namron, a child-friendly school in Pa Tung Village in northern Thailand, where child participation is an essential element of the school experience. In contrast to the traditional Thai school, which separates children by age and sex, Baan Pong Namron is organized in districts or ‘villages’, with each village organized into 10 families. As part of the school’s educational philosophy, all children are encouraged to speak out, take part in making decisions and participate in school activities. The school recently received a $400 donation and students debated the best use of the money. Some wanted more trees and flowers around the school, while others wanted cleaner toilets. Each ‘village’ was expected to make its case to the school committee as to where the money should go.
Soopit was actively engaged in the debates as she is in most school activities. In the supportive environment of her ‘village family’, she is learning to cope with her loss and build her self-confidence through activities that encourage her to express her ideas and opinions. “I never wanted to be part of any activities before,” says Soopit, “because I was thinking it’s kind of boring stuff and it’s all the same…nothing different. But right now there are a lot of activities that let students share their ideas and opinions of what they want to know and want to be.”
Thailand has been badly hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. At the end of 2001, UNAIDS estimated that some 650,000 people, 1.8 per cent of the adult population, were living with HIV/AIDS – one of the highest rates outside sub-Saharan Africa. The northern region has so far borne the brunt of Thailand’s AIDS epidemic. Chiang Rai Province, known as one of the most beautiful regions in the country, is among the hardest hit. Its 1.25 million residents constitute just 2 per cent of the country’s population but account for 10 per cent of its AIDS cases.
The problems that children face as a result of HIV/AIDS begin long before their parents die. They often live with sick relatives in households that are stressed both financially and emotionally, and they are stigmatized and socially isolated from their peers. Economic hardship and the need to replace lost adult labour often force children to drop out of school. Girls, whose education is traditionally considered less important than that of boys, are often forced out first.
The Child-Friendly School initiative in Thailand began in March 1998 as a result of a collaboration between the World Health Organization, Save the Children, UNICEF and the Office of the National Primary Education Commission (ONPEC). Community schools in northern Thailand embraced the idea that they should be resources not only for students but also for their families and communities. Teachers and caregivers are trained to recognize children’s emotional distress and to help by encouraging them to express their emotions and fears about the future, by engaging in art therapy and therapeutic play-acting and by providing the nurturing they require. Based on students’ recommendations, teachers have introduced an active learning approach and new school rules. Students now find teachers to be more understanding of their needs and interests.
In addition, child-friendly schools conduct training programmes for teachers and parents on how to work with children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, focusing on building their self-esteem through providing multiple opportunities for participation. One such programme is the Rainbow Camp, conducted for children at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and their parents or guardians, where students are encouraged to identify new activities for their schools. With teachers as advisers, students at the Kamolriem- Sukosol (Pa Tai) School took lessons in school to learn how to grow their own mushrooms for consumption at home. The skills acquired in these lessons will help them breed mushrooms for commercial sale in the near future.
But the intent and effects of Rainbow Camps are broader than mushroom breeding. After the Camp experience, children reported feeling more love and understanding between child and parent, less punishment, more respect for each other’s opinions, and more time spent with their parents. More than 95 per cent of children and their guardians reflected that they have more moral support and have learned how to live together as loving families. The children expressed their willingness to change some of their behaviours. When parents acknowledged and respected children’s opinions, children were found to be more reasonable, to better listen to parents, and to speak with more confidence. They were able to separate what was right from wrong and show more responsibility both in housework and doing homework.
“For the friendly child school, we have a new strategy,” says Suwan Kaewvong, the school Headmaster. “The new target that we are focusing on, that’s participation. That’s the real target.”
Psychological testing performed by the Life Skills Development Foundation showed that, in addition to other benefits, students such as Soopit at Baan Pong Namron School have lower levels of depression.
“Some of my friends said that I have changed a lot,” says the young adolescent. “I was very introverted and really sad before. But it’s totally different at the moment. I have become more lively and they said I am like another person.”