Forced by social norms telling her that only boys should receive an education after elementary school and the economic ‘burden’ of raising a girl, Nunnaree Luangmoi dropped out of school in northern Thailand at age 13. She was separated from her family and worked in domestic servitude as a nanny and housemaid. Over the course of her life, she has been a victim of attempted rape multiple times, has endured various forms of death threats, was forced to live under police protection, and has been physically assaulted. Nevertheless, she persisted. Her dream was once to simply get an education; over two decades later, that dream has grown bigger and touched more lives than she could have ever imagined. She has dedicated her life to empowering and educating women and children, taking a stand against child abuse and violence, and fighting human trafficking along the borders of northern Thailand.
Nunnaree was born in Phan district in 1973 to parents who were rice farmers. At that time, it was mostly boys who were sent to school, so while her brother continued his studies, Nunnaree had to drop out at 13 to work. Unfortunately, sending children, particularly girls, off to work at a young age was a normal occurence at the time. Nunnaree’s parents didn’t have an education so they didn’t understand the importance of one. In their view, daughters didn’t go to school. While her older sister was sent to work at a factory, Nunnaree was sent to work as a nanny for a teacher’s family in another province. She looked after their two young children when she was just a child herself. Though the family was nice, they barely paid her anything and she had to work every day for six years with almost no time off to visit her own family. She didn’t realize it at the time, but by today’s (UN) definition she had been a victim of human trafficking.
Every day while Nunnaree worked, she saw other kids going to school. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t live with her mother and go to school, and was upset that her childhood had been stolen from her. But she knew that if she could work and save money, she could go back to school – and that’s exactly what she did. Nunnaree signed up for informal schooling and was able to use her small salary to pay for her education. She graduated when she was 18 and moved to Bangkok to work for another family while studying Communications and Technology at Ramkhamhaeng University. She studied there for one year, but when her mother became ill, Nunnaree had to return home to take care of her until she sadly passed away. Nunnaree began teaching kindergarten and studying again on weekends. Four years later, she received her Bachelor’s in Community Development from Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, and soon after her Master’s in Strategy and Development.
When Nunnaree was 22, her life began to change. The Foundation for Women came to her community to collect data and information about parents selling their children. This was a big problem in the area – parents would use their children as a deposit to take out loans: they would raise them until a certain age at which point they would send them with an ‘agent’ to go find work in order to repay the debts of the family. Eventually, the Foundation for Women selected volunteers to attend training on child rights, laws, data collection, and more. Nunnaree had seen the children in her community who were unable to attend school or who were sent away to work as she had been. She wanted to help these children, but she didn’t know how, so she jumped at the opportunity to volunteer.
Soon after, with the support from the friends she had made at the Foundation for Women, and a small grant from UNICEF, Nunnaree founded Center for Girls in 1997. She wanted to take action against the widespread sexual abuse in her community. It was a prevalent problem, but surrounded by stigma and considered a “family issue” that no one spoke about. Around this time, a man she trusted attempted to rape her at gunpoint. When she tried to tell people, no one believed her. She wanted to create a safe space for girls where they could report cases to someone who would listen to them, believe them, and help them. She wanted to let victims of sexual abuse know that they were not alone, and encourage girls to speak out and seek help. She strongly believed that the young women in her community deserved a better life than the one they were being given.
It takes a special kind of person to go through what Nunnaree went through and not only remain positive and kind but also dedicate your life to the service of others. Today, Center for Girls’ mission is to work within the Chiang Rai Province to empower women and children, reduce instances of gender-based violence, and educate the populace about human trafficking issues. Center For Girls seeks to prevent the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) and all forms of abuse against children. It is committed to creating sustainable participatory projects that equip people in the surrounding communities with the necessary life skills to become independent leaders who strive towards human rights for all, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or socioeconomic status. Nunnaree’s work wthrough Center For Girls has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of people. She is kind, funny, easy to talk to, and she certainly doesn’t do this work for awards or approval. She saw a problem in her small village and set out to fix it. Because of her compassion, her drive, and her unwillingness to take no for an answer, Nunnaree’s work has spread wide to affect villages and people all over northern Thailand.
About Center for Girls
Founded in 1997, Center for Girls (CFG) is based on the border of Laos and approximately 60 km from the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s largest drug and human trafficking areas. As such, it is home to many different ethnic minority groups, migrants, and refugees who face issues such as poverty and statelessness while also lacking access to proper education, sanitation, and healthcare. Many of these people are members of rural, mountainous communities and are at a high risk of exploitation.
CFGs’ mission is to work within Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand to empower women and children, reduce instances of violence – particularly domestic violence and gender-based violence (GBV) – and educate the public about human trafficking issues. CFG seeks to prevent the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) and all forms of abuse against children and women. CFG approaches development from a bottom-up perspective, working with the most vulnerable communities to educate and empower people to become agents of change in their own right. CFG has been working on creating watchdogs and strengthening reporting and referral systems so that when any person in society becomes vulnerable, they will have a safety net to assist them in accessing the services and support they need. The goal for the future is to create a community free of human trafficking, CSEC, and violence, and give people the skills and knowledge they need to take control of their lives.