As he rattled off the daunting figures of child rights violations and protection issues facing children in this part of Myanmar I could see tears welling up in his eyes.
The man with tears in his eyes is “Bagyi” (a term of respect), the irrepressible chair of the child protection group in Kalaingkainang community in Mon State, eastern Myanmar.
And the facts he rattled off were disheartening: only 80 out of 375 children are in school. Many children left behind by parents who have migrated to Thailand in search of work are neglected, and a large number of children with health problems have no access to healthcare.
The Child Protection Group (CPG) is a group of volunteer adults with child and youth representatives. For every question we threw at the CPG, I was impressed that they had thought it through and were grappling with ways to address it. Most of the adults in the community were illiterate and had few learning opportunities in their lives. For this reason, and knowing full well children’s best interests was their guiding principle, the CPG had promoted participation amongst the village youth and children.
“Teachers will not allow children to attend school without a uniform — this makes me angry and sad”, said Baji, “since they have no extra income to buy uniforms. Why can’t they just be allowed to attend school anyway?” he said, casting a look at the State Department of Social Welfare Director who was accompanying us on this trip.
There is a precedent for this we told the community group members, with some other villages being able to persuade the school headmaster to let children attend school without the uniform. We encouraged them to continue writing their letters and seek permission from local education authorities. The DSW made commitments to speak with their colleagues at the state level.
Kalaingkanaing survives primarily on the harvesting of bamboo products and traditional crafts, such as basket weaving. Much of their agricultural land has been lost and replaced with rubber tree plantations. These are the two primary forms of work that children engage in. These working children get up sometimes as early as 3 or 4 am in the morning to begin the long walk to the forested hills to cut and harvest bamboo. “We want to stop it and have been able to get a few children out of this work and into school; as a protective measure in the meantime, we ask that children go in groups to the forest to look after one another,” the chair of the CPG told us.
Support for the most vulnerable children
The CPG had made a list of the most vulnerable children in the village and were providing whatever support they could for them. They had tried on numerous occasions to get birth registration documentation for children in the village and were either told they had to pay varying amounts as bribes or were turned away all together. For those that had managed to register, none had actually received the registration document. The Chair of the CPG turned to the DSW Director as he concluded, with the Director saying that he would raise the issue with the Township Child Rights Committee and with other agencies in the government with a role to play in ensuring that children have access to this first and foremost right on which so many others depend.
“We’re all poor in this community, but we’re pooling our resources together to try and make a difference for the most vulnerable children here,” a female member of the CPG told us. She pointed out the funding that they had applied for and received from Save the Children’s Child Rights Governance programme to start raising pigs as an income generating project for their future activities.
It’s quite amazing what this community has been able to accomplish with so few resources at their disposal, I thought to myself as the CPG began to lay out their 5-point child protection action plan for the community. “We’ve been successful at changing people’s attitudes towards children,” they said. “Adults do not hit their children now and do not speak angrily towards them; abuse has almost disappeared from this area and we’re determined to ensure that children are not exploited.”
Save the Children stands with Kalaingkanaing and the hundreds of other communities in Myanmar fighting to protect the rights of children.