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THAILAND  Scholarship program frees girls from poverty trap
July 31, 2009

BANGKOK (UCAN) -- Jesuit Social Services (JESS) says that its program of giving scholarships to Thai girls helps them avoid the fate of many who are driven by poverty into the sex industry.
 
Father Alfonso de Juan visits a girl who has received a Jesuit Social Services scholarship
Bangkok-based JESS director Father Alfonso de Juan told UCA News that many teenage girls in the country drop out of school at the junior-high level and work in pubs, bars or karaoke lounges and from there become trapped in the sex trade.

"Our idea of providing scholarships for girls is to prevent this situation," said the Spanish Jesuit missioner.

Those from broken families are particularly vulnerable, he said. There are risks even for those girls who do not become sex workers. Many poor young women work in factories and a big proportion of these end up as single mothers, he noted.

JESS has been providing scholarships for the past 17 years. According to Father de Juan, about 900 girls across the country are currently benefiting from this program. Each student gets around 6,000 baht a year, although the exact sum varies according to the educational level.

"Many girls whom we have supported have gone on to become bachelor or master degree graduates," the priest said. JESS began supporting girls at university level seven years ago and 30 have graduated with bachelor degrees.

Suwannee Hinkaew, 23, a scholarship student, said that after finishing junior-high school, she had to work in a factory to support her family as her father had cancer. There was no way she could pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

"When JESS heard my story through my school principal, I was given a scholarship to continue my studies. At the same time, I gave tuition to primary school pupils to support my family."
JESS requires that girls they support also work to support their families, and helps them find temporary jobs to do so.

Suwannee has now finished her course work in the Education Faculty of Burapha University in Chonburi, south of Bangkok, and is waiting to start her internship. She expects to qualify as a teacher in October.
"I can't imagine what my future would without the scholarship support," she said.

Father de Juan visited Chaiyaphum province, northeastern Thailand, July 18-19 to visit eight girls in the scholarship program and their families.

JESS also has projects to train girls and women, especially those with HIV/AIDS, in livelihood skills. Thailand has an estimated 2.8 million sex workers, and 800,000 of these are under the age of 18, according to a 2007 survey.

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