There are more than 1 million stateless people in Thailand — two-thirds of them children — who are unable to access basic rights like education and healthcare. Without Thai citizenship, many young people have to drop out of school and try and find work illegally.
In this interview, Chanchai Thongsumrit, Plan Thailand’s consultant for the Vocational Training Programme for Stateless Girls, talks about some of the challenges stateless girls face.
Q: What problems do stateless girls in northern Thailand face?
A: Stateless girls in the northern areas of Thailand face discrimination in their efforts to earn a living. Most are seen as less entitled than males because of cultural norms and because they have no legal identity. They have a difficult life. While the girls need jobs to support their families, there are not many options for good careers for girls. Most stateless girls are unable to access government services like health and education or to travel or work freely because they are not Thai citizens and have no birth certificate. If they cannot find a good job, their statelessness puts them at risk of child labour and human trafficking.
Q: What opportunities do stateless girls have in terms of education?
A: Although the Thai government provides free education to every child, extra costs, like those for computer courses, special activities, transportation and sport uniforms, still exist and poor families, especially stateless ones, cannot afford to pay. Most high schools are in the city, a fact which entails additional costs for the dormitory or other accommodation, food and transportation. The two main obstacles for stateless children are not being able to apply for a scholarship and not being able to travel freely out of their areas without obtaining permission from the district officer. Most stateless girls stop going to school when they reach grade 9 and only a few are able to continue through grade 12.
Q: What opportunities do stateless girls have in terms of livelihoods?
A: Recently, stateless girls who have not been able to pursue higher education have been seeking to marry rich Malaysian or Chinese men with the hope that their husbands will support their families. Unfortunately, very few are so lucky. For the most part, stateless girls cannot choose their own marriage partner because doing so requires that they have good connections or a good job. Most are forced to work in karaoke bars or under other exploitative conditions.
Q: Why do many stateless girls work at karaoke bars?
A: With no identification or birth certificate, stateless girls have limited access to employment and education, which both require proof of a legal identity. It is easy to get a job at a karaoke bar because owners do not inquire about identification. In fact, it is about the only job available for many stateless people, particularly girls. Such bars require no skills or papers but provide a good income. Girls are paid 500-1,000 baht per day to work from 6 pm to 1 am, but they are at risk of sexual abuse.
Q. When did Plan’s vocational training programme start?
A: Plan’s vocational training programme was first piloted in 2008. It targeted housewives in Plan’s communities, educating them on life skills like the making of local or traditional handicrafts and agriculture. In 2009, Plan revised the programme to focus on marginalised and stateless people, particularly youths, who are unable to receive government services. The programme has two main components: it encourages young people to become entrepreneurs and it develops their capacity to be employed in the market.
Q. Why did Plan Thailand initiate its vocational training programme?
A: It is our intention to help marginalised and stateless girls secure a good quality of life. If we invest in building their knowledge, the girls can use can use their newfound ability to support themselves and families.
Q. How does this programme work? Tell us about the process.
A: We start by assessing the market demand for girl workers to ensure that they will get a good job after they graduate. Then, we work with our public and private sector partners and youth networks to develop a work plan for selecting. Selected candidates are provided with knowledge about market management and market resources. Monitoring and evaluation come at the end of the process.
Q. How do stateless girls benefit?
A: Each stateless girl who participates in the programme receives a certificate from the training centre. Certified by the government sector, this certificate ensures that they will get a good job and have a better life.
Q. How many candidates have been trained under this programme?
A: Plan trained 30 disadvantaged and stateless girls in the pilot programme it conducted last year.
Q. What obstacles does this programme face?
A: Many of the graduates decided to take a job other than the one they were trained for or refused to work in the market Plan offered. The main reasons were that the Plan-selected workplace was too far from their homes and that certain workplaces were unable to hire many new staff at the same time. Some girls decided to take a job that offered a high salary but bad conditions of work. These problems led Plan Thailand to review and adjust its work process to better suit the girls it trains and the marketplaces they work in.
Q. What are your expectations for this programme?
A: Plan just received US$1.8 million from the Accenture Foundation to support livelihoods projects for the next three years. In 2013, Plan aims to expand its vocational life skill training to reach 2,700 disadvantaged and stateless youths in the northern (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai), eastern (Chonburi and Rayong) and southern (Phang-nga and Phuket) regions of Thailand.