On a rainy afternoon in September, I had an opportunity to meet with a highly successful child protection group that Save the Children supports in Myanmar (Burma).
Led by a dynamic woman, the group has recently resolved 30 child protection cases – including 15 cases of underage recruitment of children into the military.
The child protection group I met is based in a ward of Hlaingthayar Township – an area of Yangon that attracts migrants from all over the country. They come to work in one of the many factories or take up construction work or other daily wage-earning jobs.
Hlaingthayar is rife with working children. It also has one of the highest rates of underage recruitment into the military in the country.
The child protection group here is an excellent example of our community-based approach to protecting children. The group frequently meets with township authorities to plan preventive measures and responses to address protection issues.
Three boys who had been recruited into the military joined us on this afternoon to tell us their stories. They were still under 18.
None had willingly joined.
It was really thanks to the tenacity of the child protection group – along with the children’s parents, Save the Children and the International Labour Organization – that these children were successfully released.
All three boys had been duped into meeting a ‘broker’ to discuss the potential of some part-time work opportunities. They were then taken to a couple of locations and eventually found themselves at a military recruitment centre.
The chances of gaining the quick release of children from the military are much greater in the first few days. After that recruits are sent to various training camps around the country. From there, they will be sent to other locations, sometimes even to the frontlines of fighting.
One of the children we spoke with had been sent to the frontline in one of Myanmar’s restive ethnic minority regions. He had witnessed and taken part in fighting.
The child protection group acted quickly in all three cases, discussing the issue with parents and local authorities, including school authorities, and referring the cases to the International Labour Organization through their complaints mechanism.
Together with parents, they travelled to recruitment centres and tried to discuss the children in question with recruitment centre officials and administrators.
In one particular case, it was only after several visits with school authorities that the child protection group was able to obtain a letter verifying that the boy had been attending school. This is required by recruitment centre officials in the absence of age verification or birth registration documents.
The child protection group offered suggestions for streamlining the process for release from recruitment centres.
Other child protection groups across the country who have intervened in cases of underage recruitment tell similar stories – that they are often asked to produce a litany of documentation and letters, which more often than not can delay the process.
On a policy level, Save the Children is a key member of Myanmar’s Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting. The task force is currently working on a joint plan of action with the government. This plan proposes more systematic regulations and requirements for recruitment centres – and for gaining the release of children who have been recruited.
Making an impact
While some underage recruitment of children continues, the efforts and presence of the child protection group has had a significant impact on reducing it.
“Brokers don’t dare operate within this ward any more, since they know that we monitor these things,” the chair of the group told us.
“Recruitment can only take place on the fringes of the community,” she said, “so we are working hard on community awareness raising and ensuring that both children and parents are aware of the risks and ways to keep themselves safe.”