What has been solved and what is yet to be solved
A look at the situation of children in Thailand for the past five years with former UNICEF Representative in Thailand
“Thailand is becoming the fastest ageing society in Southeast Asia. Thailand is becoming an ageing society as fast as Japan did 25 years ago, but when Japan became an ageing society at that time, they earned five times more per capita than in Thailand,” Thomas Davin, former UNICEF Representative in Thailand who completed his term at the end of October told workpointTODAY in an interview.
“When asked why we have to give importance to child development, the answer is simple. Thailand is one of the first countries in the world to have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Once ratified, actions must be taken to ensure that children are given the rights they deserve.”
“In addition, Thailand now has fewer newborns, from 1.2-1.3 million children a year to just 700,000 children. The numbers are declining quickly. If today, there are six adults taking care of one elderly person, in 2050 there will be two adults taking care of one elderly person. Which means that these two adults will have to be strong and very efficient if we want the Thai economy to advance and develop to become a high-income country. Whether talking about rights or the economy, we want children to develop as much as possible.” Thomas answered.
As Thomas has been working with children and youth in Thailand for five years, we took this opportunity to discuss with him how the situation of children in Thailand has progressed throughout his tenure.
“Thailand is a land of contrast,” Thomas began. First, he pointed out that Thailand has an impressive number of child indicators, such as an extremely low infant mortality rate that is as low as in countries in Western Europe. There is also a high percentage of early childhood education attendance rate at nearly 90 per cent, as well as an almost 100 per cent primary school attendance rate. Many countries in the ASEAN region are far from these successes.
“Thai people may find this very common, but actually this is very pleasing. It takes a lot of effort and determination to get these things done.”
“Although basic services are reaching many people, we are still facing a classic problem that is faced by many countries – how to improve the quality of these services and ensure that the whole population, no matter how much they earn or where they are living, have equal access to quality government services.”
“In various countries, the first path to development is to give people access to clean water, electricity, education and public health services. Governments mostly focus on providing access to these basic services at the very beginning of the country’s development. But as the country starts to develop, the state should turn to the importance of quality, which is more complicated and where many countries in the world are stuck.”
Thomas gave an example of a big crowded city such as Bangkok, where people have access to more services that are usually of better quality, including better schools and healthcare. Because there are more professionals living in the city, access to quality services strongly differs to those in rural areas.
“We see a wide range of impacts on children in rural areas, such as the number of teenage parents highest in the North, or problems with poor academic performance in the Far South and Mae Hong Son.”
“For example, schools in rural areas have very few teachers so children from different grades often study together and teachers teach in turns. This is a challenge for the teachers and, of course, these factors affect the quality of education and students’ performance.”
“Over the last five years, inequality remains an important issue. Opportunities in the lives of children living in poor families and in wealthy families are completely different.”
There is another important problem of inequality. There are still people left behind, for whom government services are inaccessible. These are the poor living in remote areas along the northern border, the northeast and the Southern Border Provinces.
“Over the last five years, inequality remains an important issue. Opportunities in the lives of children living in poor families and in wealthy families are completely different. For poorer families, it is difficult to own children's books, toys or essential items for children. Access to quality basic services varies greatly. One thing that UNICEF has always tried to emphasize is equality and how to give every child equal opportunities in life.”
Of course, structural problems need time to be resolved. We asked Thomas about the progress made in key areas that UNICEF has been working on over the past five years.
Child Support Grant
This cash transfer scheme was something that UNICEF has been pushing forward to the government for years, and the policy was finally approved in 2015.
“The Child Support Grant is based on the idea that children in poor families live more difficult lives, so the Thai government decided to subsidize families with children. Initially starting from the amount of only 400 baht (US$13.41) per month to all children under the age of 1 from families with an income less than 3,000 baht (US$100.54) a month.
UNICEF supported the Thai government in evaluating the scheme and found that although 400 baht might not seem like much, it is very valuable to many families. It has helped save the lives of these children, allowing them to eat healthier food for example.
The government saw the importance of this subsidy and its positive effects on poor families. Therefore, it increased the grant from 400 baht to 600 baht (US$20.11) and extended it to poor families with children under 3.
UNICEF conducted a rapid assessment of this policy, showing the government that this policy has truly helped these families. The government, therefore, expanded the scheme to reach even more children. Now, the grant covers families with children under 6 with an income below 100,000 baht (US$3,351.20) per year.”
Thomas said that the way the scheme was launched and rapidly expanded in Thailand has set a global example.
“This is Thailand’s great success in a short period of time! The grant now covers over 1.8 million children younger than 6 years old. What UNICEF wants to continue to push forward is for all children aged 0-6 to be fully subsidized, so that no child is left behind. This will be something the Thai people will be very proud of, and UNICEF too, having contributed to making this possible.”
Another success for Thailand was decreasing the number of adolescent pregnancies.
