Kimberly Vrudny

New Life Center Foundation

In New Life Center Foundation, Non-profits / NGOs, Thailand, Trafficking on August 10, 2010 at 1:15 am

In the hill tribe regions of Thailand, more than one million ethnic minority people live—including the Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Mien, and Lisu. Each group proudfully preserves its own customs, language, dress, and spiritual beliefs. However, young men, women, and children are leaving their villages in pursuit of work dishwashing in restaurants, cleaning in private residences, and sewing in factories, as well as working in Thailand’s fishing and farming industries. Sometimes, their movement is initiated in answer to advertisements and personal promises that jobs are available to support their basic needs, paying wages that will enable families to secure food, shelter, clothing, and an education. In other situations, familial drug and alcohol abuse, parental disability, or destitution propels them from the village into Thailand’s larger cities.

Although Thailand’s laws legislate against exploitation, including child labor, when children are born in these regions, traditional midwives attend their births. Babies not born in hospitals are not issued birth certificates. Without birth certificates, people coming into Thailand’s cities in search of work are officially considered illegal laborers, much like those coming in from the countries bordering Thailand in the north: Myanmar and Laos, for example, until or unless their legal status and age can be authenticated. Acquiring such documentation can be a lengthy and expensive endeavor.

Business owners, in the meanwhile, desiring to turn a higher profit, know this kind of cheaper labor is available. Therefore, they hire from this vulnerable minority population in order to pay, for example, 50 baht per day (or about $1.50/day), rather than having to pay the legally mandated but higher minimum wage to of-age and documented workers (170 baht, or about $5/day). Cases have been heard in the Thai courts where workers were paid with rice rather than with currency. Moreover, working conditions are often poor and abusive.

The practice of human trafficking, the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation, is pervasive in this context. Laws meant to stymie this trend are only marginally enforced. Too often, young women are especially vulnerable to trafficking that is prolific in a situation of poverty where thousands of migrant workers are also seeking a better life.

Young girls who travel an hour or more to the nearest cities to do their work too often learn that the advertisement or personal contact that attracted them was not truthful. In many cases, parents are unaware that their children are being exploited. Very often, the bodies of young girls are being sold by brokers for the sexual pleasure of men. The baht goes to the trafficker rather than to the girl, who is sometimes beaten until she complies.

During their careers that spanned more than four decades, anthropologists Paul and Elaine Lewis observed this pattern firsthand, so in 1987 they founded the New Life Center Foundation. The non-profit organization is headquartered in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with offices also in Chiang Rai, and is devoted to empowering and equipping at risk or exploited tribal women through education and training, in order to create positive change in their lives and in society. The founders were interested in creating an organization that could provide minority girls with skills that would enable them to find meaningful work, including fluency in the Thai language, while simultaneously preventing the loss of their tribal heritage. Today, the New Life Center has nearly 120 young women in residence. The girls range in age from 13 to 23. About 50% of these minority women are identified as at risk for exploitation; the others have been referred to the Center through the Thai welfare system after experiencing forced labor or sexual exploitation.

The Center has evolved over the year to provide eight primary services:

1. Education. By matriculating the residents of the Center into mainstream schools, running an adult education evening school, and providing education through a weekend school, the goal is to give the residents a quality education and literacy skills through the high school level.

2. Vocational Training. By paying for training for work in beauty salons, tailoring, and nursing, the Center equips its residents for meaningful work, free from exploitation.

3. University Scholarships. Due to a generous donation from a Foundation in Sweden, 75 residents are now receiving scholarships to attend University.

4. Citizenship Advocacy. Staff working in the area of citizenship advocacy undertake the lengthy and expensive process of helping residents acquire Thai citizenship through navigating the complicated labyrinth of offices and paperwork in the government that attaining citizenship requires.

5. Life Skills. Because many of the girls did not have good role models or mentors in the villages of their birth, the structure of the Center provides residents with the opportunity to develop valuable life skills through formal training, conducted by various professors and teachers from the region’s NGOs and Universities. Workshops cover a wide range of topics, such as health and human hygiene, reproductive health, recycling, care of the environment, fire safety, leadership, human rights, and gender equality.

6. Spiritual Development. The Foundation is supported by American Baptist International Ministries, as well as many other religious and private sources. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, along with the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, generously support the work of the New Life Center Foundation. In addition, the Foundation receives financial support from the U.S. State Department’s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons, the Royal Thai Government, Diakonia, Sievert Larssen Scholarship Foundation, the Rotary Foundation, as well as from many private donors. The Foundation deeply respects the diverse spiritualities of the young women who arrive at the Center. The community is comprised of people from many religious backgrounds, including Catholic and Protestant Christians, Buddhists, and those practicing traditional tribal faiths. Residents are given the opportunity to participate voluntarily in Bible studies, devotions, and discipleship training in preparation for baptism.

7. Income Generation. The handicraft program is a supplementary program of the Center, and provides some of the women an opportunity for income generation by selling jewelry, dolls, handbags, and needlework through the Center’s shop. In this way, the Center is able to support the preservation of the traditional embroidery practices of the tribal women, and the young women earn an income as their skills develop.

8. Therapeutic Services. Rehabilitative and therapeutic services, such as art and music therapies, are offered to support the women in coping with the traumas they have experienced.

The New Life Center is a place that provides a more promising future for ethnic minority girls in Thailand. Please support their work if you are able, by writing a check to New Life Center Foundation, and sending it to:

New Life Center Foundation
P.O. Box 29
Chiang Mai 50000

If you would prefer to send a wire transfer, please e-mail the Center for banking details:

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