Diakonia - People change the world

“Now I live a completely new life”

When Tipnaree was 10 years old, she earned 50 baht (USD 1,5) a day on a construction site and had almost never been to school. As a member of an ethnic minority in Thailand, without schooling and knowledge of Thai and with a stepfather who sold drugs, her future looked anything but bright. But she was lucky. Tipnaree came into contact with the children’s home New Life Center, NLC, and her life changed radically.

“When I think back on my youth, I realise that the years at NLC gave me a chance to have a completely new life. I now have a job where I get to travel and see a great deal, and I earn enough to support my family.”

New Life Center works with girls belonging to ethnic minorities in northern Thailand. The girls often lack basic schooling and are considered to be in the risk zone for criminality, trafficking or being exploited as cheap labour. Opium cultivation and drug abuse have long been a major problem in the area, and girls risk being sold by family or relatives who need money to fund their addiction.

“One of my friends was sold by her father, who was a drug addict. But she was later saved by NLC,” says Tipnaree Setphisut.

The childhoos was a very poor one

It never went that far in Tipnaree’s case, but her childhood was a very poor one. Tipnaree’s father died when she was three years old. And for Akha people, which Tipnaree’s family belongs to, there was stigma attached to being a single woman. That’s why it didn’t take long before Tipnaree’s mother remarried. She had four children with her new husband, three of which died before reaching the age of one. Only one half-sister survived.

“They were sick and had stomach problems,” Tipnaree explains.

Education was seen as a waste of time

In the village it was unusual for girls to go to school. Girls’ education was seen as a waste of time as the girls would get married anyway and be in charge of their own household. Tipnaree helped take care of her little sister and work in the fields.

“This involved a great deal of work. In the mornings, I helped my mother with the breakfast. We couldn’t afford anything other than rice, which had to be milled by hand. We fetched water and boiled the rice. My stepfather was like other men – he did none of the work that was necessary in the home.”

But life in the village was so poor that her parents decided to move to Chiang Rai, a town in northern Thailand, to make a living from casual labour.

“The big problems began when we moved from our village into town. My stepfather started gambling away our money, drinking and using drugs. After a year or two, he started selling drugs to fund his new lifestyle,” says Tipnaree.

Worked at a construction site as a ten-year-old

Her parents found work on a construction site in the town, and Tipnaree, who was ten years old at the time, was given the task of placing reinforcing bars in the foundations of the buildings. It was hard work, but Tipnaree was proud of being able to contribute to the family’s livelihood.

“This was my life until I was 14 years old. Then, one day, we heard on the radio that girls who hadn’t gone to school could get a new chance at New Life Center, NLC. Both my mother and her husband urged me to apply.”

A total of 150 girls sent in applications but only 30 were accepted, Tipnaree amongst them. But as she could neither read or write nor speak Thai, she had to start from the beginning and study from first grade.

Other students were mocking her

Tipnaree was a full-time boarder at NLC and went to school from Monday to Friday. The rest of the time she learned things like sewing, playing instruments and studying  the Bible. She went to see her family only two or three times a year. At the same time, she was struggling with the other students mocking her by imitating her accent when she tried to speak Thai.

“I felt bad and I missed my mother enormously. But the staff at NCL supported me and said that I should focus on my studies instead of on the other children at the school. It was hard, especially in the beginning. But I also made new friends and felt like I’d been given a second chance.”

Was asked to sell drugs

Tipnaree was a good student. She covered nine years of schooling in just three years. Meanwhile, the problems in the family at home got worse.

“Once, when I was at home on a visit, my stepfather said that I should quit my studies and start working with him selling drugs instead. It made me so sad that I couldn’t answer him. In my culture, children and young people are supposed to do what their parents tell them to, so it was difficult for me. The next morning, I got up really early. Packed my things and took the bus back to New Life Center. But the staff supported me when I told them what had happened and said I didn’t need to go home any more.”

Instead, Tipnaree spent her holidays travelling around the villages with NLC, informing people about trafficking and reproductive health. NLC also provided information on how to wean yourself off opium, as opium addiction was seen as one of the fundamental causes of problems in the area.

Had do provide for her siblings

A year or two later, there was another setback. Tipnaree’s mother went to prison for possession, as she was the only one home when the police searched the house for drugs after being tipped off by one of the stepfather’s friends. Tipnaree’s stepfather then took up with another woman, who he also had a son with. But when the boy was just six months old, the stepfather and his new woman were also given prison sentences for selling drugs. Tipnaree, who by that time had started training to be an accountant, was suddenly responsible for providing for her half-sister and the little boy.

“I managed to arrange accommodation in a shelter for the children and for my mother, who was released from prison around the same time. This gave me time to complete my studies. But I was then forced to quickly find a job to be able to provide for them all.”

Studied for a university degree on weekends

Tipnaree started work, but thanks to a scholarship from NLC, she was able to simultaneously study for a university degree at the weekends. Now, several years later, she works at Diakonia’s regional office and is in charge of Diakonia’s project management system. The work is varied and involves a lot of travelling, but above all it gives her the opportunity to help her family financially. She now wants her youngest bonus brother to also have the chance to get a good education.

“Without NLC I probably would have been married with several children and maybe worked in a bar somewhere. Now I’m proud to have the chance to work at Diakonia, but above all I’m proud to be able to support my family so well.”