The Thongbai Thongpao Foundation (TTF) in Thailand brings free legal assistance to rural residents, along with training on basic human rights and laws affecting their daily lives. While Thailand enjoyed rapid economic growth in the 1990s, much of the improved standard of living was concentrated in metropolitan areas. Rural populations lag behind economically and have little awareness of the rights guaranteed by modern Thai law. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by corrupt officials and moneylenders.
TTF’s Law to the Villages course targets teachers, students, community leaders, poor farmers and women. TTF staff and a team of volunteer lawyers hold weekend training workshops in the villages, usually at the request of villagers who are facing problems with state officials. Over two full days of training, participants learn about constitutional law, human rights, marriage, loans and mortgages, labor law and other legal issues that concern them. Dramatizations of court cases complement the lectures and discussion.
Participants receive photo identity cards with the name and signature of their personal lawyer after completing the course. The back of each card lists the rights of suspects: the right to silence, to legal assistance, to know the charges against them and to post bail. After the program, a local paralegal committee of five to seven people is set up in the village to ensure that human rights standards are followed and to help organize courses.
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In communities isolated geographically, by culture or by custom, lack of knowledge may be the biggest obstacle keeping people from taking full advantage of their rights. A group in Thailand combines community education —through skits and seminars — with access to the legal system, ensuring that people are not only aware of their rights, but can actively claim them.
Rather than distant, abstract concepts, TTF teaches practical information and skills that villagers can use to assert their rights. The power of the business card given to each person should not be underestimated: knowing that you have someone to call in case of abuse is not only a psychological boost, it could also dissuade someone from violating your rights in the first place.
This tactic could be valuable in rural and isolated areas around the world where people are unaware of their rights or do not feel empowered to access the justice system. It also offers legal action as a possible recourse for victims in case of abuse. A similar tactic in Uganda educates people in outlying areas about their rights, and creates avenues for mediation.