Youth activist Chonlachat “Max” Panthong, who spent time between the ages of 17 and 24 in a juvenile detention centre, knows all too well about how young people can be left out of decision-making on their own lives.
Photo Credit: UNICEF
“We experienced difficulty finding jobs after release, [so] we proposed many ideas on how to better help youth living in detention centres survive in the outside world, but Thai bureaucracy is conservative. Release from the centre is more like a drop off. We were just let go with no help,” he said.
Max wants to see this gap, systemic and generational, between young people and adults bridged. The key, he said, is to strike a balance between making youth feel heard and providing them with mentorship, but too often youth are on the receiving end when interacting with adults.
Introducing youth work in Thailand
Kyungsun Kim, UNICEF Representative for Thailand, said while young people face a number of social issues, they are also eager for the opportunity to make a positive impact in their communities.
“They are asking for their voices to be heard and their contributions recognized, but they also need our support to make this happen,” Kim said.
That is why UNICEF is helping to introduce the concept of “youth work” in Thailand as a tool for helping young people develop socially and participate in decision-making.
“Youth work as a professional sector is a new concept in Thailand,” said Vilasa Phongsathorn, Adolescent Development Officer at UNICEF Thailand. “Under the umbrella of social work, youth work means creating opportunities for young people to make their own decisions, shape their future and develop the skills for navigating the personal and social challenges they face. Mentoring or after school programmes, sports or recreational activities as well as social activism all fall under youth work, in which young people can participate and develop through ‘out-of-school' learning activities.”
Youth work is not only crucial for young people in detention centres like Max – the challenges presented by COVID-19, Thailand’s ageing society and the rise of automation also highlight the necessity of youth work on a national scale, Vilasa added.
At the webinar “Catalyzing Youth Engagement in Thailand: Knowledge Sharing Seminar with Global Experts on the Concept of Youth Work” co-hosted by UNICEF and the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute (TPQI), experts shared experiences in implementing youth work in their countries. They also discussed how best to introduce youth work under Thailand’s social, cultural and political context.
Professionalization will be crucial for developing youth work, said Tim Corney from Victoria University and the Australian Youth Workers Association. This can help improve the quality and safety of youth work, regulate youth work professions and ensure that young people themselves can benefit, he noted.
Sara Sušanj from Association Delta, a civil society organisation in Croatia, added that regulating youth work as a profession will help establish criteria for quality and a Code of Ethics as well as youth work programmes in higher education. This will allow youth workers, who work to support young people in reaching their full potential at local charities, faith groups or social services, to develop professionally. Ultimately, “young people will benefit from it the most,” said Sušanj.
What could youth work look like in Thailand?
Youth work looks different in every country. As Thailand builds its own identity of youth work, a clear structure for cooperation among all levels and stakeholders will be important. To professionalize youth work, experts agree that the best approach is localization – for which “we need to consider the realities of Thailand and its young people in the 21st century,” said Williamson.
UNICEF is partnering with TPQI to develop a common understanding of youth work and professional standards for its practice in Thailand, providing youth workers with the specialized knowledge, skills and values to work with and for young people in their community, particularly the most marginalized.
Miss Oh, a social work student and advocate for the rights of stateless and migrant children in Thailand, noted that through differentiating youth work from social work, the diverse needs of marginalized youth could be best understood and addressed.
“I think co-creation and a youth-centric approach is what differentiates youth work from social work. To professionalize youth work is to make working with young people more effective.”
Case studies from other countries show that the youth work sector in Thailand will need to speak with a clear and united voice if it is to achieve the status of a professional group and receive crucial political support. Fortunately, one of the main strengths of youth work is its emphasis on partnership, through drawing links between young people and different sectors, such as the local community, social services and formal education.
In Singapore, youth work enjoys government support via the National Youth Council as well as from the non-governmental sector. It is practised through a range of informal learning activities like rehabilitation, street outreach, sports, the arts and volunteering.
Experts from Malaysia shared the view that youth work should primarily be youth to youth. “We help develop young people – from being dependent to [becoming] interdependent with adults,” said Ismi Arif Ismail, a youth work academic from Universiti Putra and UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur.
In Finland, youth work services are integrated at the policy level. “Youth work is also mentioned in the National Core Curriculum as one of the cooperating partners for schools,” said Tomi Kiilakoski of Tampere University.
In these three countries, youth work is academically recognized, with university-level degrees and diplomas on offer.
In Austria, youth work has a strong standing in civil society and often involves political activism. Most youth organizations at the local, regional and national level have well-designed structures. The Federal Youth Representation Act is the basis for the financial support of youth work and the creation of the Austrian National Youth Council, which has “a say in all important political decisions,” said youth work practitioner Wolfgang Rauter.
Sharing her views on how youth work can develop in Thailand, migrant youth leader, Oh, said that our mindset needs to change, both for adults and young people.
“When youth propose their ideas, it is not a sign of disrespect to adults. The world is changing, and we also need to change. We have to look at things from the perspective of young people, and young people also need to understand the adults’ worldview.”
“Many things in Thailand are handled by adults, but youth can be more involved, for example, in policymaking. They will be the ones who will live with that policy for the next 10 or 20 years, and youth work can offer a solution for supporting young people to realize their full potential and meaningfully participate in society,” she said.
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By : THE NATION