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Belinda Lawton - Media, Communications and Education Officer, The Alliance for Safe Children, Bangkok

Belinda Lawton
'I like to think in some way I've made a difference and contributed to the growing awareness of the problem of child injury across Asia.'

Belinda was posted to Bangkok as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD), working to reduce the silent epidemic of child injury in Asia, which claims the lives of 30 000 children every year in Bangladesh alone. She says that Bangkok is not exactly a 'hardship' posting, but her intermittent trips to Bangladesh are another matter. In 2007, Belinda found herself standing in the torrential rain resulting from Cyclone Sidr, with only a banana leaf for protection against the onslaught. Any employer would be impressed at her dedication.

How did you become involved with AYAD?

I have a friend who had participated in the AYAD program and raved about what a great experience it was. I'd always wanted to live overseas and thought this was a really good way to do that and still have a little bit of support.

What does The Alliance for Safe Children do?

The Alliance for Safe Children (TASC) started off as a research organisation. We did a few really large household surveys across Asia, looking at the issue of child injury. Most countries in Asia don't have a registry of births, deaths and marriages and don't have accurate records of how many children have been have died from things like severe burns or drownings, the most prevalent cause of death, their parents can't afford to take them to a health professional to register the death. So the children are just buried and never recorded in any official statistics, unlike children who die from communicable and non-communicable diseases. Tens of thousands of children are dying every year but their deaths have been largely un-noticed. What our research found is child injury is killing more children aged over one year old than any other cause.

TASC is now in its second phase. In addition to the research, which is ongoing, we work with local partners to run prevention activities and direct interactions with the population, to teach more about swimming safety and keeping children supervised and away from hazards in their everyday lives. In Australia and other Western nations, we've been really blessed for a long time with great public education campaigns about keeping kids safe from water hazards. People now assume that it's common knowledge that you should supervise kids near water, and that's what needs to happen here.

What does your job involve?

It's actually really varied. We have offices in Bangkok, Vietnam and the United States and we have a sister organisation that's based in Bangladesh. Essentially, I look after any media that we need to do in all of those places. My responsibilities cover everything from writing communications plans to re-doing our website, dealing with media, helping write and edit reports and editing journal articles – it's basically a kind of holistic approach to all communications.

Before I leave I will also write a program for English teachers to use in Thailand. We're finding that getting the message out about ways to keep children safe is quite difficult, so if we can use English teachers to get the message out to the children they teach, we're hoping a whole new generation will start to hear the message.

What qualifications do you have?

I've got a Bachelor of Arts majoring in journalism and literature, and I've got an Honours degree in literature. I'm currently studying for my Master's in Professional Communication.

When you were looking for an AYAD placement, did you choose the job or the country?

A bit of both. I had actually been offered a job in Bangladesh, but it was two and a half hours out of Dhaka and I was a little bit concerned about how I would go living in a developing country for a year, being so far away from the capital city. So I made the decision to come here instead. This role appealed to me because it was a really good use of my skills and it was a good career development step for me.

What's daily life like in Bangkok?

Bangkok is hardly a hardship posting! The traffic is fairly difficult to negotiate and I certainly don't drive here. Also, the pollution levels can sometimes be quite high. There's a real expat lifestyle here and the biggest challenge is forcing myself to learn Thai rather than just speaking English all the time. I also try to go out to the markets and do the things that the locals do so that I really get the most out of the experience of being an AYAD. So in Bangkok, probably the biggest challenge is remembering why I'm here and trying to get to know the local culture.

You're living in one of the world's shopping capitals. Do you have any survival tips for staying out of debt?

I actually try to steer clear of the shopping centres altogether! I've got a really friendly little market where I can go and pick up food and things so avoidance has been my strategy – otherwise it's just too tempting because everything here is substantially cheaper than home, except for things like wine and books. Some of the great pleasures in life are more expensive, so you really need to budget on the AYAD allowance to make sure that you can pick up the occasional book and go out for a glass of wine every now and again.

What have you been most surprised about in your posting?

