Utis Buddhasud Somjai
ThailandFellow since 1992

Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.

Disruption of family life, poverty, social and spiritual ills - all byproducts of Thailand's "urban migration". Villages, decimated by shrinking populations, are paying the price for the country's rapid development. Utis Buddhasud is helping to keep villages and families in the impoverished Northeast together by creating model programs which offer families a healthier future. The programs provide cooperative child care, early childhood education, and village-based career opportunities for youth.

#Poverty#Day care#Childhood#Family#Child#Childcare#Village#Community

The Person

Utis Buddhasud, 28, was born in the village of Ban Phue where she continues to live and develop her work. She completed high school locally, and is now working towards an undergraduate degree in social science through a correspondence program offered by Sudhothai Tahammathirat University. Working first as a baby-sitter in a village child care center and then as a training teacher in the Slum Child Care Center in Bangkok, Utis formulated a vision of how to help villagers create means to stay in their own villages. In 1988, she established a non-profit agency to carry out the strategy. The Rural Development Center now has 12 full-time employees and reaches hundreds of people with alternatives to what she calls the "blind migration out of the village."

The New Idea

Utis Buddhasud is working to develop programs to halt the negative effects of migration by attending to its effect on children and young people. By organizing a child care development center and a lapidary training project, she is helping families join together to help themselves.She began the project in her own village. Utilizing a small government grant Utis expanded a child care facility into a full-fledged Rural Development Center that employs two teachers, maintains a communal garden, and offers a nutritious lunch program. Mothers of the children in the Center are asked to participate one day a month by cooking lunch. Besides cooking, the mothers are strengthening their ties to other families in the community. Families pay a low daily fee only on those days they leave their children at the Center, more affordable than the month's tuition in advance demanded by normal day-cares. The Center's lunch program is widely recognized in the area and has expanded to serve 265 children between the ages of two and six in three villages. Not only does the program offer children a nutritious lunch, but the trained teachers instruct both the children and mothers about nutrition. Utis's Rural Development Center serves as a model to more than 15 villages in the Northeast. Throughout the year, village leaders, government officials and university students visit the center to learn its strategy and philosophy. Young people from poor farming communities have few career options to keep them in their villages. Utis knew there needed to be something to keep the community's young from fleeing: they needed a trade that could provide a future. She began a gemstone-cutting training program for youth. Utis chose lapidary because it is a skill that people can perform at home and with tools that are easily available. The lapidary program consists of studying for two months at the Northeast Industrial Center and training with professionals for three months. Learning a skilled trade, earning money to help their families, and providing financial support for the community center are some of the positive effects of the program, which was initiated in 1990.Starting with the Center in her home village, she has expanded these activities to two other villages. At present, 15 other villages in the Northeast are planning to establish a Rural Development Center using Utis's Center as a model.

The Problem

The desperately poor conditions of the Northeast have forced families apart. Parents leave rural villages to seek employment in cities and often must leave their children behind to be cared for by relatives. Young people seeking employment leave their villages and also migrate to the cities. Often, they end up living in the streets, being exploited by sweat shop owners or by prostitution rings. As Thailand races to join the wealthy developed nations with a government policy that has stressed high growth and export-oriented industrialization, many people have been left behind. The poorest segment of Thailand's population is in the Northeast, where half the people live below the poverty level of $160 per year. These people, small subsistence farmers, have experienced a steady decline in income, and in their traditional way of life, as a result of drought flooding, poor soil, and a public policy that encourages migration to urban areas. The children and young people of the Northeast are perhaps the most disenfranchised group in Thai society. The economic hardship which forces families to break up and scatter in search of employment orphans them, leaving them physically and emotionally hungry, and bereft of educational opportunities. The grandparents, distant relatives, and others with whom migrating parents leave their children usually lack the time, resources, and parental love necessary to provide good homes. Many children end up living on the street, lost to society, their families, and themselves.

The Strategy

Utis Buddhasud has developed a strategy that supports, educates and nurtures the family unit and through it, the village. By giving villagers grassroots economic and social programs that provide families with support, Utis hopes to halt the migration that is leaving Thai villages and families dysfunctional. If a Thai family has affordable day-care, they may be able to increase income. If their young son can help with funds from a job cutting gem stones, this poor family may be able to stay together. Utis founded the Rural Development Center in order to administer and further develop the child care facility and the gemstone-cutting projects, and to provide an information network for other interested parties. University professors, students, village leaders, and Development Center executives are among the people who come to visit Utis's center regularly, hoping to learn from her success. The Rural Development Center, after it brings people in with affordable day-care, uses its qualified staff to train, and thus empower, the community. Utis is planning to expand the center's youth training endeavors to include job training for adults and the aged; and to use the center's resources to develop economic and business opportunities for villagers. One program develops craft jobs for women such as basket weaving, sewing, and painting. Agriculturally, Utis is planning to develop aloe crops and mixed farming. While Utis has by necessity become adept at writing proposals to private companies and international foundations for funding, the nature of her programs insure income after training. Self-sufficiency -- mirroring that of a job-trained Thai -- is the goal of every project undertaken.