Child of the Fifties

Peythai Jirapaet, the woman who turned junk papers into stepping stones for her education and achievements.

Nattha Keenapan, Jaime Gill
Peythai Jirapaet as a young nurse.
Peythai Jirapaet/2023
Peythai Jirapaet as a young nurse.
18 December 2023

For each decade UNICEF has worked in Thailand, we will share the story of a child who grew up then. They were chosen to reflect Thailand’s diversity, rather than provide a case study of UNICEF’s work – although their lives have been shaped by the improved healthcare, education and opportunities we have worked towards.

Peythai Jirapaet (nee Potibundit) was born in 1951 in Ayutthaya Province at a time when Thailand faced many hardships after World War II. Most people were struggling economically and the majority of children dropped out of education early. As Peythai recalls, “most of my neighbours were poor and their children left school early to help their families. They then married young, had children, and their children then left school to help them. It was a vicious circle.”

UNICEF had then worked in Thailand for three years, focusing particularly on health and education. Peythai was among the first Thai children to receive routine vaccinations at school and was also fortunate that her parents valued studying highly, perhaps because their own schooling had been cut short. “Dad was a tuk tuk driver and always said he had nothing material to give, but he would support our education until the end.” Encouraged, she became a hardworking student, and passionate reader. Her mother folded paper bags for sale, and Peythai helped, quickly realising that the papers used were a treasure trove of learning. “I would look at the papers, newspapers and magazines my Mom used for the paper bags. I looked for anything that might be useful for my studies and read them before folding them.”

A major turning point came when Peythai completed high school and passed the difficult entrance exams for a Government-funded university place. She was accepted by the prestigious economics faculty of Thammasat University, but times were different, and her mother worried about a young woman going to an institution with a progressive reputation. She insisted Peythai study nursing at a university with strict female-only dorms. “I was very sad, I cried a lot,” Peythai remembers of this early disappointment.

Despite her misgivings, Peythai worked hard as a nurse for three decades and lived a full life, marrying twice, raising two children, and living in the United States for seven years. But she never abandoned her dreams of further academic study and retired from nursing to earn a law degree in her sixties. Her life has been a testament to the power of lifelong learning.

“Thailand has changed a lot in the last 70 years,” Peythai says. Although she has concerns about growing materialism, she is impressed with the country’s progress, such as improved health and education, and a modern infrastructure that delivers clean water and electricity. Most importantly, she sees that education is available to more children, who don’t have to fight for it like she did. “Back then everyone had to compete to get into Government-funded schools and if you didn’t make it, where could you go? Now there are so many more options, including nonformal education and open universities. If you are committed, you can learn.”

About “Child of the Decade” Blog Series

For each decade UNICEF has worked in Thailand, we will share the story of a child who grew up then. They were chosen to reflect Thailand’s diversity, rather than provide a case study of UNICEF’s work – although their lives have been shaped by the improved healthcare, education and opportunities we have worked towards.

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