Wow. What a week. How do we find our “happy place” after such an ugly stretch of our country’s history? Now that the dust is settling, I am saddened for the causes whose voices have been overpowered; I cried for the trampling gender equality suffered over the last week. As a mother of two daughters, this cause is closest to my heart. The only bright side can be that the gender equality movement comes back fighting, stronger than ever, fueled and inspired by the diverse group of women elected into federal and state legislative seats, supported by charitable organizations large and small.
In the past few decades, research has uncovered the key to decreasing worldwide poverty; educate the world’s girls. By educating a girl, a chain reaction of empowerment is set in motion, elevating not only that girl and her family, but entire communities. Marriage is delayed, birth rates drop, education levels rise, health and nutrition improve with prosperity. Some of the world’s largest charitable foundations are channelling resources towards this effort. William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Clinton Foundation, UN Women and its HeForShe campaign, all target gender equality by elevating girls’ education levels.
The SOLD Project, an Oakland-based non-profit, has had great success in reducing drop out rates here in northern Thailand. They provide scholarships to keep students in school until graduation, and now are getting their students through university. Education and mentorship is the key to keeping kids in school, preventing trafficking and breaking the cycle of poverty. Their graduates are coming back to their communities to help, through legal assistance and mentorship, health care and education.
Going back to my days working in Japan in the 1980's, I remember hearing about men going on “sex tours” to Thailand. I had never heard the term trafficking when referring to humans. The horrible reality of this, I would not learn for many years.
Hill tribe communities of northern Thailand are prime recruiting grounds for child traffickers. These communities are often “stateless” which greatly limits education and income opportunities. Many are farmers and are some of the poorest communities in the country. Education through the 9th grade, is technically free, however, the actual cost to these families is exorbitant. The families must still purchase uniforms and books; the families must do without one more pair of hands in the fields; often the middle schools and high schools are so far away, the child may need to stay in a dorm during the week. Drop out rates of 50% or more are not uncommon.
The cities offer more lucrative opportunities. For girls, of course, the fate is working in the sex trade. Sadly, once a girl begins working in the sex trade, various factors make rescue and rehabilitation difficult and unlikely. Boys are often recruited for hard labor, usually construction, where double shifts are offered, the boys working 20 hour days, six days a week. They often end up physically broken with a drug and/or alcohol addiction. Traffickers promise jobs earning more than enough to help their families. They are sometimes unaware of the horrible reality, but eager to take over the role as breadwinner.
When walking through Asian villages and cities when my daughters were little, we would see girls working the sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia, and women working and living away from their families as domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Singapore. My girls would look up at me and ask, "Why?", or really, "Why do they have to do this type of work", and "Why them and not me?" I could only answer back with, "It's all about where you're born", silently thinking about the heartbreaking decisions these parents and children must make.
My next non-profit project is with The SOLD Project. With resource centers in rural Chiang Rai province and in downtown Chiang Rai, SOLD is able to reach hundreds of students. These centers offer mentorship and other facilities to help kids stay in school. They are a relatively new non-profit, and their numbers may seem small, but they are changing lives, changing communities. SOLD is limited only in the amount of fundraising that goes towards changing young lives and breaking the cycle of child trafficking. Please check out their website www.thesoldproject.com and consider a scholarship.
We are currently planning a Homestay and Cultural Exchange Program for SOLD's scholarship recipients. This program will offer university students an opportunity to live with an expat family in Thailand in order to improve their English or Chinese language skills, and to give them an idea of what it might be like to live and study overseas.
We are looking for families in the Chiang Mai area who speak English or Mandarin at home and can host a student for two weeks in June 2017. More information and dates for upcoming information meetings will be posted on the Homestay and Cultural Exchange Program FB page. Watch for more details in my next blog post. Also, please visit The SOLD Project page for scholarship opportunities and many inspirational stories.