South Hadley, Mass. — At a recent conference on women's education that was teeming with women professors and legislators, Kanitha Wichiencharoen introduced herself shyly as a ``social worker and a grandmother.'' But Mrs. Wichiencharoen - for all her apparent lack of academic degrees - has started something practical and needed: the first shelter in Thailand for women and children in distress. The shelter has been in existence for seven years, she says, and has helped about 10,000 women and children who have been the victims of rape, incest, and other abuse.
``I don't want to blame it on the Vietnam war,'' she says in halting English, ``but during the war massage parlors and prostitution bloomed. After it was over, they continued. Before, our men never went there. After the war, they followed the GIs.''
She tells of parents bringing their daughters to houses of prostitution, and of girls being lured from rural areas, forced into prostitution, and locked up. Five women died when flames swept the brothel in which they were locked, she says.
The children who come to the shelter are sometimes Amerasian, fathered by GIs and ostracized from Thai society. Some have been exploited by employers or neglected by their families. Others are the victims of incest or rape. One recent visitor to the shelter, she says, was a 13-year-old girl who had been impregnated by her grandfather. With no other family, she had nowhere to turn.
At first, Wichiencharoen explains, the women and children were allowed to stay for one week. But then it became apparent that the problems were too difficult to solve in that short a time. ``Now they can stay as long as they need to,'' she says.
The shelter started seven years ago as a legal-aid project. ``The women lawyers association came to us and said that the problems people were bringing to them were not just legal - they were family problems. We felt we should have a women's shelter. Some can't stay in their homes. They're beaten and robbed.''
So Wichiencharoen raised 50,000 baht ($2,000) and built a shelter on the floor above the legal-aid society. The embassies of the Netherlands, Canada, and Norway all chipped in. ``People supported it. It was the first of its kind.''
The women and children are referred by police stations, hospitals, and government agencies. The shelter offers three meals a day, a place to sleep, and medical referrals in case of illness or pregnancy. It admits urgent cases 24 hours a day.
Wichiencharoen says they hope to open their own clinic. ``With so many pregnant women, almost every night we take some to the hospital,'' she says. ``We're hoping to have our own nurse and midwife.''
What happens to the women?
``We found a sponsor for the 13-year-old's education, if she would give up the baby for adoption. As for the others, some go right back to the streets. It's hard to get back on their feet. But some are successful. We placed seven in hotel jobs in Iceland.''
But the shelter was just the first step. ``We realized we were helping them after they were already in trouble,'' Wichiencharoen says. ``We felt we could do more to reach them before that. We needed an educational training center. I've spent three or four years begging around the world to raise money for it.''
The Women's Education and Training Center (WE-TRAIN), which should be finished by the end of next year, is planned as a multifaceted facility, including a residential hotel (called a ``dormitory'') with 25 rooms. The 100 girls and women that work there will be trained in hotel and restaurant skills. There will be facilities for classes, meeting and training rooms, gymnasiums, vegetable gardens - as well as fish, shrimp, and duck ponds for training and to produce food.