What will Thailand’s future look like? Next year, the UN hosts its Summit of the Future, a chance to examine global progress in an age of technological, climatic, and geopolitical upheaval. But we don’t have to wait to start considering the question. If we want to see Thailand’s future, we must first see its children. And if we want to shape that future, we must participate in its elections.
That’s why UNICEF has launched its Seven Asks for Children, urging political parties to put children’s rights and needs at the heart of their policies so voters can choose a future where Thailand’s new generations thrive. Thailand’s economic progress has lifted millions from poverty but the next step – towards national high-income status – will be the hardest. Thailand is projected to become a super-aged society like Japan by 2031 and when a country has fewer young people it becomes even more important that they can all contribute fully.
One deep-rooted challenge is inequality, with children most affected. Picture a child from an ethnic minority in a remote region. She is more likely to be born underweight, economically disadvantaged, and separated from parents who work in a city. She’ll face more barriers in education, particularly linguistic, and – according to new UNICEF research – is more vulnerable to climate change. Even if she accesses education, will it provide the skills she needs? Currently, 60 per cent of primary school students struggle to read by grade 2/3 and under 40 per cent of young people feel their education prepares them for the job market.
We can and must seek a better future for all children in Thailand. The tangible policy recommendations of our Seven Asks provide a roadmap. One of the most important Asks is for more childcare investment. 86 per cent of 3–4-year-olds receive some early childhood education, but there are gaps for under-3s. These early years are crucial for development, neurons in the brain forming new connections at a never-to-be-repeated rate of 1,000 per second. That's why investing in affordable, quality childcare is so important, as is the Child Support Grant. This helps many lower income families but not all. We strongly support the National Child and Youth Development Promotion Commission’s proposal to make the Grant universal, and believe it should be increased in line with increased child-raising costs.
Education is, of course, critical if students are to develop the skills they need in the 21st century. At last year’s UN Transforming Education Summit in New York, Thailand made impressive commitments, and much must be done to modernise the curriculum and close a digital divide that widened during the pandemic. The country's ambition to become a knowledge-based economy is right, but achieving it requires urgent change.
As these changes happen, we mustn’t forget the 1.4 million Thais aged 15-24 who are NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training). They require integrated services, such as one-stop service centres providing them with skills and support, including mental health support. We must also be alert to the risks children face online. An estimated 400,000 children in Thailand have been sexually abused online, but current capacity means only a thousand receive case support annually. We ask for increased investment in social care, given that Thailand currently has the lowest ratio of social workers to population in the region.
Finally, we must leave no child behind as Thailand moves forward. Children with disabilities face profound challenges and 38 per cent are effectively locked out of education by inaccessible school environments. They are also overrepresented in institutional care. UNICEF asks for the Disability Grant to be reclassified to better meet needs, and for more accessible and inclusive schools.
There’s much to be done. Let’s start by making this the most child-focused election in Thailand’s history. We invite all political parties to discuss our Seven Asks with us. We want to share technical advice regarding the challenges children face, drawn from our 75 years working here. Our Asks are based on child rights, but they are also wise and feasible economic choices based on data and evidence. We also need young people to believe in Thailand’s future and their place in it. This requires a more enabling environment for young people to freely and without fear express themselves and exchange ideas with others.
We call on the public to play their part. Everyone who wants a better future for Thailand should research how the political parties plan to invest in children, and factor this into their decision. Young people have an especially important role. Thanks to recent laws, this is the second election where all 18 year olds on the day of the election have been entitled to vote, meaning that there will be an estimated 4 million first time voters. We urge them to exercise that right for the children’s rights laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child - the most ratified convention in history, including by Thailand.