I've been really surprised by how many people here speak English at an extremely high level. If you didn't make the effort to learn Thai, you really wouldn't have to. It's also a really easy culture to navigate your way around because there are so many tourists that come here. The Thai people are so used to Westerners that there aren't any cultural barriers when it comes to dress code or anything. That's why I've found it really interesting to go to Bangladesh, because it's shown me how easy the lifestyle in Bangkok is in comparison to somewhere like Dhaka.

What's the purpose of your field trips to Bangladesh?

We have a sister organisation called the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh (CIPRB) and they do a lot of intervention work with people on the ground in Bangladesh. They run a great program in conjunction with us and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). They do everything from teaching kids to swim to going into households and explaining to them about the various dangers, for example keeping poisons on the ground. They also run creches for children up until they turn six and go to school.

All the people who work for the CIPRB are public health experts and they're really good at what they do, but they're not so good at marketing themselves. Part of my responsibility is to do their PR. I have written and edited an annual report about all of their activities and I put together a few brochures that they can use for potential donors, and people that just want more information about what they do.

I guess I'm quite fortunate that my office realised that I really needed to go to Bangladesh to get an appreciation of the extent of the problem on more of an emotional level. I'd read all of the reports in Bangkok, but it's not until you go to Bangladesh that you really get an idea of the huge difficulties there in terms of the hazards to children that are inherent in the environment .

Is there any one particular child you have been especially touched by?

There's two kids who I've been touched by. One is a five-year-old boy called Lalan. He was born blind so he's got really milky white eyes. He lives in a village in Bangladesh where blindness isn't really understood and, as a result, a lot of kids were frightened of him because he was visually quite different. They stayed away from him and he didn't have any friends. When a creche opened in his village, Lalan's family applied for him to be able to go along to it. At first he was a little bit ostracised, but as the other kids saw that he liked singing the songs that they liked, he liked dancing, he liked all the stuff that a normal five-year-old likes to do, they really warmed to him. Now he's one of the most popular kids in the village, he's always outside playing with friends, and it's really transformed his life. Just watching his mother talk about him, saying how he'd gone from this quiet, withdrawn little boy into a really normal, happy five-year-old, was really touching. He's a really beautiful little kid and the program has made a huge difference to him

The other little boy that has really touched me is Parvez, who came from a very poor family in a slum area of Dhaka. He'd been abandoned as a baby, and was found in one of the slum areas by a woman who had nothing. She took him in herself because she couldn't stand to see him left there. He is nine years old and his greatest ambition was to be a rickshaw driver. He got selected to be part of the swimming survival program. When he got into the pool, this kid moved like a fish! It was just amazing. Now the Bangladesh Swimming Federation is talking about him being a national butterfly champion. Parvez once had no hope for the future and was living in extreme poverty and now his life has been turned around.

What's the biggest frustration you have faced as an AYAD?

It's twofold. One is a lack of resources. I can see so many wonderful things that we could do if finances weren't a constant issue. For example we're putting in applications for grants to try and get enough money to re-design our website. It urgently needs to be done, but getting together $3000 is proving to be a whole lot harder than I thought it would be. The other major frustration is that you really hit your stride as an AYAD about six months in; that's when the penny drops about the projects you're working on, and then the last six months really flies as a result. I certainly wasn't an expert in child injury before I arrived and so it takes time to get up to speed. I feel like I could do with another six months here to try to get all the things done that I would like to do, so it's really about prioritising now.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I like to think that in some small way I've made a difference and that I've contributed a little to the growing awareness of the problem of child injury across Asia, but particularly in Bangladesh, and that maybe some more of these children will be saved as a result. In all my previous jobs I've got the most satisfaction from the situations where I have felt like I'm making a positive difference.

What are your plans for the future?

I've only really got as far as planning to go home! Being here and seeing first-hand what an enormous difference journalists can make to how the world responds to social problems has inspired me. Essentially, I'd like to end up either working as a journalist again or working in communications in the NGO sector.

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