Lecturer wins Future Justice Prize

A Mlabri elder receiving a rice withdrawal from the rice bank in Nan Province. This was on the first day the rice bank was established.

Journalism lecturer Dr Scott Downman has won a 2012 Future Justice Prize for future justice leadership and initiative.

Dr Downman was recognised for acts of practical support in marginalised communities and important research publications on human rights issues.

The Future Justice Prizeis awarded to Australian individuals or organisations who demonstrate leadership and initiative in the advancement of future justice, with a focus on the legacy that those living today leave behind for future generations.

Scott, Chrissy and daughter Sariah with residents at the Hmong student village. They received blankets and educational supplies.

In 2010, Dr Downman and his wife Chrissy founded a small not-for-profit organisation — Hope Education and Learning Project (HELP International).

“Our aim is provide education to vulnerable children and through education provide a grassroots intervention to prevent child labour and trafficking,’’ he said.

“Most of the interventions to stop trafficking are focused on rescue and prosecution; that is, when someone has already been a victim of trafficking.

“That is important, but tackling trafficking requires a holistic apporach and our organisation aims to prevent trafficking from happening.

“This is done through a combination of education and making life more viable for people at-risk of trafficking so they have more options available to them.”

He said the Future Justice Prize was an honour and validated their work.

In 2010, HELP supported a ground-breaking initiative to establish a rice bank in a Mlabri village in Nan Province, Thailand. The Mlabri are the poorest ethnic minority group in Thailand with only 500 Mlabri in the country.

“Until 2005, most Mlabri were living a nomadic existence but a Thai government program forcing them to live in villages has created significant issues for these traditional hunter-gatherers.

“They had never grown rice before because of cultural beliefs, hence the villagers’ nomadic existence.”

Through this project, Mlabri village leaders buy rice from villages with a surplus of rice. Residents needing food make a rice withdrawal that is recorded by the village leader. When they harvest their rice they pay back the loan from the first rice harvest.

The program teaches Mlabri communities about the concept of banking, as well as ensuring the desperately poor community has adequate food security. The project has been running successfully for three years

HELP also funds educational scholarships for at-risk tribal students, and is the sole donor of a Chiang Rai school for 30 Burmese refugee children. The school is managed by Thai NGO Mekong Minority Foundation and has two teachers and a cook. The students, who live in a slum on the outskirts of the city, receive an education, two meals a day at the school (often their only food for the day), and support in earning citizenship. Prior to the school opening, children in the slum community were at risk of being trafficked or premature death.

The school provides support for the students, some of whom have worked as child soldiers or experienced trauma from war and violence in Burma.

The organisation also funds a student village of 42 children from eight villages and has produced a documentary on the issue of child marriage.

The film will be screened in village road shows aimed at establishing dialogue in affected communities about the consequences of this issue. It is the first documentary produced in Thailand in the Hmong language.”

In Australia, the Downman’s conduct community-based workshops and seminars in high schools about human trafficking.

“Since I started this work in 2010 we have spoken to more than 2000 people raising awareness about human trafficking and how our actions in Australia can influence the trafficking of people in other countries.”