Love and Understanding Key to Helping Children Help Themselves
By Heamakarn Sricharatchanya
(This story was published in the Bangkok Post on 13 February 2012)
BANGKOK, 7 February 2012 - Valentine’s Day is a day for love and romance. It is a day when students put heart stickers on their friends’ uniforms, when lovers give each other red roses and presents, and when family members express their love in extraordinary ways. But it is children and young people who need love, and the understanding that naturally accompanies it, most of all.
Poon*, a 10-year-old boy who spent a year living on the streets of Chiang Mai home, is one of these children. He took to the streets over a year ago after he could no longer tolerate the repeated beatings being doled out by his mother. When his mother, a sex worker and drug addict, left with her latest boyfriend, Poon no longer had a "home" to return to.
Sleeping on a slab of dirty concrete in front of a 7-Eleven shop, Poon found himself at the mercy of the cold night winds, the mosquitoes and the drunken tourists. To survive on the streets, he entered the sex trade, pimped out to men by older boys living on the streets.
Poon is now under the care of the Volunteer for Children Development Foundation, a non-government organization working with street children that UNICEF has supported, and is no longer involved in sex work. Poon said there are people and other children at the Foundation’s drop-in centre who both love and understand him, and that is why he can be found there almost every day and night.
Juvenile offenders said love and understanding are also among the most important things in their lives.
"All children need love from a family," said Boss*, 22, a juvenile offender. "Love and care are important to children, especially teenagers. They are key to helping teenagers choose the right path in life."
Boss, who is held at the Baan Kanjanapisek Juvenile Vocational Training Centre for Boys in Nakhon Pathom, said he became estranged from his parents because he believed that they loved his siblings more than they loved him. As a result, he shut himself off from his family and spent most of his time with friends, and eventually became involved in criminal activity.
"Now I realize that I did not recognize the love my parents have for me," said Boss, who has been at the centre for almost two years. Boss said the love and understanding he receives from the staff and friends at the centre have melted away the aggressiveness he used to feel, and in turn have led to positive changes in both his attitude and actions.
Baan Kanjanapisek is a model training centre that uses both love and trust to rehabilitate young offenders. The centre does not use corporal punishment or other harsh punitive measures to control juvenile offenders, and the centre itself is not surrounded by high walls. The young offenders here are not perceived as "prisoners", but rather as members of society who have made "mistakes". The learning environment and activities at the centre are designed to prepare them for a fresh start in life and to help ensure they do not get involved in criminal activity again after they are released.
"We believe that children are still in their parents' hearts even after they have done something wrong," said Ticha na Nakorn, director of the centre. "I do not believe that physical punishment can change their negative behavior. But I do believe that the love and understanding of adults can help them change their attitudes and behavior, which will prepare them for a second chance in life. No child grows up wanting to be a criminal."
Ticha said children who have felt love will continue to experience love at the centre. "But if they believe they have never been loved, they will feel it here for the very first time," she said.
Boy*, 19, also a juvenile offender, said the understanding shown by the centre’s staff makes him feel that he can trust them, which in turn helps him to moderate his behaviour in a positive way.
"The staff take care of us as if we were their children," said Boy. "When we have problems, we talk to them. Their love and understanding make us feel that we are safe."
"Love is an important foundation in a child’s life, and it helps to shape who that child will become," said Tomoo Hozumi, the UNICEF Thailand Representative, who noted that the first five years of life are a time of rapid cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor development for children.
"So babies and children who are cooed to, hugged and well cared for during this period are more likely to grow up healthier and have higher self-esteem," Hozumi said
Hani*, 18, who was born with HIV, said "love is very important to HIV-infected children because we need someone who cares for us and also helps take care of us. We need emotional support."
Hani's mother died of HIV when she was in kindergarten, while her father died several years later. Hani recalled one day when she saw photos of HIV-infected people on an exhibition board at school and noted how similar their condition was to her father’s. After the death of her parents, she was raised by her grandmother, an elder brother who does not have the virus, and her aunts and uncles.
Hani left school after she finished Grade 6 because her grandmother was afraid she would be discriminated if her friends found out about her HIV status.
"My grandmother believes that HIV-infected children have no future, so there is no need for them to study," says Hani, who is now studying taking non-formal education classes. "She is afraid that I would bring shame on myself and my family if others found out. So I was told to leave school and stayed home."
The problem of stigmatizing and discriminating against people living with HIV remains widespread in Thai society. A major national survey covering 43,000 households in 2006 showed that nearly 80 per cent of people in Thailand still have negative attitudes towards people with HIV. The survey found that many parents did not want their children to play with children who have HIV. As a result, many children with HIV are shunned by their friends and other classmates and often excluded from school.
For Hani, the best way to express love to HIV-infected children is to give them a hug. "Some children who are infected by HIV have never received any form of love or affection," Hani said. "So when they are hugged, they feel that they are no longer being discriminated against, and it gives them the courage to get on with their lives."
When asked what she wants the most on Valentine’s Day, Hani replied: "I want to hug my parents again…but I know that is impossible."
She also said she wants society to better understand children living with HIV, and that through this better understanding learn there is no reason to discriminate against them.
"We just want to live like other ordinary children," Hani said. "We want to go to school, we want to play and we want to go out and have fun. We have a disease, but it is just like any other disease, and we can be treated for it. If people can just understand this, if they just give us a chance, we can live harmoniously with everyone in society."
* All names used in the story are fictitious.