Thursday, January 23, 2014

Universal Children’s Day 2013 – children call for peace across Myanmar


Anna Richardson works on advocacy, communication and partnerships at UNICEF Myanmar. She was Campaign Coordinator for the launch of ‘Peace not Violence: Joining Hands Across Myanmar’ under the leadership of Campaign Director Kirsten Sjolander with the support of members of the UNICEF Myanmar advocacy and communication and child protection teams including Media Coordinator Pa Pa Khin and Child Protection Officer Khin Thiri Win.

On Saturday 23 November 2013, I was lucky enough to be a part of a show of hands against violence in Myanmar. What made this experience unique was that these were children’s hands with children’s words of peace - words like “love”, “kindness”, “understanding”. Some messages even tapped into societal issues related to violence like inter-communal relations and alcohol abuse. The words – and the children themselves – sent a strong message of non-violence, the sea of hands a striking display.

The week of celebrations around Universal Children’s Day (20 November) this year, was the first time in Myanmar’s history that Myanmar children across the entire nation were invited to participate in telling us adults what they could do to bring about peace – peace within us, in our families, in our communities and across nations. For the first time, Myanmar’s children themselves got to talk about peace and non-violence – a hitherto considered issue too controversial to broach in Myanmar. And they did it in style, participating in performances, games and activities all centred around their rights - child rights.

This year in Myanmar, Universal Children’s Day celebrations included an activity where a child’s hand was traced and a message of peace and non-violence was written. Hands from all over Myanmar were then sent to Yangon to be installed in a national display – the children thereby coming together nationally and symbolically ‘joining hands across Myanmar’. Coordinating this was no easy feat. With materials being collected here in Yangon, dispersed to participating field offices and implementing partners, and then being sent (in some cases via jet plane) to Yangon in time for the main event. From Rakhine State to Kayin state, Mandalay in Shan State and from Tanintharyi, the hands from around Myanmar trickled in during the week into the Yangon central office.

I arrived early to work on the 23rd to an atmosphere of excitement. The Department of Social Welfare’s training school for boys, Kieke Wine, had already been set up for performances and activities to begin. I arrived with the task leading the setting up of the installation of the hands - around 2,500 hands in total. I’d been up late the night before, sticking hands on chop sticks with friends. I was lucky I had some real hands on hand to help out, not just the paper kind! On that exciting morning, children helped stick the hands in the ground, a different colour representing a different region across Myanmar. Many ethnic languages were included on hands including Myanmar translations. Planting the hands was like planting a rice paddy or a tulip field. It was hard work but so very worth it. The end result – a beautifully coloured display of messages of peace not violence. Even the Yangon Regional Minister for the Department of Social Welfare and the Representative for the UNICEF Myanmar Country Office were keen to come visit the sea the hands display before opening the day of fun-filled events and activities.

Opening remarks reflected the messages of non-violence and the need to protect children from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect at all times with dignitaries highlighting the need to end inter-communal violence and the lifelong damaging impact exposure to violence can have on children. Then began a series of exhilarating performances ranging from rights-based rap, to traditional dancing troupes, to a very talented singer and guitarist who happened also to be visually impaired. The most popular of all performers was a comedy group who made the entire audience laugh and clap along to their funny dance routine. The event also provided an opportunity for INGOs and CBOs to engage with celebrities and key figures in Myanmar on a number of Child Rights issues and concerns.

Lunch was served to all kids and then activities commenced with INGOs and CBOs including Terres des Hommes Lausanne, Save the Children, World Vision and others offering up drawing competitions, rights-based games and fun fair-type activities. Smiles were seen all round on the children’s faces. Children participating in the Yangon event included those from Department of Social Welfare training schools, groups of children supported by civil society organisations and children from a local disability-care facility also run by the Department of Social Welfare.

The event marked the beginning of a UNICEF-led campaign to end violence against children across Myanmar. This could not be more important and timely. Recent outbreaks of violence in Rakhine State between communities are a profound reminder of how damaging violence can be the social fabric and political and economic future of Myanmar – a future that should be all about Myanmar’s children. Children are the first to suffer from violence. Violence exists in many forms; physical, emotional, neglect and exploitation. Violence against children is a global problem and is experienced by children in all societies at all levels. Violence affects children’s physical and mental health, compromises their ability to learn and socialize, and undermines their development and ability to reach their full potential. Childhood and adolescence is a time of enormous growth and development and violence experienced during this time can have profound and damaging effects.

In Myanmar, inter-communal violence is only one form of violence that we know is happening. We also know that physical discipline measures are used - in families and in school environments - which are not only damaging for children but also far less effective than positive discipline. Violence in the form of exploitation also exists. You only need to walk down the street to witness children selling flowers among traffic. Myanmar is certainly not the only country where this takes place globally and it is true to say that Myanmar has taken huge steps recently to increase protection for children but as the United Nations CRC Committee recently (2012) identified, there is still much to be done. Yet it seems UNICEF’s ending violence against children campaign in Myanmar is off to a good start with Universal Children’s Day 2013 events sending a strong message of peace not violence – a message sent by the children of Myanmar themselves.

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