Two 8-year-old Thai girls, wearing colorful headbands, shorts and T-shirts, their cheeks painted red, perform a slow ritualistic dance in a makeshift boxing ring. They kneel and bless their respective corners before facing off and striking a pose.
This is the spiritual part to Muay Thai, Thailand's 700-year-old martial art, seen at one time as the best means for the country to defend itself against foreign invasion. In modern times, Muay Thai is scarcely a weapon for national security; it's a fierce and urgent sport. But for thousands of children and their parents around rural Thailand, it's also one of the few avenues through which they can escape extreme poverty.
As young girls and boys wildly kick and punch each other in rural rings across Thailand, spectators (farmers, trainers, families, friends) place their bets. Each child stands to change his or her family's fortune with a winning blow. In fact, the victor of most fights will make more money in an hour than a farmer or factory worker earns in a month. More specifically, the average take-home pay for a kid boxer is between 700 Baht ($22) and 1,000 Baht ($31). With monthly rents often as low as 1,900 Baht ($60), a child's win in the ring can represent half of a family's monthly rent.
"When I first saw it, I absolutely thought it was child abuse," filmmaker Todd Kellstein told "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas. "I thought it was horrible. … It was evil fathers and mothers who didn't care about their child."
Kellstein says his views evolved as he documented child fighting in Thailand's remote provinces for two years for his film "Raised in the Ring."
The documentary tracks the maturation of two young prize fighters: Stam, 8, a striking, vivacious girl; and Nong Pet, 9, subdued and serious. Both girls' families desperately needed the cash and both appeared happy to help out.
"I fight to make my mom and dad happy," Stam told Kellstein through a translator. "They work very hard, and I am very, very poor." Similarly, Nong Pet, through a translator, said that she gives her money to her parents so they "can pay the rent and buy stuff."
Nong Pet, who came from even greater poverty than Stam, wins the first match between the two. Soon, however, the tables turn. Stam beats Nong Pet several times and becomes the most successful girl boxer in Thailand at her weight class (20 kilos, or 44 pounds); she currently commands a guaranteed 2,000 Baht ($63) per fight, plus a piece of whatever the total betting purse is. Her earnings are so substantial they enable her to buy her parents a new home. Meanwhile, Nong Pet's situation worsens during the time Kellstein films her — she was forced to take an exhibition match in a brothel, accepting tips from Westerners.
Although he wasn't sure about the long-term effects of Muay Thai on children, Kellstein ultimately found it to be an economic necessity. "I don't think we really understand it," he told Vargas. "We don't have poverty on that level."
According to a World Bank report, the per capita income of Thailand averages $3,316 per year, whereas in the United States, the per capita average, according to the same report, is roughly $43,400.
Financial realities aside, Kellstein's film invites questions about the age of the children involved in Muay Thai and the extent to which international child labor laws and children's rights are being violated.