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In Thailand, survey reveals gulf in living standards between ethnic groups

UNICEF Image: Thailand child and dog
© UNICEF Thailand/2006/Few
In Baan Tung Faet village, Rachaburi Province, Thailand, three-year-old Gongsak and his dog play together.

By Robert Few

RATCHABURI, Thailand, 12 June 2006 – “Has your child taken a poo today?” “Yes, behind the house, but the dogs have eaten it all.”

This exchange between a government official and a woman from the Karen ethnic group in western Thailand may seem comical, but it occurred as part of a very serious project: a survey of child rights and basic needs in 60,000 households in Thailand.

One of those households is a flimsy wooden shack with no toilet or running water, where Noy Meer and son Gongsak, 3, are answering questions about clean water, sanitation – and dogs. Mother and child live in poverty, on a handful of dollars a month and on the fringe of mainstream society.

While the questions are asked, little Gongsak, dressed only in a filthy t-shirt, plays in the dirt with one of his dogs. Another local boy, clearly of school age but whose parents have never sent him to school since they migrated here from Myanmar, sits on the shack’s rickety wooden steps watching the interview.

A picture of how children live

Between them, the two boys are perfect examples of what this UNICEF-sponsored survey is trying to reveal: the gulf between the living conditions of most Thais and the deprivation of children in remote and isolated areas – particularly the children of ethnic minorities like Gongsak and migrants like his playmate.

“If the government is to produce policies that address the real needs of children in Thailand, we have to get a better idea of the situation at the local level,” explained UNICEF Representative in Thailand Inese Zalitis.

“In particular, children who are not registered or who live in very remote areas are often left out of official statistics,” said Ms. Zalitis. “So national figures for school attendance or child mortality, for example, can give too rosy a picture, leading to problems being ignored.”

UNICEF Image: Thai children in Baa Tung Faet
© UNICEF Thailand/2006/Few
Gongsak and a friend play under his house in Baan Tung Faet village.

The project, formally known as a multiple indicator cluster survey, is the first of its kind ever carried out in Thailand and one of the largest, in terms of households covered, undertaken by UNICEF anywhere in the world.

When the data from the survey are analyzed, they will provide the clearest picture ever of how children live in Thailand. In addition to water and sanitation, questions cover educational access, HIV/AIDS, vaccinations, nutrition and other issues that affect children’s survival and development.

Results will help target resources

Even at this preliminary stage, disparities are becoming clear. And it’s not just a gulf in terms of living standards, but also in knowledge and child-care skills.

“Most of the ethnic Thais know the basics about HIV/AIDS, although they are not too sure of things like whether a mother can pass it on to her child,” said Sumontha Kamkaen of the National Statistics Office, a UNICEF partner on the survey project. “But few of the Karen even know what HIV/AIDS is.”

Early results also show that most ethnic Thais know how important it is to protect their children against childhood diseases – but few Karen seem to know that their children could be crippled or killed by preventable illnesses, or that immunization is available.

The results of the survey should be the first step in bridging this gulf in knowledge and standards. With clear data from the local level, UNICEF will be able to advocate for the targeting of resources.

At the end of the interview with Gongsak’s mother, at the very least, she had been reminded of the importance of taking Gongsak to school and getting him immunized. But the larger benefits will come later – when the data generated by this survey lead to policies that will improve the lives of all Thai children.



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