A boarding house run by a Thai man and his wife is all that is keeping 46 hill tribe children in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai from joining the millions of out-of-school children in Southeast Asia.
Like many of those children, the educational opportunities open to the young learners at the “Home for Hill Tribe Students” are limited by distance.
The children who live there belong to the Lahu, Akha and Karen tribes and come from 18 villages high up in the mountains of Mae Suai. “These villages are very far. It is impossible for the children to go to school since they would have to travel 10-25 kilometers,” says Yodying Kongsasemtara, 34, who along with his wife runs the boarding house located near a Thai public school. “That is why the parents send them to stay with me.”
Established in 1978, the Home for Hill Tribe Students is a second home to these children in Chiang Rai, one of Thailand’s most ethnically and culturally diverse areas. Bordered by Myanmar and Lao PDR, the province is home to more than 212,000 non-Thais and hill tribes from at least 10 ethnic groups. Many of them live in under-resourced highland and border areas of this northernmost province.
Distance and limited access to public services mean that the majority of the hill tribe labor force is uneducated, placing them at a greater risk of living in poverty with little access to adequate health care.
A region’s challenges
Across ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries, more than 10 million primary and lower secondary school-aged children are out of school.
As we pursue Education 2030’s vision of “inclusive and equitable quality education” and “lifelong learning opportunities for all”, we must respond to this challenge.
The ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Education for Out-of-School Children and Youth, agreed to by the heads of all member states in 2016, is predicated on the belief that the benefits of education should transcend borders and demographics. It reflects a consensus to strengthen cooperation on education within ASEAN and to develop sustainable strategies to respond to barriers to quality basic education.
UNESCO, the ASEAN Secretariat, and UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Office have organized two workshops in 2017, during which member states developed a national action plan framework, as well as concrete regional and national plans and activities.
The third workshop held last week in Jakarta, Indonesia, reviewed three regional project proposals: a regional inclusive equivalency framework; advocacy for the ASEAN Declaration; and statistical monitoring/evaluation enhancement for out-of-school children and youth. This workshop also looked beyond ASEAN to include the grouping’s official Dialogue Partners – 10 countries, including Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway and the Republic of Korea.
From declaration to grassroots dedication
As crucial as these concerted efforts are to advancing the declaration’s principles at the education-system level, there is also a need for everyone – governments, local communities, children, parents and teachers – to play their parts.
To put the principles of the Declaration into practice, UNESCO and Educate a Child have been assisting ASEAN member states in promoting education for marginalized out-of-school children.
In Thailand, UNESCO Bangkok and Educate a Child support an equivalency program at the primary level conducted at schools and migrant learning centers along the Thai-Myanmar border. The curriculum is recognized by the ministries of education of Thailand and Myanmar, providing opportunities for migrant and undocumented children to continue in both formal and non-formal education systems in both countries.
UNESCO and Educate a Child also support grassroots efforts of people whose work embodies the spirit of the ASEAN Declaration, such as the Home for Hill Tribe Students run by Yodying and his wife.
Yodying, himself a member of the Lahu tribe and a former resident of the home, and his wife, have been running the boarding house for the past 14 years. He receives only 4,000 baht (US$120) per child a year from the families of the children under his care, who stay with him full-time, returning to their villages once a month.
“This year we have 46 children between 5 to 13 years old,” he said. “Their parents are very busy working in the field and have no time to take care of them. They also would like their children to learn Lahu language.”
Yodying’s schedule revolves around the children’s needs – making two trips in his pickup to drop the children off at school, and then turning his attention during the day to tending to the vegetables, pigs, chicken and catfish he keeps to ensure the children have nutritious food. Weekends are spent teaching the children life skills and ensuring that they keep their mother tongue through language lessons.
For Yodying, the benefits of inclusive, equitable education are not abstract principles espoused in a declaration – they’re his reality. He also grew up at the Home for Hill Tribe Students and went on to higher education in Chiang Mai before returning to share education’s benefits with a new generation. “I like to be around the kids. I want to teach them to become good persons who are proud of their cultural identity,” says Yodying.
UNESCO Bangkok, in collaboration with the Chiang Rai Provincial Office of the Non-Formal and Informal Education, and with funding from Educate a Child, support the Home for Hill Tribe Students’ efforts to enroll out-of-school hill tribe children in school through the Strengthening Education Systems for Out-of-School Children initiative.
- The development of a Declaration on Education for Disadvantaged Children: http://bangkok.unesco.org/content/development-declaration-education-disadvantaged-children
- From Declaration to Action for ASEAN’s Out-of-School Children and Youth: http://bangkok.unesco.org/content/declaration-action-asean%E2%80%99s-out-school-children-and-youth
- ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Education for Out-of-School Children and Youth (OOSCY): http://asean.org/asean-declaration-on-strengthening-education-for-out-of-school-children-and-youthooscy/
- Myanmar’s gender challenges in education: What the boys have to say: http://bangkok.unesco.org/content/myanmar%E2%80%99s-gender-challenges-education-what-boys-have-say
- Out of School, Not Out of Reach – The Children of Ban Nam Lo, Lao PDR: http://bangkok.unesco.org/content/out-school-not-out-reach-children-ban-nam-lo-lao-pdr-%E2%80%93-photo-essay
- ‘Karaoke’ class: A high note for literacy in Thai mountain villages: http://bangkok.unesco.org/content/%E2%80%98karaoke%E2%80%99-class-high-note-literacy-thai-mountain-villages