Srisak Thaiarry has been the leading force behind the growth of child and youth development work in Thailand over the past 30 years. She has brought citizen organizations in that field together as an increasingly powerful voice on youth-related policies, and has forged effective cross-sector partnerships with the government and businesses. By providing unprecedented support to youth-led initiatives, Srisak has repositioned children and youth as important stakeholders in society.
The New Idea
Srisak has long been the backstage motivator and organizer of youth development work in Thailand. She has strengthened citizen sector initiatives focusing on youth, fostered new partnerships with business and public sector organizations, and shifted the approach of youth development work from assistance to empowerment. Over the past 30 years, Srisak has developed a coalition of youth development organizations in Thailand into a powerful vehicle for change that is much more than the sum of its parts. Srisak has transformed citizen organizations (COs) concerned with childrens and youth s needs from weak and isolated voices into a coalition that has played an increasingly consequential role in advocating youth-friendly reforms in public policies and new legislation. She has also spearheaded an unprecedented degree of collaboration between the citizen sector and government on youth-related matters, as reflected in joint annual reports on the state of childrens rights in Thailand. Having long been motivated by the belief that youth have both the right and the responsibility to be active and equal partners in addressing their own and broader societal needs, Srisak has also played a central role in creating an enabling environment for them to claim those rights, including the establishment of a national association of youth-led organizations called the National Youth Council, as well as its provincial and district counterparts. In addition, Srisak has created a series of ongoing awards, both to recognize alternative role models for youth and to change public perceptions of youth, as well as young people s awareness of their own capacities.
In the early 1980s, childrens rightswas an unfamiliar concept in Thailand. Even within the citizen sector, many youth-focused organizations still harbored the conventional perception of youth as passive recipients of assistance. They provided young people with food, medical care, and education, but they rarely asked what they needed, or what they might do for themselves or their communities. Similarly, in the public sector, youth were not seen as significant constituents, and many of their rights and needs were given very short shrift. The Ministry of Labor, for example, had little interest in regulating and preventing the abuses of child labor. Many laws affecting youth, moreover, dated back to the era of military dictatorship, when youth were perceived by those in power as potential threats to societal stability. School inspectors, for example, were legally entitled to inflict corporal punishment on students, even beyond the school grounds. In addition, the needs of many disadvantaged young people, including out-of-school youth and youth in rural areas were not viewed as matters of public concern. In the early 1980s, the concept of youth developmentwas also new to Thailand. CO s worked in relative isolation. There were no collective pools of knowledge and resources, or networks of like-minded groups. Youth development organizations lacked partners, even among themselves, to advocate beyond individual issues and their immediate target populations. Even today, many young people are at-risk of becoming lost resources in Thai society, due to the conventional roles assigned to them. Commonly likened to white cloth, Thai youth are still widely perceived as empty vessels requiring instruction from adults, to whom they are expected to show obedience and deference, and they are neither encouraged nor rewarded for voicing opinions or addressing so-called adult concerns. This problem is particularly acute among disadvantaged populations. Youth from remote rural areas are expected to follow their parents pursuits, either as agricultural workers or migrant laborers, and hill tribe youth, born without Thai nationality, encounter particular difficulties in asserting their own desires and needs. As a result, Thai society continues to risk wasting the talents and capacities of a considerable number of its young people.
Srisak Thaiarry is the leading force behind the growth of youth development work in Thailand. Over the past 27 years, she has been both the visionary and the key implementer of the first (and still all-embracing) coalition of Thai youth development organizations--the National Council for Child and Youth Development (NCYD). A non-governmental coordinating body, the Council, which now embraces 43 organizations, is the major embodiment of Srisak’s achievements in strengthening citizen sector youth groups in Thailand, linking them with powerful new allies, and shifting the focus of youth development work from providing assistance responding to donor-perceived needs of young people to empowering youth leaders and participation in addressing their own and their communities’ needs.
