With cheers and the promise of money attracting some 200,000 youngsters under the age of 15 to go into Muay Thai, human-rights and health advocates in Thailand have raised concerns about the violation of their rights and the possible impact punches and kicks may have on their brain development.
As the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission’s panel on the elderly, disabled, children, education and public health, Ms Chatsuda Chandeeying said this issue required prompt action because such competitions – in which the young fighters get paid for boxing – fell within the frame of child labour and abuse.
She said the 1999 Boxing Act should be amended so it is in line with the 2003 Child Protection Act and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to ensure the protection of children.
She also cited a study conducted by Dr Jiraporn Laothamatas, director and neuro-radiologist at Ramathibodi Hospital’s Advanced Diagnostic Imaging Centre (AIMC).
The study estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 children – some as young as four – were taking part in these boxing competitions nationwide and were getting exposed to injuries, especially to the brain.
The study claims that internal brain injuries, normally caused by direct blows to the head, are usually difficult to detect, but could have long-term effects and even lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s later in life.
Dr Jiraporn’s study prompted the AIMC to discuss the matter last December with the hospital’s Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Centre and the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, and seek appropriate solutions.
The study showed brain damage and memory loss, as well as a high risk of neurological disorders among young fighters compared to their non-fighting peers.
It also found that young fighters’ IQ scores were lower by 10 points. For instance, non-boxing youngsters scored between 90 and 110 points, which allows them to complete a diploma or the bachelor’s degree, while a child fighter with more than five years in the boxing career barely scored 84 points. Students scoring between 80 and 89 IQ points are usually able to complete only high school.
“Such brain injuries will impair the young fighters’ education and well-being. These children have no other choice but to become professional boxers later in life.
“How can they possibly study and find jobs? What will their quality of life be with a bruised brain and low IQ? They might develop neurological disorders later in life and become a burden on those around them,” Dr Jiraporn said.
Despite the 1999 Boxing Act’s requirement that all Muay Thai boxers be above the age of 15, some 100,000 child fighters are well below that age limit.
As the children are not registered with the Sports Authority of Thailand, they can fight only in unauthorised rings or at events held using the law’s loopholes. These children are also not always provided with sufficient safety gear.