Oct. 9, 2007 — -- 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.
Kellstein says that despite the bruises, bloody noses and hard kicks to the stomach he witnessed, he doesn't feel the children are being exploited; their parents, he said, love them very much and the kids are happy to help support them.
However, groups in Thailand still object to the practice. In 1999, the Foundation for Child Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok, for example, tried to persuade the Thai government to ban child boxing. The motion failed when farmers from the provinces banded together, arguing that the farming economy would collapse if such fights were outlawed. Still, the foundation hopes a new petition to the government, scheduled for December, this year will bring child boxing to a stop, according to the organization's president, Sanpasit Kumpraphan.
Walter Mead, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, explains that betting on child Muay Thai fights is indeed essential to the Thai economy.
"You have to understand that many of these farmers live on very narrow economic margins," he said, "and generally speaking, unfortunately in a lot of the world, poor people can't borrow money easily or cheaply. Often they have to borrow it from illegal money lenders, who charge you serious rates of interest."
Mead explained that the need for cash, after a bad crop year, is compounded in Thailand by a rabid consumerism. "More and more now in Thailand," he said, "you can start to access some of the things that you and I take for granted, like a radio or a television. … Those things take cash."
Regarding child labor, Mead stressed that in many countries it's unusual if children don't have to do serious work. "The idea that childhood is a time of play and of education is something that 200 years ago almost nobody in the world had," he said.
Is it really just Western sensibilities that make Americans shocked to see young girls punching each other without head gear as adults bet on them?
"We, Americans, we live in kind of a bubble-wrapped world and our kids live in a bubble-wrapped world," Mead said. "Life out there in much of the world has choices that we can hardly imagine. … Thailand has a very large commercial sex industry, so in that sense it's progress if girls are going to the fighting ring rather than the brothel. You have to hope that some years from now they won't be going to either one."
For his part, Kellstein said he no longer gets angry about parents allowing their children to fight. "The thing I get angry about is that there is so much inequality in the world and that economic situations like this arise," he said. "These circumstances exist and we should think of ways to make it better for everyone. Not just in Thailand, but everywhere."