Kirstin’s visit to COSA Mae Rim – Thailand Part 1
This report outlines my observations and experiences of spending a week at the COSA project in Mae Rim Northern Thailand. My background is working with children and young people who have been sexually exploited in the UK. I went to COSA to observe, assist and strengthen links, as well as developing my own understanding of the issues faced by young people trafficked and exploited. My week was amazing, packed and an experience I will remember forever. I’d like to thank everyone involved for making it happen, especially Laura, Roger and the girls at COSA for the time and effort they put into my stay, and Roberta and Jeff from Grey Man for their time shared with me in Chiang Mai. I have split this report into two parts, part one about my findings at COSA, and part two a snapshot of my involvement during the week and daily observations.
I learned a great deal about sexual exploitation and trafficking in Thailand and the differences in how children and young people are abused. For instance here in the North girls are often sold by their families, it could start off house to house to pay off debt, the child borrowed just for the night. Brothel owners will pay 20,000 TBht (AUD$600) as a loan to a family for a girl, when the family eventually pay off the loan, they often take out another. Individuals will also pay up to 40,000 TBht (AUD$1200) for a virgin; they then lease her to others then sell her on. Movement of children down the country is common bar to bar, brothel to brothel. In the hill tribes it is often quite evident which families have sold a child, their houses have new blue roofs, and they have satellite TV and new cars. In the north of Thailand girls are generally held in closed brothels and service Thai and Asian males, the service is all about sex which differs from the south of Thailand in the tourist and western areas where girls are used to service western males, there is more of a befriending and having a girlfriend for a week or two aspect to it. Some of the girls involved see work in the south as more of a job, that pays better money and benefits, and there is often a hierarchy between these girls and those in closed brothel situations.
Set up at COSA
COSA is near to Mae Rim, about 40 minutes drive out of Chiang Mai. The project currently houses thirteen girls with an age range of 5 to 16 years old, the majority of whom have come from the hill tribes in the north. In a joint programme with The Grey Man organisation the idea is to increase capacity once the girls move into the new dorm house, but not so much that it dilutes the work already being done. There is always the need to consider house dynamics, varying personalities, different cultures and varying degrees of trauma, as well as the effect and potential management difficulties of placing new young people into an already established group. What I witnessed in my week at COSA is the strong bond and sisterhood of the current group, yes there were spats of bickering and annoyances between
each other, but overall there was feeling of a family with caring, sharing, discipline and support of each other and plenty of emotional first aid.
Most of the girls attend a state school in the village nearby which is walking distance, two of the older girls get a bus to a high school a bit further away, and another goes to school in Chiang Mai. What is interesting is that COSA also support girls outside of COSA to go to school and University. This community and preventative work not only stretches to the girls, but also serves to educate the communities and hill tribes about the real value of their female children, and how to become more sustainable without selling their daughters.
I asked the question of male children being trafficked and although COSA recognises that males are also trafficked there is not the capacity to carry out this work currently. And because of the significant abuse and trauma experienced by the girls it is not felt appropriate to have a mixed house.
COSA where possible also uses safe houses, which are trusted local families that can accommodate and support one girl for up to six months until suitable long‐term accommodation can be found.
What else I found unique about COSA is the move towards permaculture and organic farming. Anna, one of the directors has done a fantastic job of developing the gardens and they grow fruit, vegetables and herbs which are used in the house cooking. The mushroom house is fantastic and when in season was producing enough mushrooms to sell as well as to cook with. The water which runs around the property is utilised and the land has been irrigated to support the crops.
Staffing at COSA
The Directors, Mickey and Anna and their children reside at COSA. Anna and her two children have now left for Australia as Anna is about to give birth to her third child. Long term paid employee is Laura who is contracted until February 2011. Roger, a long tern volunteer from Germany sadly ends his 12 month stay at the end of September 2011. Roberta who is in Thailand for four months and comes to COSA at the weekend, teaches English. There is the house mother Pifa and her daughter who reside at COSA, B who comes and cleans during the week, and the new gardener. Laura informed me that they do have a six month volunteer arriving in September, and another 12 month volunteer from Germany arriving in October. COSA welcomes volunteers. There will be a greater involvement of Grey Man volunteers in the future which will assist with the continuity.
Accommodation for volunteers is really good. It is currently situated in the main house, however this will change and volunteers will move to where the girls are currently living once they move into the new building. Accommodation is dorm style, and includes beds, which I found really cool as I have volunteered elsewhere previously and that was camping mats on floors.
