Violence against children is widespread in Thai society. Figures from the Public Health Ministry reveal that nearly 9,000 children were treated in hospitals due to abuse in 2017, mostly having suffered from sexual abuse. These figures are likely just the tip of the iceberg, as often only the most severe cases of abuse are reported.
Data from a 2015-2016 National Statistical Office survey found that some 4.2 per cent of children between one and 14 years old had experienced severe physical punishment at home in the month preceding the survey. This included being hit or slapped on the face, head or ears, or being struck over and over as hard as the parent could. If that percentage holds true nationally, that would amount to around 470,000 cases.
Over the past decade, several important initiatives have been introduced in Thailand to better protect children from all forms of abuse, violence, exploitation and neglect. One-stop crisis centres and protection shelters were set up in every province to provide treatment, care and support for vulnerable children and children who suffer violence and abuse. The 1300 hotline was also launched to report social problems, including child abuse.
Still, these child-protection services do not yet reach many of the children who need them the most. While specialised expertise exists at the provincial level, violence and abuse occur in all types of communities, where gaps often result in an inability to effectively identify and refer cases of abuse.
Child protection is hard work, requiring resources both financial and human, but there are currently hardly any social workers or trained staff in communities or at sub-district level to detect and provide support to children at risk or those who have been abused. While global studies show that many children who face abuse will bear significant psychological scars for the rest of their lives, the importance of having child protection expertise is often not fully recognised by authorities, who thus tend to prioritise staffing needs in other sectors.
Today, Thailand has a ratio of just 4.46 social workers for every 100,000 people. This lack of professional staff limits how effective the system can be in prevention and providing protection.
Today, too many children are at risk of being abused repeatedly and for a prolonged period. If and when they do come to the attention of social services, they can fall through the cracks when referred from one service provider to another due to lack of a dedicated and trained case manager to adequately follow up on the child’s case.
The challenge is then how to ensure that such expertise is available at community level to manage both identification and referral as needed, to detect and monitor child protection concerns including incidents of abuse and violence, and provide family support. This is a challenge not only for Thailand, but also for other countries around the world.
There are two broad solutions. The first is to ensure that sub-district offices (or tambon administration offices) incorporate a social worker with child protection expertise and accountabilities or assign the role and accountability to an existing staff member. These staff must be trained to coordinate a broader local network of government staff and volunteers to detect children who are at risk or are victims of violence, provide necessary assistance and refer these children to proper provincial services.
The second is to empower a range of civil society actors, such as NGO staff, to effectively undertake the very same activities, with a “mandate” and support from the state to reach children at local level.
Improving the quality of existing services and ensuring that such services are monitored and evaluated is also critical. Quality detection, referral, treatment and counselling services must be pursued, with proper professional standards, to help children return to normalcy and ensure that no child falls through the cracks along the service pathway.
For Thailand to better protect its children from abuse, exploitation, neglect and violence, it is essential for the country to invest in child-protection systems at every level, whether by strengthening current services, embedding protective services in communities, or recruiting and training staff. Not only will this support the physical and psychological well-being of children across the country, it will guard Thai children’s right to protection from maltreatment, enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Gary Risser is chief of Child Protection at Unicef Thailand.
This article is one of a series of opinion pieces by Unicef Thailand which propose policy priorities for children and young people, for the equitable and sustainable development of Thailand.