Last night in class I screened a film about child slavery called Stolen Childhoods. It shows heart wrenching footage of children working in the carpet industry in Nepal chained to their looms; kids picking coffee in Kenya, hands burning from the chemicals on the plants; and eight-year-old girls, bonded laborers, making bricks and working in stone quarries in India. Around the world today, there are a quarter million children today working for wages that amount to peanuts - if they receive wages at all after their meager food, housing and penalties for mistakes have been subtracted and interest added to their daily life of toil. Even in the United States, children as young as ten can legally do farm work in Texas. Then, this morning, while checking out the latest news from the Asia Society I learned about the film Buffalo Girls (see clip above) about child boxers in Thailand: there are 30,000 of them in the ring all over the country.
(See also Child Labor ).
The movie highlights two: is it ethnocentric of me to judge families that encourage their eight-year-old daughters to fight? The film maker takes a more balanced view, read below. From their official web site, the inside story of Buffalo Girls:
In rural Thailand, the buffalo is a revered animal to the farmers who work with and care for them. They are symbols of Hard Work, Patience, Strength and Loyalty. In the big cities of Thailand the word has taken on another meaning. It's now also a derogatory way of describing someone from the rural provinces; someone who works hard and doesn't think or talk too much.
Let's take a closer look at Stam and Pet's lives, and see which category they, and the 30,000 kids who fight for their families,
BUFFALO GIRLS is the wrenching, sometimes heartbreaking story of two eight-year-old Thai girls seeking their country’s national Muay Thai championship and a cash prize that could change their families’ lives forever. BUFFALO GIRLS has its world premiere at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
BUFFALO GIRLS will undoubtedly provoke widely varying responses from audiences. To westerners, the participation of children in Muay Thai may appear reprehensible and indefensible. Fighting without headgear and incurring bruises, bloody noses and even broken bones, there is certainly a physical toll on the children. But in a country where the per capita income is less than 10% of that of the United States, there are other harsh realities to consider. The impoverished farming communities of rural Thailand offer few opportunities for people to better their lives and boxing is one of the few alternatives to the country’s commercial sex trade as a means of escaping the extreme poverty. There are some 30,000 chidren under the age of 15 fighting in the rings of rural Thailand
Muay Thai itself is a 700-year-old martial art with a long, cherished history in Thailand. In ancient times, it was accepted as the area’s best defense against invaders. Today, the sport retains a spiritual element and the combatants perform a series of rituals and blessings as they prepare to fight. Only in recent years has it become acceptable for females to be near the action, let alone enter the ring. For the villages involved, an evening of boxing becomes a communal event with farmers and laborers enthusiastically betting on the matches. With their limited incomes and little or no access to affordable credit, gambling is viewed as a viable part of the local economy and a means of increasing their meager resources.
For Pet and Stam, the eight-year-old protagonists of BUFFALO GIRLS, boxing is an opportunity to help their parents supplement the family income and improve their standard of living. Child boxers in Thailand can often earn as much as half of a family’s monthly rent from a single bout, sometimes taking home more than what a farmer or factory worker earns in a month.
The girls work with professional trainers, doing sit-ups and push-ups, lifting weights and running in preparation for upcoming fights. Although petite, both Stam and Pet exhibit a lean, powerful athleticism in the ring. As a younger child, the earnest, studious Pet was often sick and has a scar on her chest from heart surgery. Her parents credit boxing with improving her health. The more exuberant, animated Stam glows with confidence from her participation in the sport.
“When I first saw the children boxing, I absolutely thought it was horrible,” states director Todd Kellstein. But after spending two years in the rural Thai provinces documenting this world, Kellstein admits that his overall perspective has changed. His initial anger with the parents of the children for putting them in the ring gave way to a resigned empathy for their circumstances. “It is difficult to understand the economic circumstances that lead to child boxing, but what now angers me is economic inequalities in the world. These circumstances exist and we should think of ways to make it better for everyone. Not just in Thailand, but everywhere.”