By Mariana Palavra
Nay Pyi Taw, 19 May 2016- Ma Kai Ja was at school when fighting broke out in her village, in Kachin State. She was evacuated to a hostel used as a shelter. She was 16 years and she stayed there alone for two months, far away from her parents.
©UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Myo Thame
“I was told that my parents were alive, but I was so scared, I thought I would never see them again”, Ma Kai Ja recalled with a tear in her eye. “When I finally moved from the hostel to a camp and was reunited with my parents I was so crazily happy that I couldn’t hold back my tears”.
Since October 2013, Ma Kai Ja, now 19 years old, has been living with her parents in Mai Khawg KBC camp, in Mansi Township, Kachin State. Last year, she joined the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) camp activities as a youth leader. “I help teenagers to share their experiences and knowledge and to engage in the community and camps’ activities”, she explained. “Not only do we discuss the lack of recreational spaces and hygiene habits, but we also get down to work and clean up the camp on a regular basis and organise participative events.”
One year later, Ma Kai Ja already sees the fruits of this youth initiative. “Even the naughty children behave much better. They know how to listen, how to participate in an effective way, and even their hygiene behaviours have changed”, she confirmed. “More and more, they don’t focus on superfluous things, but on things that can improve their community and their lives”
The younger boys and girls were not the only ones touched by these weekly meetings. “I have changed as well”, recognised Ma Kai Ja. “I have learned good lessons and experiences from my group. I feel I became a better person.”
Because of her work as a youth leader, Ma Kai Ja was one of the 400 participants attending the first ever Adolescents Conference, organised by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, and supported by UNICEF and ActionAid.
The event, funded by the Australian National Committee for UNICEF, was an opportunity to discuss the range of issues faced by a diverse group of adolescents from across the country. This discussion resulted in a list of recommendations, which aim to guide the government and parliamentarians involved in the drafting of the national youth policy, which is a key component of the new Government’s 100 day plan.
“This first ever national conference made by and for adolescents, is the best way to hear directly from this creative, energetic and resourceful group, without any filter, about their concerns, their fears, their hopes and their dreams”, said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF Representative to Myanmar. “Adolescent girls and boys hold the key to Myanmar’s sustainable development. We need to address their rights today and invest in relevant policies, programmes and services so that they can be the next generation to carry on Myanmar’s development”.
©UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Myo Thame
The adolescents exchanged their experiences of carrying out social and civic engagement activities in their communities, placing a strong emphasis on inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups, such as adolescents with disabilities, as well as their contribution to building peace and strengthening the country’s unity. Drugs, education, human rights and gender equity, as well as employment opportunities and health were some of the themes that were discussed that affect almost 10 million adolescents in Myanmar.
At the end of the two-day initiative, a significant number of recommendations were presented by the participants to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, parliamentarians, national and international organisations, and donors who attended the conference:
- Sexual education should be provided at schools, which should also have space for sports, healthy food, clean water and sanitation facilities.
- Adolescents need to access technical and vocational education and training, which will be useful to increase their job opportunities and prevent them from being exploited at work.
- Education on environment protection and disaster risk reduction should be provided to adolescents, who should also access timely assistance when affected by a disaster.
- Help centres should be established where adolescents can report cases of violence, exploitation and abuse.
- To prevent drug abuse among adolescents, education should be provided at schools and communities, sports and other recreational activities created, laws reinforced, and livelihood alternatives provided to opium farmers.
- Adolescents encourage the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups to build peace, to reconstruct damaged roads and bridges, to remove landmines, to provide health care services, and rehabilitate and develop conflict-affected areas.
“This conference was an opportunity to spread a strong message on ending the war and building peace”, affirmed Ma Kai Ja. “Whilst we wait for that, education cannot stop even if there is a conflict. Children and Adolescents have to go to school, as education is important and can make a difference in our country’s future.”