What I feel Volunteers should consider
I personally feel that COSA benefits more from long term volunteers, this enables the volunteer and the girls residing at COSA to build up rapport, relationship and that sense of trust. It was really good to see the natural relationship between the girls and Laura and Roger who have both been at COSA for a considerable length of time. This is not saying that short term volunteers are not valuable, only that there is not that availability of time to spend just to really get to know the group, explore the dynamics and develop an awareness of each individuals characteristics, needs and goals.
I found it beneficial to liaise with Laura before going so that I went to COSA with a focus and a plan, finding out what was needed and not repeating work already undertaken by previous volunteers. Laura asked me to plan sessions around self‐esteem, this gave me a basis to build sessions before I arrived, then I adapted them once at COSA.
Here are my top tips for short term volunteers:
- Liaise with COSA to check what is needed, what are the key issues needing addressing?
- Formulate an agreed focus and plan (that can be changed if needed)
- Has your idea for sessions already been carried out? Repetitive work bores young people of any nationality and culture
- Keep sessions creative and hands on, this helps with the language barrier. Where possible translate words and descriptions
- Be animated and motivated, body language is key and also helps with descriptions (I mimed a great deal, and laughed a lot)
- Simplify sessions where possible, you will be working with a wide age and ability range so go in with a few different ideas
- Don’t expect everyone to want to participate at all times, the girls have off days, hormones and tantrums too. Remember these are young people and regardless of culture or nationality they have behaviours that reflect any other young person around the world
- Think about resources that you can take and leave, COSA are building up a library of resources and information (I scanned books and packs that I felt would be useful, and took it over on a pen‐drive)
- Brief and de‐brief with the other volunteers, share your ideas as well as any concerns or anxieties.
- Think outside the box, be flexible... and most of all...Be yourself!
Kirstin’s visit to COSA Mae Rim – Thailand Part 2
My week at COSA
Day One ‐ Sunday
Sunday is a laid back day; which was good as I arrived late last night. I had a tour and induction to COSA. Getting to see the new girl’s dorm house, and hearing about the plans for the COSA site and the joint project with Grey Man.
The group having a bit of a lie in compared to the rest of the week. Once up, the group shower and begin their chores. Chores are on a rota basis, including cooking for the rest of the group and cleaning. Sunday is also time for ironing uniforms for the rest of the week. The girls have a different style of uniform for each day of the week; this makes schooling expensive and is another reason why families cannot send their children to school.
10‐12am on a Sunday is traditionally English lessons at COSA for the girls and other children in the community. Today however English was between 10‐11am then I took over the 12‐1pm slot. The aim of this session was a bit of an icebreaker and to encourage the group to discuss people who they are close to and explore using language to describe positive characteristics. I handed out blanks cut outs of people and asked the group to decorate the figures with people they feel support them and write a positive word to describe the person on the back. The group shared with each other at the end of the session.
After lunch on Sunday the group have down time where they can chill out, do homework (something they have a lot of) and get to iron their clothes, listen to music and chat. I sat in the vicinity, not injecting myself into any conversations but just there so if anyone wanted to come chat they knew I was available, I had a couple of the girls come over and ask me questions. One of the girls told me of her aspirations of leaving school and going to University, and hopes that one day she would go and study English in the US.
Bedtime is 9pm on Sundays –Thursday as the girls need to be up quite early in preparation for school each morning.
Day Two ‐ Monday
The three older girls were picked up around 6:15am, the rest of the group walked to their school at 7‐7:30am which is about 1.5km away. Today two of the girls who are sisters (One aged 14 and the other 5) stayed off school as they have chicken pox and are still in the incubation period. I spent some of the morning colouring with the youngest, who afterwards gave me a lesson in Thai, how to say Thai for various animals.
Most of the group returned home at 4pm, and quickly started into their chores, and doing homework. I sat with the younger children making stick puppets, paper planes and fans. The older girls arrived back between 5‐6pm.
B who helps clean at COSA had been fishing before lunch in the water way out the back of COSA, she had caught a number of fish using a bamboo stick with a piece of thread, a bead and a hook. In the early evening the girls started to fish also. It was a truly awesome scene to watch, they all fished with skill, patience and co‐operation. There was also a great amount of excitement and elation each time one of the group caught something. The girls not only caught the fish, but then de‐scaled and gutted the fish, and then fried the fish as a late snack. I have come to the conclusion that fishing is therapy and the group use activities like this unconsciously, not only to occupy their time but also to heal. The activity of fishing is their choice, directed by them and a chance to be children, to laugh and experience a multitude of positive feelings.
Day three – Tuesday
Today was very hot and humid, spent time with the youngest girl this morning as she is still off school. We got very creative and made a crown, jewellery and a fairy wand which she enjoyed dressing up in afterwards.