“Five years ago, when I arrived in Thailand, the problem of adolescent pregnancy was of great concern. Every year, hundreds of thousands of teenagers give birth and often have to leave the education system and face various difficulties in life. Going back to school is difficult. Teenage mothers often do not have access to good jobs and live their lives hanging by a thread. Many people who received the Child Support Grant are teenage mothers. Subsidies can help these teenage mothers, but we also try to help these young mothers to have access to training for them to gain skills, have better jobs and a better life.
“The government is committed to solving this problem and takes it very seriously. They issued the Act For Prevention and Solution of the Adolescent Pregnancy Problems in 2016. Now, Thailand has seen a decline in the number of adolescent mothers from 53 per 1,000 to 31 per 1,000 in just five years.”
Adolescent pregnancy remains a problem to be solved, but this case proves that progress can happen when the government is committed and when there is cooperation from society.
Despite clear progress on a number of issues, there are still a number of long-term projects that UNICEF is pushing for and working with various sectors to bring about tangible change.
Children without parental care and skipped-generation families
The latest UNICEF survey with the National Statistical Office shows that 1 in 4 children aged 0-17 years in Thailand grow up without parental care. This is because their parents have to migrate for work, leaving them under their grandparent’s care. This is most common in the northeast. However, while children are developing, they need their parent’s care, for which grandparents cannot always compensate.
“Grandparents may be less equipped than parents in stimulating children’s development, which has a big impact on the child’s learning ability.”
Thomas says that the main challenge is during the period that he calls “3 x 3.”
The first 3 refers to the first three months, which is the legal term for when the mother takes maternity leave, and the latter 3 refers to the age of 3, when the child is often at the child centre. Making the time for between 3 months and 3 years is important but difficult. During this time, there is no government service to support the child at this age, leaving parents to decide whether to leave work or leave their child with their grandparents. Many parents have no choice but to earn money and leave their children under someone else’s care.
The solution to this is to create a public childcare system that supports children’s development at this age. Another solution is to develop a curriculum for mothers with young children to develop childcare skills, providing certification for those who have passed the course. Therefore, in addition to taking care of their own children, they will be able to take care of children whose mothers have to go to work and earn an income. Companies should also be encouraged to set up day-care centres to support their employees with young children.
“This could start first in factories in Thailand. For example, if you have 2,000 employees, you have to set up 3-4 nurseries so that your employees can bring their children to the nurseries. This way, employees can see their children often, knowing that they are safe, healthy and enjoying themselves. These employees will be happier and can work without being distracted. The employees will work for the organization longer, so the organization itself benefits too.”
Thomas said that five years ago, he found that the Thai government was very determined to reform the education system after the decrease in scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment.
“This is a sign that alerts us that we have to re-design the curriculum. The curriculum must be different, and it should provide children with critical analytical skills that build their confidence, teamwork and collaboration skills, as well as life skills.”
He insists that it is crucial for Thailand to build the skills of the future for children so that they can be as productive as possible. Thailand’s economy depends on their abilities and success.
“We know that the global economy is changing rapidly. The Fourth Industrial Revolution means that we will have even more machines, and these machines may replace people. The work that young people will do is changing. For my generation, the average number of different jobs held in our lives was around five jobs, but for the younger generation, it is estimated that they could change up to 30-50 jobs. Therefore, children need skills for the future. They must be able to adapt and apply their skills, to work as a team and have critical thinking. This is very important for the younger generation.”
Mental Health Problems
Technology has brought new knowledge and ways of learning to children, but it has also brought on new challenges.
“Young people today are going through different times, being the hope of their country… they should feel our support, they should feel safe and trusted, we should be ready to help them in their future paths.”
“Youth today live in a world that is very different from ours. They live in an increasingly divided world. With easy access to the internet, they spend hours on the internet and is at risk of being bullied online. Many face stress and anxiety leading to mental health problems, which is a huge problem for teenagers in Thailand.”
The World Health Organization and the Department of Health’s 2015 survey found that 1 in 10 high school students in Thailand attempted suicide.
“Young people today are going through different times, being the hope of their country. Therefore we must work together just like we did when we solved the problem of adolescent pregnancy. Let’s work together on how to best equip the young to meet the challenges of the future. And how should we support them? They should feel our support, they should feel safe and trusted, we should be ready to help them in their future paths.”
Violence against children in the family and community
The 2019 survey of the situation of children and women in Thailand found that more than half of the children surveyed had been subjected to violent punishment both physically and mentally. This violence will have negative effects on children in the long term.
“But these children who have been subjected to violence have fallen out of the service system. A very small number of children have access to support systems or care from officers, such as social workers. One of the reasons is culture. We live in a society where people are very reluctant to report violence in their own home or neighbourhood. This is very important because this kind of silence is causing children to suffer every day and is another big problem for society.”
“The second reason is that we do not have enough social workers in Thailand. Thailand is one of the countries where there is a very small number of social workers, only about 4-6 social workers per 100,000 people. Meaning that even if you report an incident, there are not enough specialists available to provide child protection services.”
“We should be investing a lot in this issue because many children are suffering from silence, stuck in the dark thinking that no one can save them, feeling like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. This is what we need to take care of, and we need to take it more seriously.”
Looking towards the future: How can we improve the quality of life for children in Thailand?
