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Myanmar: Protecting children despite the obstacles

I have just completed two marathon consultation sessions with children and young people – the sessions were enlightening, heartbreaking and encouraging all in one and ultimately left me with plenty to contemplate regarding future strategies and scaling up of the protection programme.

Children themselves motivate me to redouble my efforts. Faced with their own, at times daunting, situations, they demonstrated time and again raised levels of confidence and knowledge of their rights.

One 13-year old girl serves as a poignant example:  “I work 8 hours a day in a fish processing plant cutting the heads off of fishes.  If I am lucky I earn about 800 kyat per day (about 80 cents).

“When I return home, I work for another 2 hours fetching water and doing other household chores.  But my real highlight of the day is attending the non-formal education classes in the evenings.

“I can now read and write and who says that I cannot grow up to have a successful life and job?”

This story is, sadly, not unique.  Education for all is anything but, and access to free education for many, many children remains a distant dream.

Both adults and children talked about how the fees lumped upon families for their children’s education was simply unattainable for poor households:  fees for books, materials, uniforms and even demands from teachers for the maintenance costs of school facilities excluded large numbers of children from their right to education.

Save the Children continues to work with education authorities on ensuring that education is inclusive, quality and free for all.  For those that cannot attend formal schools, non-formal programmes provide necessary learning opportunities.

For older children, this means links with job skills and vocational programmes – and opportunities to remain “caught up” for those who have aspirations to enter or re-enter a formal programme in the future.

In the townships surrounding Yangon, child labour, trafficking and abuse are rife.  All of the children I met have experienced themselves or know of someone who has experienced abuse and exploitation.  As another 13 year old girl told me: “All children have to work in some form or another.”

Whether it is hazardous or non-hazardous, or in the so-called worst forms or not, overwhelmingly large sections of children are losing out on their childhood as well as vital growth and development opportunities due to the burden of work.

Levels of abuse and exploitation seem shockingly high.  Some groups we work with had gone beyond their own roles and responsibilities in following up and supporting children, such as in sexual abuse cases against young girls.

Their efforts are truly commendable, yet they also realise that a commitment to punish perpetrators is only one building block of a child protection system, and these community-based groups (with support from Save the Children) continue to development prevention strategies and raise awareness on child protection and rights.

Despite Myanmar’s participation in the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT) process, the trafficking of girls for sexual exploitation remains a challenge.

Prostitution rings and brothels are often controlled and supported by the rich and powerful but, despite such challenges, our partners continue to raise awareness on trafficking, educating children and communities on how to keep themselves safe and the vulnerabilities of risky migration.

They educate adults not to be duped by traffickers offering cash under the pretext of children getting good paying jobs and reducing the economic burden on families.

They try to document each instance of migration in their communities in an effort to curtail activities of unscrupulous brokers, contractors and agents and build up a body of data that will allow them to follow up on cases of trafficking.

Most groups have a small support fund for the most vulnerable children in their communities – it is primarily a coping and stop gap measure, yet one that has had a huge impact on a large number of children’s lives allowing them to stay in school, reduce working hours, attend courses or provide vital survival relief to impoverished families.

Remarkably, some groups have begun to raise their own funds through group income generating activities.  One poignant example was a community soap-making venture using locally procured and often recycled materials.  Funds from soap sales were put back into the coffers for vulnerable children.

It was unanimous amongst all those I met that the child protection programme had served their communities well. Children and youth were keenly aware of their rights and were able to raise their voices.

While all agreed that the programme had helped establish protection mechanisms that were widely recognised and acknowledged and led to reduced instances of abuse and exploitation, there was still much to do – in particular, scaling up the work on prevention strategies.

As one commented:  “We are committed to respond to protection issues, but we also want to see the number of times we have to respond to reduce—only then will we know that we’ve had a positive impact.”

Over the two-day period, my emotions had run the gamut:  I was outraged at levels of egregious violations against children’s right and heartbroken to hear the stories of young girls, who looked no older than ten years of age, having to work long hard hours.

But I was inspired by vignettes of courage and determination among children and youth fighting for their rights, adults going beyond their call of duty to promote the rights of children and the field staff of Save the Children equally determined and committed to making all of their programme areas ones that no longer tolerate the abuse, exploitation, neglect and harm of children.

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