Efforts underway to help street kids
Myanmar’s government has not been blind to the issue. But the steps taken appear to be as much about removing an “unsightly problem” off the streets as dealing with the underlying problem of providing a robust avenue for improving their lives.
Wah Wah loves fashion. “I want to be a designer. I love beautiful clothes. I want to learn how to sew them,” says Wah Wah, a street kid who sells flowers in Yangon. She looks younger than her 13 years, a skinny girl with a bright smile. Wah Wah has a morning routine with her mother and she has never been to school. “I have to get up very early to follow my mother to collect flowers and I get back home very late at night,” she said. There is a non-formal primary school run by an NGO near her house – aimed at helping educate poor children who live outside of the formal education system – but she has no time to go there as she is on the streets day and night. Wah Wah gets little to eat. But she perks up when talking of her dream. Street kids. The term has a bad vibe about it. There are plenty of street kids all over Yangon and they usually move in groups selling flowers, begging for money or collecting cans. There appears to be public misunderstanding about these young children that live outside of the system. There are two kinds of street kids. One kind of street kids just eats and sleep on the street since they have no family or their whole family lives on the street.
The other kind of street kids are from families that live in slum areas and they work on the street all day or night but they have a place to live. But both categories of street kids have one thing in common – they have no future, not in any sense that is meaningful.
Myanmar’s government has not been blind to the issue. But the steps taken appear to be as much about removing an “unsightly problem” off the streets as dealing with the underlying problem of providing a robust avenue for improving their lives. During the new government’s initial 100 Days Plan in 2016, the street kids were not forgotten and the government planned to provide large care centers. Many street kids were rounded up and sent to the care centres during the 100 days plan period but many of them took shelter at the centres but then left because they did not want to live there. On a superficial level, the result of the street clean-up was that there appeared to be fewer kids on the street. The reality was that many went into hiding so that they would not be caught by the police.
Some NGOs approach the street kids in order to provide education while some NGOs like Linkage provide vocational training for them to be able to work with dignity in the future. Linkage was founded in 2011 with the assistance of the French Government’s Human Rights prize won in 2010. The main objective of Linkage is to build the capacity of children and youth living in poverty, through vocational training in the culinary field and to provide better education access. “We started the restaurant with five street kids and we trained them how to cook and provide service,” said Ma Khin Hnit Thit Oo, the founder of Linkage. The restaurant is now struggling due to lack of funding but Ma Khin Hnit
Some NGOs approach the street kids in order to provide education while some NGOs like Linkage provide vocational training for them to be able to work with dignity in the future.
the restaurant and continue providing practical skills and training. Linkage restaurant and art gallery is not only a restaurant but also a training centre for the street kids. Now linkage provides a one and half year long training for 10 street kids and they also send some of those kids who still want to study to school. “Some of the kids who finished our training are now working in restaurants with good pay,” said Ma Khin Hnit Thit Oo joyfully. However, some kids left during the training to work on the street again in order to support their families. Some of the kids that Linkage sent to school also left school to work. “Their parents prefer to let their children work,” she said, “because they think studying is a waste of time, so they’d rather let their kids earn money.”
THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM
Department of Alternative Education from the Ministry of Education is now drawing up a policy plan and strategies for the kids out of school, preparing for the 2018-2019 year. On a national level, it’s a big challenge. “Four and half million kids are out of school including the street kids. They are our target to provide education and vocational training,” said Tim Aye Hardy, Executive Director of Myanmar Mobile Education Project (Myme). However, even though programmes like Non-Formal Primary Education activities (NFPE) provided by UNICEF exist, many of the street kids fail to enter a classroom. This means that just focusing on the children is not an effective way to provide a better future for them. The heart of the problem is family poverty. When we looked into the background of the street kids, many of them are the main supporters of their families. Even though the education is provided for free for them, they have no time to go to school because they need to work. Most of the street kids are from slum areas and their parents believe that education is unnecessary for their children.
‘EDUCATING’ THE PARENTS
Both the kids and the parents or guardians fail to see any practical advantage in spending hours sitting at a school desk. “If our children don’t work, we won’t have enough food to eat,” said Daw Win Win Maw. Daw Win Win Maw lives in a slum area located in Dala Township and she has two children. Her kids used to work on the street but now she only lets them work in the morning and sends them to NFPE to study after
she was persuaded by an NGO called Junior Dreams. Junior Dreams not only teaches the children but also educates the parents how important it is for their children to receive an education. The founder of Junior Dreams, Ma Eaindray thinks that just providing free education will not be enough to lure street kids into the classrooms. “The reason why they need to work on the street is because their families are struggling in poverty. Without helping and supporting their families, those kids will not be able to go to school,” said Ma Eaindray. Ma Eaindray and her colleagues try to persuade and educate the parents of the street kids to send them to school and some of the parents decided to send their kids to school, but many parents refuse. “Some parents sent their children to school for a few weeks but later they stop sending them to school, and their kids return to work on the street again,” she said. “Our organization is so small and we don’t have any funding. So we could not contribute any financial support to those families, then those kids remain on the street again,” said Ma Eaindray.
GETTING PARENTS ONBOARD
Overall, if the government or any of the NGOs cannot interact directly with the parents of the street kids, there will be no certain future for those children. Planning and drawing policy without reaching to tackle the crux of the problem will fail to get kids off the street. Few would argue against the idea that every child deserves to receive education and work with dignity. Thirteen-year-old Wah Wah understands this, dreaming of a better life for herself. There are many other kids like her but their dreams are still far from becoming true since they are helping their families to fight poverty. The bottom-line for Wah Wah is helping support her family. Unless her family has some financial security, she sees little chance to pursue her dream.
Children beg on a pavement in Yangon. Photo: Mizzima
Girls attend non-formal education classes in Yangon. Photo: Pan Pwint
Ma Khin Hnit Thit Oo of Linkage. Photo: Pan Pwint Taking studying seriously. Photo: Pan Pwint