But Runglada may never realise her dream because, though born and bred in Thailand, she is stateless, one of tens of thousands of people in Chiang Rai who have no birth certificate and no legal status because of inadequate registration procedures for birth and citizenship. Officially, they don’t exist.
The aid agency Plan International, citing a government estimate that there are one million stateless people in Thailand, says a cabinet decision in 2005 entitling all children to 12 years of free education has helped but that challenges remain.
“We really have to accelerate the legal documentation of these children,” said Maja Cubarrubia, country director in Thailand for Plan International, who is also calling for the government to build schools in far-flung areas to ensure children in remote communities do not miss out on their education.
Runglada is thriving at school. A youth leader volunteer with Rotary International, she gives Thai lessons to other ethnic minority children – but her free schooling will end in three years when she finishes Grade 12.
“Beyond that, if the children lack any kind of documentation, they cannot move on (to further studies),” Cubarrubia told AlertNet. “Or if they’re able to attend vocational education, they’re not given the certificates because if you’re not registered, in effect you’re invisible.”
As part of the agency’s global campaign for gender equality, Plan carried out a study of four schools in northern Thailand to find out how and whether girls’ access to education there differs from that in the rest of Thailand.
While the researchers found no outright discrimination between boys and girls and the agency applauds the government for providing equal access to education to everyone, two major (and often related) issues – poverty and statelessness – stood out as challenges.
The report found that the number of stateless children has been increasing in every school, and Cubarrubia said this shows the government policy of providing free education to all is working – though new problems arise when children leave school after Grade 12.
“After graduating from school, although these stateless youths have a diploma issued by an educational institute, their right to work is challenged by their lack of a national identity card,” Plan International said in its report.
“I dream of helping develop my country and community. But I’m not even able to help myself, so there is no possibility that I can help others,” Runglada told Plan’s researchers.
While stateless children of both sexes are vulnerable to exploitation, girls tend to be more at risk, partly because of traditional attitudes.
According to a government official, Thailand has the second highest rate of mid-late teenage pregnancy in the world after South Africa. About 70 Thai women out of every 1,000 aged 15-19 already have children, the official told local media in 2011. The global average is 65.
Plan International said its researchers met pregnant students in all the schools they visited and expressed concern that the school curriculum does not adequately cover sex education and that more robust prevention and protection measures are needed.
Cubarrubia told AlertNet she would like to see more support and encouragement for these young mothers to go back to school and be accepted. “It’s not easy, with the whole stereotype (of teenage mothers),” she said. “I know there’s always this comment about, ‘well if we accept them we’re encouraging (this behaviour).’ I don’t think so,” she said.
Girls should be taught how to protect themselves from pregnancy and to avoid any kind of sexual relationship before they’re mature and decide to have a family, she said. But if they become pregnant, they shouldn’t be abandoned. Letting them drop out of school is “correcting one mistake with another mistake, at least from my perspective,” Cubarrubia said.