Read the story of Fanta, a Hmong daughter who now lives at the DEPDC center in Chiang Khong.
The following is from “The Globe,” a magazine for children to learn about child rights issues around the world as a part of World’s Children’s Prize. Learn more about World’s Children’s Prize here and on their website.
Click the images to enlarge them and click again to zoom in, or scroll to the bottom of this post for a text version of Fanta’s story.
Fanta protected from traffickers
Fanta is eight years old when her father disappears. Her mother says that he has a new job in a far away place, but he never sends any money home and it’s hard for the family to survive. The traffickers are always searching for poor girls like Fanta. In some villages in her area, there are hardly any girls over the age of thirteen left.
It takes time for Fanta to realize that her father really is gone. He hasn’t been at home that much recently because he took a second wife. Fanta belongs to the Hmong people, who have a tradition that men can have several wives. Fanta thinks this is unfair, because women aren’t allowed to have several husbands. Her father begins by moving between his two families, but one day he just doesn’t come back.
“Why does dad never come home?” asks Fanta.
Her mother replies that he’s working far away from home and he doesn’t have time. But it just doesn’t make sense. If he’s working, why does he never send any money home? The family hardly have enough money to buy food and all the children have to stop going to school. One day, Fanta’s mother says that Fanta and her little brother Sak are going to have to go away.
“ You’re going to a temple where they take good care of orphaned children” she says.
She explains that she can’t take care of them any longer. Their older siblings can work, but Fanta is only ten years old, and Sak is eight.
“It’ll be better for you, you’ll be able to go to school there,” says their mother when they start to cry.
Fanta and Sak move to the temple, dozens of miles away. They have to squeeze into dormitories with 200 other children who also come from poor Hmong villages, They are given food and they can go to school, but Fanta is homesick.
“There are too many children and not enough adults, they can’t take very good care of us,” says Fanta to Sak.
One Saturday morning, Sak and his friends sneak down to the river to play. It’s against the rules for children to play there, because they can’t swim. Sak and his friends peel fruit and throw the skins in the water to see whose floats the fastest. Suddenly, one boy trips and falls over the edge, down into the swirling waters. Sak jumps forward and grabs his hand but he is pulled down into the water too. The boys struggle desperately, but they can’t stay afloat. When their friends see them disappear under the surface, they run as fast as they can back to the temple.
“Help! They’re drowning!”
Fanta rushes to the river with the other children and the monks. She runs along the riverbank, scouring the waters, but it’s too late. The only thing she sees is one of Sak’s shoes, bobbing on the surface. After many hours of searching, they find the boys. When their bodies are laid out next to one another, Fanta can’t believe that Sak is dead, he looks like he’s sleeping.
Helping the spirits
When Fanta comes home with her little brother’s body, her mother says she doesn’t have to go back to the temple. Fanta is glad about that, despite her grief.
The funeral goes on for three days. Her little brother’s body is dressed in finest Hmong clothes and laid in a wicker coffin.
The villagers sing special songs and play drums. When the coffin is carried to the burial ground, a torchbearer’ leads the way, so that Sak doesn’t get lost on his way to the spirit life.
“Everybody has three spirits,” says Fanta’s mother. “One is reborn, one guards the body, and one is a spirit that guards our home.”
Fanta is certain now, that she’ll finally see her father. Surely he will come to her little brother’s funeral? But he doesn’t turn up. Something really is wrong.
Fanta is allowed to start going to the little village school. Her mother and her older siblings work hard so that they can pay for her school fees. Two more years pass, until one day her mother suddenly says:
“Tomorrow we will see your father. He’s in prison.”
At first Fanta is speechless.
“Why didn’t you tell us before?”
“I didn’t want to make life harder for you. If you had known that your father was in prison you wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on your school work.”
Fanta doesn’t agree. She is sad that her father is in jail, but even more sad that nobody told her.
Fanta’s mother explains that her father has been sentenced to twenty five years’ imprisonment for drug smuggling. He says he is not guilty, and that may be true. He was arrested by the police at the border between Thailand and Burma, in the city of Mae Sai. Gangs sometimes take advantage of poor hill tribe people there.
Sometimes they conspire to frame people like Fanta’s father for crimes that the gangs have committed. The punishments for drug crimes in Thailand are among the toughest in the world.
“If you plead not guilty, you run the risk of being sentenced to death. We couldn’t afford a lawyer. When you are poor you have no chance,” says Fanta’s mother.
It takes two hours to travel to the prison in town. They have to walk the last bit of the journey, past high white walls with barbed wire and broken glass along the top. There is a long queue outside the prison and Fanta is surprised to see so many children.
She thought she was the only child with a parent in prison.
Four heavy metal doors clang shut behind Fanta. Her father’s name is shouted out, and a guard shows them into a small room. It is divided by a wall with a window in it. Fanta and her father begin to cry as soon as they see one another. Her father lifts the phone handset on his side of the glass. First, he talks with Fanta’s mother, then with her older brother. Fanta thinks of all the things she’ll say when it’s her turn. But suddenly a voice announces through the speaker: “Five minutes left!”. Fanta’s father is only allowed a one-hour visit, once a year. When the time runs out, neither Fanta nor her little sister has had a chance to talk to him.