Ever since its unofficial birth in 1982 (and its official launching two years later), Srisak has led the NCYD, initially as Secretary General and later as Managing Director. Recognizing the need for a collective body of knowledge for effective advocacy efforts, Srisak’s first undertaking as the Council’s leader was a national assessment of policies affecting youth and focusing on needed reforms of youth-related legislation. In that pioneering initiative she engaged the full panoply of youth-related CSOs and relevant governmental bodies and enlisted the participation of teachers and students in regional forums across Thailand. Together, the participants in that undertaking identified 51 issues and topics in need of legal reforms (including the repeal of obsolete laws dating back to the military dictatorship period and new laws addressing important overlooked issues, such as child abuse). In establishing a widely shared understanding of pressing youth-related needs and demonstrating the effectiveness of collective advocacy and joint citizen sector/governmental action, that initial national assessment was a marked success both in fulfilling its stated aims and in establishing a strong platform for the continuing endeavors of the Council.
Over the past three decades, Srisak has introduced a new approach to youth development work in Thailand in which youth participation and youth empowerment are the central focus. Srisak has opened platforms for active participation and leadership by young people, who had traditionally been limited to the roles of listener and recipient. Working very closely with youth-led organizations, she has replaced the donor/recipient model with one of equal partnership. One of NCYD’s first youth partners was the Matches group, comprised of university students. Matches introduced to Srisak the idea of working with vocational school students in curbing violence among urban youth. Srisak helped Matches organize a two-day national forum on that topic, in which some 600 youth came together, prepared and publicized a declaration of their concerns, and proposed potential solutions. In that endeavor, Srisak also entered into contract with many other youth organizations working in various parts of Thailand on issues ranging from health and environmental conservation to democratic governance.
With the aim of honoring and calling attention to the (non-traditional) achievements of Thai youth in addressing such issues, Srisak and the NCYD also established a series of Young Initiator and Young Activist Awards, which, in addition to recognizing their recipients’ achievements, provided financial support, mentorship, and other capacity-building opportunities. Not surprisingly, several Young Initiator and Young Activist Award recipients have later developed into leading social entrepreneurs, including Ashoka Fellows Sombat Boonngamanong, Bupatip Chamnil, and Kriangsak Klomsakul.
At an early stage in her work, Srisak recognized the power of youth-to-youth communication and, in 1999, she and the NCYD supported the founding of the Youth Network for Development, or YouthNet, a national association of youth-led organizations. By providing YouthNet with financial resources and mentorship assistance, Srisak not only cultivated many young leaders, but also reached out to new clienteles (e.g., through YouthNet’s work on drug addition and HIV/AIDS). She also helped design and initiate several other youth-led initiatives. For example, in partnership with a law professor, she enlisted law students in a peer-to-peer workshop on rights education for rural youth, with mutually rewarding results. Young farmers were equipped with practical knowledge of their rights, while law students from the city acquired a better understanding of rural conditions and concerns. Other peer-to-peer education programs that bear Srisak’s imprint include reproductive health education initiatives for young Muslim women and for young people working in factories. Through these programs and other similar undertakings, Srisak has played a key role in empowering youth both to achieve their individual potentials and to recognizing their collective potential as catalysts for change.
Srisak also worked for many years for the creation of a more permanent, government-sponsored vehicle for encouraging youth participation and cultivating youth leadership, and in 2007 those efforts met with success in the establishment of a National Youth Council, which incorporates district- and provincial-level mechanisms that Srisak had patiently nurtured over a twenty-year period to ensure broad and active youth participation. Two representatives of this new Council—on behalf of 120 member organizations and 37 independent youth groups in all 76 provinces—sit on the National Commission on Child and Youth, chaired by the Prime Minister, and contribute to decisions on national policies and funding relating to youth participation.
To facilitate the full achievement of NCYD’s goals, Srisak has also established creative partnerships with other business- and public-sector entities. Having attracted several prominent CEOs of Thai companies to serve as NCYD board members, she has also engaged some 40 corporations in an ongoing program called “Children’s Hour,” in which the corporations and their employees, clients and suppliers contribute one hour of their salary to the support of youth development initiatives. In her engagement with public-sector entities that are not explicitly youth-focused, she has worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture to establish legal protections for young people who are employed in the agricultural sector. As a result of that partnership, even though the minimum age at which children can legally be engaged in such employment in Thailand is fifteen years, the relevant law was recently amended to prohibit youth below eighteen years of age from working under hazardous conditions.
