Fond of reading and performing well at school, 16-year-old Manee should be a carefree high school girl in her hometown in Chiang Rai province.
But she isn’t. She has to take care of her two-month-old baby whose father is also at high school.
Another example of school girls troubled by unprotected sex, last year her 15-year-old schoolmate died after being raped by her stepfather who is HIV positive. Such cases are just a glimpse of an increasingly severe headache for Thai society.
According to a survey by the Thai branch of Plan International, a NGO for marginalised children, 70% of the 600 cases of unplanned pregnancies in northern Thailand are between the ages of 15 and 19.
Here’s another sobering fact: Last year Thailand was estimated to have the world’s second largest number of early pregnancies, closely following South Africa.
“They should stay in school and get educated instead of getting pregnant,” said Sunan Samriamrum, programme director (acting) of Plan International.
However, it is impossible for those girls to return to school even when they have finished nursing their babies since they have to find a job and support their new family.
To prevent unplanned teenage pregnancies, the Path Foundation, an organisation under the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (THPF), initiated a nine-million baht project in 2008 to raise awareness of this burgeoning problem.
Named “Up to Me”, the project focuses on initiating complete sex education in junior and high schools in the form of lectures and handouts, as well as promoting children and community participation and publicising the organisation’s work though various media.
Earlier this year, despite the “Up to Me” project’s success in Bangkok and nearby areas, the Path Foundation planned to scale back due to inadequate funding.
Fortunately, Plan International saw the educational film produced by “Up to Me” and showed interest in further promoting the project. It has now become the major sponsor of the project.
While excessively young mothers definitely deserve attention, a large number of school girls who have undergone abortions, especially illegal abortions, also need care. One major problem in this area is that many girls who have had an abortion it secret.
“Girls who have illegal abortions may suffer from physical and psychological problems. Some may even lose their ability to give birth and become disillusioned with relationships,” said Benjaporn Juntapoon, a nurse with the Health Promotion Department of Maechan Hospital in Chiang Rai province.
Based on her years of experience in this line of work, she said girls who fall in love at school are generally quiet and good girls, doing well in their studies. Such a description contradicts the image that girls who quit school because of underage sex are “bad girls”.
Benjaporn noted that since these girls were generally trusted by their parents, they were reluctant to go to their family for help once they became pregnant. Instead, “they will talk to their boyfriends or close friends.”
Unfortunately, in most cases, they will get only one suggestion from their peers: Have an abortion at a “small and secret” clinic.
Last November, 2,002 aborted foetuses were discovered in the morgues of two Bangkok temples. These had been accumulated over the past five years and were all from an illegal abortion clinic. Around 60% of the abortions were from women below the age of 25.
This scandal caused much soul-searching and finger-pointing in Thai society, caught the attention of the Path Foundation and led to the setting up of the “Up to Me” project.
The high incidence of unplanned pregnancies can be attributed to many factors. The basic one is that “physical puberty is occurring far earlier, sometimes at eight or nine and there is evidence a girl can get pregnant even before her first period,” according to CJ Hinke, a founder of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT).
The second reason is that “Thai education doesn’t include sex education and birth control, though it is the duty of schools to provide such information to students,” said Sunan.
Parents also contribute to the situation with their reluctance to discuss sex with their children.
“While it is true this may be an uncomfortable conversation, you’re just plain stupid if you don’t talk to your child,” Hinke said.
Besides embarrassment, inadequate attention from parents also plays a part.
“Today’s parents are too focused on their work and personal life; they just ignore their children,” said Maechan Hospital’s Benjaporn. “Sometimes parents are even the last ones to know their daughters are pregnant.”
Hinke pointed out that regardless of the embarrassment it may cause, society as a whole needs to address the need for birth control and abortion.
“This is not killing. These are unwanted children who will be a burden for themselves and the rest of us,” he said.
Aside from the high number of unplanned teenage pregnancies, another alarming statistic is that 85% of young mothers surveyed by Plan International were not concerned about HIV or Aids, making this group even more vulnerable.
In response, Plan International intends to train 500 students in 10 schools in northern Thailand this year to help them promote safe sex among teenagers. They recently completed the training in three schools. Though such coverage is obviously too small to solve the problem, it is at least a step in the right direction.
Plan International’s survey also revealed that most schoolgirls who had unplanned pregnancies chose to leave school in order to keep their babies.
Data from Chiang Rai Hospital shows that, from January to July this year, more than 1,054 girls below the age of 20 had given birth at the hospital.
Although Thai law allows girls who have given birth to return to school, this is impractical for two reasons: First is poverty, which forces these girls to work in order to feed their children.
There was recently a case of a Chiang Rai student who became pregnant during her last year at school and who chose to finish her education before going home to give birth. However, she lost her chance to go to college because she had to work to support her new family.
The other reason is a critical social environment.
“After giving birth and becoming the focus of gossip among their classmates, they are too embarrassed to go back to class,” Plan International’s Sunan said.
“They also face discrimination in their communities, especially if they are from an ethnic minority.”
To reduce such discrimination, Plan International, in cooperation with local governments and communities, is working on educating parents, especially those from ethnic groups, to help them understand the fragile and tough situation teenage girls are facing.
Girls who aided by Path, Plan International, their schools or families after their unplanned pregnancy are lucky because at least they are not alone and are able to find a way out.
“The problem is that around one third of children in northern Thailand have no ID cards. If they get pregnant and choose to keep their babies, they can’t find a job to support themselves and feed their children,” said Apiradee Chappanapong, communication and PR manager of Plan International’s Thailand office.
Though taking various forms, the shared doctrine of all subsidiary projects of “Up to Me” is to tell girls who are tempted to have sex with their boyfriends that such an impulsive and irresponsible action is similar to lighting a candle in the rain.
You may never get warmed before it is wet and gets extinguished.