Thomas thinks that it has to start with making the development of children and youth a national priority. This must be done systematically and continuously. We must also ensure that our policies are effectively implemented and accessible to every child, especially for the most vulnerable and those who lack opportunities.
“Everything that has been discussed is up to the decision of the Thai government. One of UNICEF’s roles is to prod the government, give advice and suggest what might be useful. I think we all have to realize that in order to develop our society to advance in the future, it has to start with the youth. It starts with young children. It starts at home and at school, which helps and shapes them to be ready for the challenging future. For the government, it is important to put the focus on the development of young children and the youth.
“When we look at countries like South Korea, Singapore or Finland that have very successful educational models, we see that it often starts with the government aiming for the best education in the world, doing that systemically and working towards bettering it. They always question, what can be done for the youth to have greater potential? Regardless of who the minister is, which government it is or from which political party. Because no matter who is sitting at the minister’s chair, this is what defines the future of the nation. And this will continue to be the most important thing in the country for the next 10-15 years.”
“Another thing is access to the most vulnerable population, particularly when there is a crisis, such as when COVID-19 occurred. More than half of the workforce in Thailand is informal workers, meaning that more than half of the country’s families do not have social welfare. They often have debts and when unemployed they struggle to survive. What is needed is help that is accessible. We have to think of the criteria, and how to reach these groups. Thailand’s strength is the need for help and its speed for vulnerable groups. But the weakness is that there are too many projects with different criteria, so the projects are not connected in the system. We need a database that is connected systematically. That uses the same criteria and rules, one that does not define poor children differently from another.”
“What can be done for the youth to have greater potential? Regardless of who the minister is, which government it is or from which political party. Because no matter who is sitting at the minister’s chair, this is what defines the future of the nation. And this will continue to be the most important thing in the country for the next 10-15 years.”
“The last thing is to put policy into action. For example, Thai law allows children with or without Thai nationality to study. This is something very advanced in providing equal opportunities for all. But this has its gaps when it comes to implementation. Many areas are still limited and impractical. We have to keep pushing forward to bridge this gap, to ensure that every child, including migrant children who accompany their parents or stateless children, will have equal and sustainable opportunities in education.”
Finally, we know that our readers would want to know UNICEF’s view on the Thai youth protests over the past few months. We asked for Thomas’ thoughts as a former UNICEF Representative of Thailand who recently completed his term.
“Let me break it down into two points. The first is a call for education reform. I see this as undeniable. What they are demanding for is not new to the Ministry of Education or to someone in the education system or anyone who has been in Thailand for a while. The youth have a strong focus that may have put people in difficult situations, but it is true that the current education system cannot help students be as effective as they can be. Nor does it provide students with the skills necessary for their future. It’s very clear and is something one can’t deny.”
“I know the Ministry of Education is working on this matter. But the children’s frustration is that the progress is not fast enough for them. I understand this because, for the youth, their future is not 10 years from now. For them, it is tomorrow. The lack of skills needed today are putting their future at risk, so they want to change everything now. And not in five years from now. But at the same time, the education system takes many years to reform. I can understand why the frustration arises.”
“Another aspect is that the Ministry of Education has issued guidelines for a safe space in educational institutions where children can express their opinions on things they would like to change in their school. But many students and civil society organizations say that there is still a gap. That there is a difference between the way this is communicated and what is actually happening in school. Many children feel that they cannot express their opinions in school, or even when they share their opinions they do not get good responses from teachers and administrators.”
“This is tied to the second issue that I’m going to talk about: the involvement and opinion of children anywhere, not just in schools. UNICEF reminds that expressing one’s opinions on matters including politics is stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article 12, which states that every child has the right to participate and speak peacefully, to be safe and free from intimidation or violence in any way.”
“I think that in any society, we should want children to express their opinions and should encourage them to do so. It is the way for them to develop their speaking and debating skills and build their confidence because the future of the nation will soon be in their hands. They should feel that they have the power to think about things,and take those stories to reflect and have conversations. This should happen in the family as well.”
“I know because I have children. I know the energy of children and teenagers. Their approach often pushes against us, but this is how it is for children everywhere in the world. Because this is the way to grow into adulthood. They have to push and reflect on the society in which they are living in, and this is why the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that we should encourage children to express their opinions, they should be safe no matter what their opinions are. But the most important thing is that children should have the opportunity and a safe place to share and express their ideas.”
“But having a safe area does not mean that what the youth are saying is the right thing nor will they get what they want. UNICEF does not mean that. What we are trying to say is that UNICEF does not comment on the requests of the young people. It is not for UNICEF to decide, but our opinion is that there should be a safe place and an opportunity for young people to trade their ideas. It should be something that everyone values and should be protected, in order to have peaceful participation.”
“In the meantime, what we try to tell the young people is that the principle applies to everyone. Young people tend to have very strong opinions, they are fueled with passion. But what we try to tell them is that if you want others to respect your opinions and expressions, you too must respect other people’s opinions and feelings. The principle of safe spaces and respect for others’ opinions must be applied equally to everyone.”