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Thai grandmothers club together for financial security

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 7 Mar 2012 12:09 PM
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BAAN PASAK, Lamphun, Thailand (TrustLaw) - "It's only my age that's old,” reads the notice Khongkham has stuck onto the side of her electric-blue, Honda Wave motorcycle.

Though she is energetic and still farming at the age of 62 - producing two rice crops a year on rented land - the grandmother knows she can’t remain so active forever.

"It's very hot when I go farming. I need to rest regularly these days. Next year, I may only do one crop," she said, sitting next to a stack of rubber tyres topped with a fan guard – home to several well-fed baby bullfrogs. 

But life is becoming increasingly expensive in Baan Pasak, a small farming village in northern Thailand, half an hour's drive from Chiang Mai – a city popular with tourists. 

Khongkham’s 61-year-old husband drives a school bus and occasionally works at building sites, but their incomes sometimes cannot cover monthly expenses, especially when they have to provide for two grandsons from time to time. 

As her farming days draw to a close, Khongkham has started to propagate new, less tiring sources of income through the help of the village's Older People's Club.

Of the club’s 105 members, two-thirds are rural women over 60 who, after decades as full-time farmers and mothers, are getting too old to farm and losing stable income. Yet they have more social and family responsibilities than ever. 

Khongkham wants to raise more hens, "because they give eggs every day" and because she can eat them or sell them for extra income. 

The frogs will be sold, so too the snakeheads – fish swimming in a metal tub next to the tyres – when they are big enough. They could bring in between 60 baht ($2) to 100 baht (over $3) per kilogram while saving her from back-breaking work in the fields. 

"Without these activities I'd probably need to do odd jobs to cover some expenses, and at my age, it's difficult to find them," she told TrustLaw. 

This extra income – supplementary for now, but due to grow into her mainstay – also allows her to contribute to gifts and donations for weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies and the monastery. In Thailand, where the social fabric is considered very important, Khongkham said she is relieved to be able to pitch in. 

Once she stops farming, she will be frugal and will have to make do with what money she garners from these new sources of income, she said.

In Thailand, the world's largest exporter of rice, about 40 percent of the labour force is estimated to be employed in agriculture, hunting and forestry. While annual per capita income is less than $5,000 in the country of almost 70 million people, the National Statistical Office said employees in this sector only earn an average of about $150 a month

"RURAL WOMEN CAN WALK SIDE-BY-SIDE WITH MEN"

"Rural women can walk side-by-side with men. We don't have to follow them all the time," said the Older People's Club’s leader, Chanfong Mahamai, a 72-year-old grandmother whose quick wit and hearty laugh belie the tragedy she has suffered.

Twelve years ago, her son contracted HIV. Stigma and discrimination were rife, not only towards those living with the virus but also their family members. Her son, his wife and their son died. 

"I know how I felt when I received a helping hand during those times," said Chanfong, adding that this had prompted her to set up a support group for people affected by HIV. Eventually – now with new members and different donors – that support group turned into the Older People's Club.

"People perceive men as very strong and women as very weak but that's no longer the case. With all the changes in the world and technological advancements, older women still have a role to play," added the woman many villagers affectionately called "Mae" (Thai for mother), and who has grandchildren in her care. 

After receiving funding from Thai non-governmental organisation Foundation for Older Person's Development (FOPDEV) in 2006, the club embarked on activities that would provide extra income and food security to its members and other vulnerable people in a village of 200 households. 

On nearly two acres of land provided by a member, they are raising chickens, ducks, fish, crickets and frogs. They also plant mushrooms and garden vegetables. Most products are used for domestic consumption and for vulnerable people such as disabled villagers and single mothers. Whatever is left is sold at the village market and the profits are put in a revolving fund. 

BENEFITS NOT JUST MONETARY 

Somsri, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the fund. She and her husband tend the fields in the morning and open a small shop and cafe in the afternoon next door to Khongkham's house.

She borrowed 10,000 baht (about $330) interest-free from the revolving fund when her shop ran into trouble two years ago. After business improved, she paid it back within a year. 

However, with a daughter still at school and a son whose daughter she helps look after, Somsri needed money again and borrowed another 10,000 baht a few months ago. 

"I'm not sure when I can pay this money back," she fretted. "I have a cataract but I cannot have an operation yet. I cannot get sick and I cannot get tired because nobody is here to run the shop and there'll be no money," she added.

Both Khongkham and Somsri credit Chanfong and the Older People's Club for making their lives easier. But for Chanfong, the main benefit is a tighter-knit community. 

"People share their feelings more and they learn how to do things together. That's the main benefit of the project. Income security is a by-product," she told TrustLaw. 

"Thai society is like a stupa. The majority of the people are at the bottom and the few rich people are at the top. When the people at the top look at the problems Thailand has, they only see their eye level, not the problems of people at the bottom.”

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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