Protection from gangs
Fanta’s mother can’t read or write, and she remembers how sad she was that she couldn’t go to school.
“When I was your age I was already married,” she tells Fanta. “We fled from Laos to Thailand before you were born. In the mountains in Laos there was no schools or roads, nothing to eat, and no jobs. The Hmong people were treated badly. We couldn’t survive there. Don’t be foolish like your mother! Work hard at your studies. If I had the chance I’d start school now, even though I’m old!”
Fanta is in her final year at the little village school. Her family can’t afford to send her to study in the city, where the schools are expensive. Just when everything seems hopeless, P’tu, a woman from the city, comes to visit the village. She is the principal of a home for girls who need extra protection and support. The home was founded by Sompop Jantraka and his organisation.
“Girls like Fanta need to be protected from the traffickers,” explains P’tu. “Fanta is just at the age the gangs are looking for. If she stays in the village, there is a high risk she’ll be a victim. In some villages in this area, there are hardly any girls left who are older than thirteen or fourteen.”
The last night
Fanta’s mother is worried about sending her away. She’ll never forget what happened to Fanta’s brother Sak.
But P’tu lets Fanta visit the home and the school several times. She and her mother decide that she will move there. The night before she leaves, Fanta sleeps beside her mother for the first time since she was little. Her mother holds her tight and whispers in the darkness.
“Be a good girl and work hard at school. Don’t fall in with the wrong crowd. And try not to miss me too much. I’m sure rich children are good at lots of things but they don’t know anything about how to harvest corn or sow rice. You are strong, you can do anything!”
The next morning, Fanta’s mother wakes her extra early so that they can spend as much time together as possible before her departure. Two girls from other villages are sitting in P’tu’s car when she arrives. As they jolt off down the bumpy dirt track, Fanta waves goodbye to her family and friends. When they arrive at Sompop’s safe home for girls, Fanta unpacks, chooses a bed and learns the names of her new friends. That night, she falls asleep in an instant.
Misses her mother
After a few months, Fanta feels at home at the center in Chiang Khong. All the girls attend a school close to the home, and in the evenings and weekends they learn about problems that are common in the hill tribe villages. They discuss drugs and alcohol and illnesses like HIV and AIDS. They learn about the rights of the child, as well as practical skills like cooking and sewing. Fanta is happy here, but she misses her family.
“I’m worried about my mother. She needs my help in the rice fields. But I have to go to school and she supports me.” says Fanta.
Fanta has seen her father one more time since that first visit. This time he wasn’t behind a pane of glass, he was out in the prison yard. They could hug one another and talk.
“I love my father and I miss him, but I wish he had never left us. I think it’s wrong that men have more power than women in my village,” says Fanta. “Boys and girls should be treated equally. If I get married in the future, I won’t agree to my husband having more wives.”
Fanta’s father still has many years of his prison sentence left.
“I think the punishments here are too harsh,” says Fanta. “The families that are left behind out here can’t manage. I admire my mother and the way she has taken such good care of us. Without her we wouldn’t have survived.”
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Children who need protection
Children like Fanta, who belong to the indigenous hill tribes of northern Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Yunnan province of China, are often poor and their rights not respected. There is a high risk they will be tricked by traffickers and forced to work, for example in the sex industry. Some children need extra protection, such as children like Fanta who have one parent in jail.
At the home there are also girls who have:
- parents and/or siblings who work in the sex industry
- drug or alcohol addiction in the family
- parents with serious illnesses, such as HIV or AIDS
- been subjected to sexual abuse
- fled their homelands because of oppression and/or poverty and do not have a residence permit.
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Dangerous area for children!
Chiang Khong is beside the border with Laos. More and more traffickers are looking for children in this area, especially since Sompop and others began their successful fight against the criminal gangs near the border with Burma. Sompop has built a safe home in Chiang Khong to protect the most vulnerable children, the ones who are at risk of being sold to traffickers if they stay in their villages.
Sompop’s colleagues travel around the villages telling children and their parents about the rights of the child and about what can happen if they are sent to big cities and tourist resorts to work.
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Fanta is a sport freak!
Fanta loves pretty much all kinds of sport.
“I want to be a professional athlete when I grow up. My dream would be to play volleyball for Thailand! I don’t think anyone from the Hmong tribe has ever played as such a high level — I might be the first!”
Fanta plays volleyball for her school.
“We compete against other schools and we have won several times. I’m at my happiest when I’m playing some kind of sport. I really love competing and I never give up. I always keep fighting, because I love to win!”
Fanta also loves table tennis, football and most of all wicker ball, or takraw (which means ball in Thai). Takraw is an ancient and very popular Thai sport which is like a mixture of volleyball, football and martial arts, and is played with a rattan ball.