Muay Thai for 8-year-olds?

I recently discovered the documentary, Buffalo Girls, the brutal and heart wrenching story of two eight-year-old Thai girls participating in their country’s national Muay Thai championship. 

Stam, one of the girls featured in Buffalo Girls, poses after a win.
Stam, one of the girls featured in Buffalo Girls, poses after a win.

For those who aren’t familiar, Muay Thai itself is a 700-year-old martial art with a long and cherished history in Thailand. Brutal in its nature, the fighting style is comparable to that of MMA.

There are some 30,000 children under the age of 15 fighting in the Muay Thai rings of rural Thailand.

Blood, sweat and tears: Muay Thai child fighters

Photos by Jean-Michel Clajot from the Gallery, "Blood, Sweat and Tears: Muay Thai Child Fighters"
Photos by Jean-Michel Clajot from the Gallery, “Blood, Sweat and Tears: Muay Thai Child Fighters”

Fighting without headgear and incurring bruises, bloody noses and even broken bones, there is absolutely a physical toll on the children involved. To Westerners, the participation of children in Muay Thai may appear reprehensible and dangerous.

But in a country where the per-capita income is less than 10% of that of the United States, there are other harsh realities to consider before making judgements. The impoverished farming communities of rural Thailand offer few opportunities for people to better their lives and boxing is one of the few alternatives to the country’s commercial sex trade as a means of escaping the extreme poverty.

Only recently has it become acceptable for females to be near the action, let alone enter the ring, which is all the more reason why the Buffalo Girls documentary is so fascinating.

For the villages involved, an evening of boxing becomes a community event with farmers and laborers enthusiastically betting on the matches. With their limited incomes and little or no access to affordable credit, gambling is viewed as a viable part of the local economy and a means of increasing their meager resources.

Photo by Jean-Michel Clajot from the Gallery, "Blood, Sweat and Tears: Muay Thai Child Fighters"

Photo by Jean-Michel Clajot from the Gallery, "Blood, Sweat and Tears: Muay Thai Child Fighters"
Photos by Jean-Michel Clajot from the Gallery, “Blood, Sweat and Tears: Muay Thai Child Fighters”

These children, if they are successful in the sport, earn enough to provide food for their families, put their siblings through school, improve their own quality of life. Child boxers in Thailand can often earn as much as half of a family’s monthly rent from a single bout, sometimes taking home more than what a farmer or factory worker earns in an entire month.

The documentary, Buffalo Girls, follows the successes of the two eight-year-old girls, Stam and Pet, as they work with professional trainers. They do sit-ups and push-ups, lift weights and run, all in preparation for their upcoming fights. They are lean, powerful and athletic, glowing with confidence from their participation in the sport.

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Photos by Jean-Michel Clajot from the Gallery, “Blood, Sweat and Tears: Muay Thai Child Fighters.”

“When I first saw the children boxing, I absolutely thought it was horrible,” said director Todd Kellstein. But after spending two years in the rural Thai provinces documenting this world, Kellstein admits that his overall perspective has changed. His initial anger with the parents of the children for putting them in the ring gave way to a resigned empathy for their circumstances. 

“It is difficult to understand the economic circumstances that lead to child boxing, but what now angers me is economic inequalities in the world. These circumstances exist and we should think of ways to make it better for everyone. Not just in Thailand, but everywhere.”

What do you think?

Watch the trailer for Buffalo Girls:

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