Wednesday, October 19, 2016

They are all children playing together without fighting

By Mariana Palavra

Maungdaw, Rakhine State - Saw Myat Thu failed the matriculation exam twice and that made her discover a new passion. Willing to help her family, she became an assistant teacher at an Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre implemented by the NGO Community and Family Services International (CFSI) in Maungdaw, Rakhine State. She was 20 years old and she loved it.

©UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Mariana Palavra
“I used to read poems to children, sing songs, help them drawing and painting, tell them stories, teach how to wash hands and  brush teeth”, she recalls. “I loved taking care of children. There was a great environment and I was happy.”

Saw Myat Thu did this twice, during 2014 and 2015, first with Buddhist children and then with a mixed class attended by Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. “There wasn’t any difference between those two experiences”, she assures. “It was a similar environment, it was the same dynamic. They are all children playing together with no fighting”.

Now, two years after the first teaching experience, and after a year of helping her mother selling fruit, Say Myat Thu will soon work with children again. She was one of the first assistant facilitators recruited to work in the Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) formed by CFSI, in a project supported by UNICEF thanks to ECHO’s financial assistance.

Within this new project, Saw Myat Thu and other facilitators received specific training, which included life skills, HIV prevention, risks faced by adolescents, and training of trainers to help build the capacity of the community. 

Now at age 22, Saw Myat Thu is ready to work with any community. “The religion of the communities I am working with, doesn’t make any difference to me. Whatever group I am given, I will be happy”, she affirms convincingly.  “I have experience of working with young children, so now I feel ready to work with adolescents from different communities and cultures”.

Strong partnership

UNICEF and CFSI, with ECHO financial support, are working together to strengthen the protection of children in three townships of northern part of the Rakhine State- Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.

“The main child protection concerns in northern part of Rakhine stem from poverty, discrimination and inter-communal conflict”, explains Aaron Greenberg, Child Protection Chief at UNICEF Myanmar.  The area is also prone to natural disasters, as the 2015 cyclone Komen proved when it affected 15% of the total population in these three townships.

“Children still feel the effects of inter communal tensions and dedicated support is still very much needed to facilitate resilience within individuals, families and communities in order to restore social cohesion. Adolescents have limited access to youth services leading to negative coping mechanisms including early child marriage, child labour and risky migration leading to conflict with the law”, adds Aaron Greenberg.

This partnership aims to prevent the abuse, exploitation and neglect of all children living in these townships by establishing strong community-based child protection mechanisms and public awareness.

“We are working to Increase the role of communities, including women leaders, in identifying protection concerns and implementing child protection responses, as well as to provide case management services to child survivors of abuse, exploitation and neglect” , explains May Tan, CFSI project coordinator. In addition, safe spaces that provide physical, psychosocial, and cognitive protection to children, including offering essential life-skills to boys and girls, have been established.

More than 140,000 people directly or indirectly benefit from this one-year project, including children and their respective families, CFS volunteers, language teachers, social workers, members of child protection groups, and community leaders.

The activities will be inclusive of the affected populations across the community divides – and will focus particularly on the vulnerable - those girls and boys affected by conflict, the floods, migration and trafficking.  “Efforts are being made to bring the communities together, and to focus on programmes in mixed villages where boys and girls across community divides can jointly benefit”, says UNICEF Chief of Child Protection.

Community forum

Ebrahim could not even attend the matriculation exam. Due to lack of documents and restriction of movement, he doesn’t even dream about going to college one day. Nevertheless, he is trying to teach his community. He is a volunteer teacher in a post-primary school in Phar Wet Chaung village, where he receives 30,000 kyats (less than USD 30) per month. That’s all he has to support his mother and six siblings. “As the oldest, I have a big responsibility. I need to take care of the family and send some of the brothers to school”, he explains proudly.

Since Ebrahim was a member of the child protection group from his community, he was chosen to participate in the village’s forum, organised by CFSI. He is one of the 15 participants, which includes community and religious leaders, youth, children and single mothers.   

During the forum, the participants identified the most significant child protection issues affecting their community, particularly the impact on children of the inter-communal violence, child trafficking, sexual abuse, parents neglect and children’s vulnerability to migration. 

©UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Mariana Palavra
“As a teacher, I am in a privileged position as I can make a difference by identifying child protection issues and trying to find solutions, together with other community members”, Ebrahim says. “Every day, I encourage children to come to school, create a happy environment for them, and provide health and hygiene awareness activities”.

According to the village leaders, since these child protection mechanisms started to be implemented, a few things have already changed in some communities, namely an increase in the participation of children and a decrease in cases of corporal punishment.

Live in Peace 

Despite all the challenges, Ebrahim believes the future will be brighter for all children in Rakhine. “I wish that all children can go to school” he says. “I hope I have enough money to build a school and provide quality education. For those who cannot go to school for some reason- lack of documents or being over the admission age- I will hire a private teacher”, he promises. 

Saw Myat Thu will be placed in a mixed Child Friendly Space of adolescents from different religious backgrounds. “Children between 3 and 5 don’t look at each other differently, but adolescents may be already influenced by society. So, we need to focus more on peace messages so that adolescents can contribute to peace building”, she explains. “Wouldn’t it be so good if we could all live in peace?”


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