Helping children living and working on the streets in Thailand
(The story was published in the Bangkok Post newspaper on May 1, 2012)
By Nattha Keenapan
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, May 2012 – When Poon* left home more than a year ago he loved his new-found freedom: no adults to answer to, no schools to attend and all the time in the world to hang out and have fun with his new friends on the streets of Thailand’s second largest city.
But Poon, now 10, quickly learned that life on the streets also meant sleeping on a filthy sidewalk in front of a 7-eleven store in the city’s red light district, a place that offered no protection from chilly night winds, mosquitoes, stray dogs and inebriated passers-by.
Poon says his mother is an alcoholic and a sex worker, and that he left home because he could no longer tolerate the beatings she doled out. On the street, he spent his days wandering the internet cafes and convenience stores. By night, he worked in the sex trade, pimped to local men and foreign tourists by the older boys he had met on the streets.
“I wanted to be a doctor, but not anymore,” says Poon, shaking his head and looking down at the floor. “I was kicked out of school……but I want to go back to study.”
Poon is one of the many children in Thailand driven out of their homes by a combination of poverty and domestic violence, said Anuchon Holsong, Manager of the Volunteer for Children Development Foundation (VCDF) in Chiang Mai, a non-government organization (NGO) working with street living and working children that received UNICEF support in the past.
Many of the children living on the streets in Chiang Mai come from families that are either too poor, or for various other reasons, simply unable to care for them, Anuchon said. Most of the children who only work on the streets beg or sell flowers and are undocumented ethnic minority children who have migrated to Chiang Mai with their families.
A 2010 survey about street living and working children carried out by the Foundation for Better Life of Children, a local NGO, estimated that there are 30,000 children on the streets of Thailand. Most are in the capital, Bangkok, and in Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket.
“Children who live or work on the streets are at great risk of violence, abuse, exploitation, drugs and HIV,” said Sirirath Chunnasart, a UNICEF Child Protection Officer. “They often have little or no access to health, education or other social services.”
The survey also noted that an increasing number of street living and working children are entering the sex trade. Casual sex and unwanted pregnancies are becoming more common among these children, while HIV infection is also a major concern.
“Most of the children know nothing about HIV/AIDS,” said Pod Rungrodkulporn, an outreach worker for VCDF in Chiang Mai. “Many children are lured into sex trade by their older friends. They spend most of the money they earn on drugs and on playing games in internet cafes. When the money is gone, they go back to sex work again.”
Pod and other VCDF workers have been educating street living and working children on how to live safely on the streets, including how to protect themselves against HIV. VCDF workers also train older children to become youth leaders who provide information to younger children and encourage them to visit the drop-in centre, where they can learn to read and write and practice drawing, painting and other life skills.
About 20 children come to the drop-in centre each day, and some stay overnight. The children know that the centre is a place where will be safe and can find both care and understanding. As time goes by, many of the children who come to the centre become less aggressive and more cheerful.
The VCDF workers also educate older children and their parents about children’s rights. Increased awareness on children’s right has gradually resulted in improved protection of children on the streets.
“Some parents have started sending their children to schools instead of bringing them to beg or sell things on the streets,” VCDF’s Anuchon said. “Some of the older street living children are also helping us keep an eye on the younger children and trying to protect them from local and foreign men who would abuse them. For example, if they see a new child living on the streets, they will inform us or bring the child to the drop-in centre.”
Poon, who has become more talkative and lively since his first visits to the drop-in centre, no longer lives on the street and is no longer involved in the sex trade. He has been living at the VCDF’s drop-in centre for several months and will be going back to school when the new semester starts in May.
However, getting children off the street permanently is never easy. While drop-in centres, outreach services, vocational training and care institutions for street living and working children provided by the government and NGOs are in place in major cities, they do not address the root causes that push children out of their homes and onto the street.
“We have to work with their families and solve the problems at home, otherwise these children will continue to live on the streets,” said UNICEF’s Sirirath. “Each family and each child has different problems and requires different solutions.”
Despite the need, such family reunification approaches are not being widely used in Thailand. This is because the country lacks the core number of social workers required to help trace the children’s families, design individual solutions for them and conduct follow-up visits to ensure that the children will not return to the streets, Sirirath said.
“A lot of work needs to be done to address this problem, including stronger efforts and commitment from both the government and society at large,” said Sirirath, who urged the public to help support organizations working with street living and working children instead of giving money to street beggars.
“More and more children are leaving home, and the longer they live on the street the harder it is to get them back together with their families. We urgently need more trained social workers who can help reunite these children with their families before it’s too late,” she said.