I spent the afternoon planning this evening’s session on self‐esteem. I adapted a session I have used in my work with Barnardo’s in the UK, and did a fair amount of English‐Thai translation to support the session introduction.
Laura also showed me pictures of the hill tribes where COSA do outreach and preventative work. She explained that the houses with blue roofs, and satellite dishes were the ones that had sold a child, this makes it difficult for other families as they want the same things, and there is the mentality that if they have three girl children then why not sell her them?to get these things.
The girls started fishing again when they returned from school, it was a great scene to watch as they made more rods from branches and thread. Two of the younger girls dug for worms in the gardens.
The session on self‐esteem in the evening went well, there were a couple of language and understanding issues at the beginning of the session but these were quickly resolved. The entire group participated in the session and supported each other in translation, as well as using positive words to describe each other’s characteristics.
Day four & five – Wednesday/Thursday
After breakfast and getting the group off to school I headed off to Chiang Mai for the day and night. I caught a Song Tow (a utility with a covered rear that carries 8‐10 passengers)from Mae Rim for 16 TBht (50 cents). Central Chiang Mai is split into the old city which is walled and surrounded by a moat and four main gates, the outer ring sprawling out in all directions which main roads leading to Bangkok and Chiang Rai. Transport is plentiful from Yellow song tow which has set routes, red song tow which act like taxis but cheaper, Tuk Tuks and general taxi’s and buses.
I spent the day sightseeing Wat’s (Buddhist temples) and shopping. I met with Roberta from Grey Man in the evening and we ventured to a gallery/shop called Dor Dek (www.vgcd.org) which sells goods made by street children, the money raised goes back to the children to pay for their education and vocational training and to cover the cost of producing the goods.
I also got to see the main bar strip of Loi Kroh Road which is laced with bars and strip clubs full of scantily clad Thai women, and a large proportion of western males. Roberta talked about how the girls will befriend a male in the hope that she will be his girlfriend for the duration of his trip, and for some the ultimate goal is to meet a long term partner so he can send her money.
On Thursday I met up with Roberta and Jeff again and chatted about other work done in Thailand by Grey Man and others to rescue and protect children and young people from trafficking and exploitation.
Back at COSA I had a mask making session with some of the girls, others had a large amount of school work to complete so could not partake. The session was fun and light hearted, and kept very creative. Two of the group had left COSA for a few days as their uncle had passed away, so they had to return to their village for the funeral.
Day six – Friday
The morning involved going through the number of resources that I had brought for COSA with Laura, we chatted about how they could be used and I gave examples of my experiences in using them in the past.
I spent the best part of the afternoon fine planning this evening’s session. The idea was to start some work on identifying feelings, which would I hoped open up the door for individual work for Laura and other volunteers to carry out in the future where a need was highlighted.
When the girls arrived back from school, Laura and I took four of them into Mae Rim so I could buy them magazines for the whole group. I had heard Anna speaking to Laura about the importance of the girls being socially connected, and using the internet and watching TV etc as they they don’t get to hang out like their friends at school. The girls had lost TV privilege through poor behaviour choices, so I suggested that magazines were an excellent way of keeping up with what was going on. The girls picked a varied array of magazines and some for the younger girls too. Many of the magazines had pin up posters of the latest Korean boy bands, which some of the girls are completely besotted over.
The evening session went quite well, I had ensured that I had done enough translation of words to help in describing feelings. The session was based around the four feelings or happiness, sadness, fear and anger and the group had to individually draw or write what made them happy, sad, scared and angry. Most of the older girls decided to write; where as the younger members drew pictures. Two of the group found the session too much, and withdrew from the session; this has highlighted the need for individual sessions with these two young people. The others in the group really got into the session and did some excellent sharing of what they had wrote or drawn. I have videoed the feedback as an evaluation tool.
Day seven – Saturday
Today is my final day here at COSA and I feel that the week has gone by too quickly. Most of the girls had to go to school for some extra vocational lessons.
Saturday is generally washing day, even though the girls try and do a little each night of the week. Currently the group have to hand wash their uniforms and clothes; however there has been a donation of brand new washing machines which are to be plumbed in soon. This will save water and time.
This morning I assisted with the English lessons, and I took English with the little ones. I planned the session as very interactive and used online resources from the British Council website. I used nursery rhymes and actions within the session, and the response was excellent. Anna and Mickey’s oldest son joined in too and the little ones were all dancing and singing to the wheels on the bus.
I got to see the older girls briefly before leaving on their return from school, and bought some sweet treats from the shop in the village.
My plan now is not to see this as a one off trip, I hope to return and do some more work in the near future. I am very grateful for this opportunity.