Within the citizen sector, Srisak has also established new partnerships with organizations working in fields other than youth development to achieve high-priority legal reforms. For many years, for example, NCYD and other youth development organizations had been advocating, without success, for the granting of Thai nationality to children of hill tribe or refugee fathers, which government had long denied on the basis of “national security” concerns. Srisak has recently succeeded, however, in resolving this impasse by joining forces with a women’s advocacy group. When presented by the women’s group as a family issue and a maternal concern, the long-sought legal revision was finally approved.
As a testament to Srisak’s success, the Thai government and youth-oriented CSOs are now working jointly on several youth-related tasks. For example, Thailand, which endorsed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, is one of the few countries that submit a joint “NGO-GO” annual report, in addition to a children’s report on compliance with the provisions of that Convention. Srisak was also the leading force behind the Memorandum of Understanding between CSOs and the Thai government on combating child trafficking in 2003, and that same year, after almost two decades of related research and advocacy, Srisak also played a key role in securing the ratification of a new Child Protection Law,
Over the years, Srisak has shared her successful strategies with partners in these several youth-related issues well beyond Thailand’s borders. In addition to being a frequent trainer on child rights and child participation in various Asian countries, she helped establish the Pacific Youth Council in 1996, and she is currently providing on-the-ground mentorship for youth development organizations in several East Asian countries, including Japan, Korea and Mongolia. She also helped initiate a United Nations “Youth Ambassadors for the Environment” initiative, which allows youth representatives from member countries to share experiences in environment protection endeavors, and her engagement with the business sector has led to the replication of a Nokia-supported project that she created to provide life skills training for Thai youth in twelve other countries. Srisak is also the author of the section on child participation in What Works, published by the International Youth Foundation for its partner organizations in 42 countries around the world, and she was the recipient of the Bintang Jasa Belia Malaysia Award from the Malaysian Youth Council in 2006.
Unlike many Thai families, Srisak s parents raised her as an equal. As a child, she accompanied her father, Director General of Vocational Education, to many schools where students and teachers remained silent, while the principal voiced opinions on how to improve the education. Srisak was sent to boarding school for 12 years, where she lived under strict rules and a long-established regimen of unquestioning obedience. At 15, Srisak seized an opportunity to join the Youth Hostel Association, alongside university students and young adults. In that organizational structure she was surprised to be accepted and listened to for the first time outside of her family. Her first exposure to a youth-led organization, this experience instilled in Srisak an initial understanding of the power of youth participation and the seeds of a lifelong commitment to that approach. Srisak received a Liberal Arts degree from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and a master s degree in comparative culture from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon returning to Thailand after her studies in the U.S., she accepted a post at the Institute for the Promotion of Science and Technology, where she helped design a science curriculum based on a student inquiry approach. She gained further experience working with youth by helping to establish the Thailand chapter of the Christian Childrens Fund, spending 12 years with the aid-oriented organization. Initially, she persuaded the funds international headquarters to add a community development component to their program and later she implemented it. Even then, Srisak was perceived as a leader with ideas well ahead of her time.Over the years, Srisak has shared her successful strategies on youth related issues with partners well beyond Thailand s borders. In addition to being a frequent trainer on child rights and child participation in various Asian countries, she helped establish the Pacific Youth Council in 1996, and is currently providing on-the-ground mentorship for youth development organizations in several East Asian countries, including Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. She also helped initiate a UN Youth Ambassadors for the Environment initiative, which allows youth representatives from member countries to share experiences in environment protection endeavors, and her engagement with the business sector has led to the replication of a Nokia-supported project she created to provide life-skills training to Thai youth in 12 countries. Srisak is the author of the section on child participation in What Works, published by the International Youth Foundation for its partners in 42 countries around the world, and she was the recipient of the Bintang Jasa Belia Malaysia Award from the Malaysian Youth Council in 2006.