A Buddhist temple in northeastern Thailand is deploying education as a highly effective tool to combat the trafficking in young hill tribe girls.
Students learn how to mix eco-friendly fertiliser at Wat Vivakevanaram. KAMONRAT CHAYAMARIT/ UNESCO
The unique course at Wat Vivakevanaram in Chiang Mai province, 52km from the border with Burma, gives girls at risk the opportunity to learn life skills in a safe environment in subjects like nutrition, cooking and care of the elderly, as well as more specialised instruction in agriculture and livestock rearing, which are major occupations in hill tribe communities.
The students are also able to make extra money by selling the products they make in class at local markets.
The vocational training is run by monks from the Buddhist Missionary Project and receives teaching support from Lamphun College of Agriculture.
The first batch of graduates recently enrolled in a bachelor's degree in community management at the renowned Mae Jo University in Chiang Mai.
The deputy abbot of Wat Vivakevanaram, Phra Prasit Pavatako, said: "Human trafficking has been a huge problem for decades, especially for girls from the Mhong and Karen tribes living along the Thai-Burmese border in Chiang Mai province.
"This initiative was introduced to strengthen the capacities of communities living in border areas. Girls have been singled out for this training programme for two reasons. First, they are most at risk of being trafficked in, and second, they have the strongest voice to pass on the messages learned in the community, as girls have a high tendency to go back to their home villages and become community leaders."
Over 200 villages scattered across Chiang Mai province contain tribal communities, but little support and protection is available to them.
Phra Prasit first learned of the trafficking problem during his early monkhood when he preached in hill tribe regions. His master's degree in community management from a leading US university added to his instructional skills.
Akha hill tribe member Pracharapun Lacher, 19, a third-year student, said: "We like to go back to our hometowns to pass on our knowledge to our parents and neighbours.
"Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to convince our parents to buy into our knowledge and skills. For example, I told my parents one day when I went back home how important it is to use environmentally friendly fertiliser.
"However, they [the parents] are still tied to the old ways of doing things. They still think that chemical fertiliser is more convenient and cheaper, so we have to use our learning to help bring about change," she added.
Programme teacher Ms Prakittha Nuelnel stressed the important role monks have in the programme, and ultimately the impact they have on communities.
"The monks are the only ones who really have the trust of the people in most local areas. When they speak up, people listen," she said.
Funding the programme has been a major problem even though the cost per student is only 45 baht a day.
"We provide all the students with food and accommodation, and the money has to come from our fund-raising campaign," said Phra Prasit Pavatako.
Another problem is attracting students into the programme. A recent joint report by three UN agencies - FAO, ILO and Unesco - entitled Training and Employment Opportunities to Address Poverty Among Rural Youth revealed that rural communities prefer their children to accept unskilled lowly-paid jobs, rather than unpaid training.
Graduates receive diplomas certified by provincial universities on the premise that an academic qualification, coupled with vocational training focused on agriculture and livestock skills, will increase their chances of finding worthwhile employment.
The programme is yielding results as knowledge of better agricultural practices and life skills spreads out into the wider community. More importantly, the girls are taken into a safe environment, which reduces the risk of them being lured into risky occupations, or being sold to human traffickers.
Fourth-year student Niratchaporn Lacher said: "When I finish my studies, I will go back to my hometown and improve the development of my community. I want to teach the children so that they can grow up to be like me."
The temple is in need of financial support for its education programmes. Readers who want to learn more about its work or to make donations are encouraged to call 053-211-996.
Kamonrat Chayamarit holds an MA in cultural and creative industries from King's College London and a post-graduate diploma in comparative studies in cultures from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She has been working with the Education for Sustainable Development unit at Unesco since April 2008.
Daniel Calderbank works in media and communications at Unesco Bangkok. A former staff member of the 'Bangkok Post', he has worked in radio broadcasting and for national newspapers in the UK, the UAE and Thailand.