As the newly elected Senate representative from Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum, Prateep Ungsongtham Hata has a legitimate claim as a champion of the poor. Prateep had to abandon her education at age 11 and take a job to support her family. Her first job, in 1964, was packaging firecrackers for just 35 cents a day. After five years of other menial labor, including paint-chipping and cargo-vessel cleaning, she saved enough to attend night school and complete her education.
Prateep, 47, has spent much of her life campaigning to improve the lot of the poor. But last year, she felt she could be even more effective by being part of public policymaking. So she ran for Senate and was elected in March. "My new status will help the people's movement in the slums and rural areas," she explains. Prateep represents a new breed of grassroots hopefuls untainted by traditional Thai money politics. She is active in promoting women in politics. But her first concerns are children's rights and solving the rampant problems caused by drugs and HIV among the poor.
Prateep has seen it all first-hand. At age 16, she began a day care center. It grew into a school, charging 5 cents per day for slum children who could not attend government schools because their homes were not officially registered. Dubbed "Angel of the Slums" decades ago, she won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service in 1978. With more than 300 slums in greater Bangkok alone, Prateep faces her biggest challenge yet.