Myanmar: art that empowers Posted January 17, 2017

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Neglected, emotionally and physically abused, many children in Myanmar are forced to flee their homes hoping for a better life ahead. However, their paths are not easy nor without challenges, quite the contrary.

With no family to look after them, children on the move struggle every day to survive, wandering the streets of big cities, begging for money and scavenging for food. They are often exposed to trafficking, child labour and all kinds of violence.

At the margins of society, they are deprived of a healthy childhood: they are denied education, safety and the most basic rights. Yet, these children are not only survivors, they hold the full capacity to contribute to society and be agents for change. Giving them a chance to address the issues they went through can be very significant, as it can empower them to play an active role in changing their own future.

In 2015, TDH Italy and TDH Lausanne undertook a research study in Yangon and Mandalay, two of Myanmar’s largest cities. The study, part of the Destination Unknown Campaign, involved children that had experience with migration and were under the care and custody of government-run facilities known as “Training Schools”. The aim of the study was to further investigate the main reasons that forces children to leave their homes and move to unknown places, as well as to identify the difficulties they face during their journey.

Over six days, therapeutic activities were carefully carried out by prepared staff. Through child-friendly tools, activities and games, 51 children, from 12 to 18 years old, were allowed to express themselves and document their stories. They illustrated their journey using creativity while exploring their thoughts, feelings and memories related to the various aspects of being on the move.

Daily life for these children was one of extreme deprivation. The study found that before reaching their final destination their main issues were related to finding a safe shelter, having access to food and medical treatment. They travelled long distances within the country, mainly by foot and, not rarely, had to sleep in railway stations, markets and street corners.

Data included in the report revealed that almost 60% of the interviewed children started their journey alone. This alarming percentage of unaccompanied minors means that from the beginning they were without support and therefore at great potential risk.

“When I was hungry but had no money I had to live without food. If I was terribly hungry, I stole food from others” (boy, aged 15)

While on the move, they were often exposed to heavy labour, trafficking and abuse, including torture and rape. As the report pointed out, many times children were engaged in jobs that were physically, mentally and socially harmful, and made it impossible for them to attend school. Additionally, children living on the streets are also exposed to, and sometimes involved in, gang violence and substance abuse.

“My sister brought me from Pakkoku to Hlaing Thara to sell me. One day, she died and I was handed over from one home to another, for adoption. The last adopted family sold me to work as a maid in a house. I was tortured and ran away to free myself from being sold to another home again” (girl, aged 17).

The survey revealed that unstable parental marriages, poverty, low education, lack of care and love or few opportunities for families are the main reasons that force children to move away from their homes. They often experienced cruel or physical punishment, abuse and domestic violence and felt they had no other option but to escape.

As part of the study research, the same group of youth was asked to reflect on their migration experience and provide some recommendations on the difficulties they went through. As a result, aiming at stakeholders, including other children, parents, police officers and monasteries, the following general key points were raised during the study:

“Send children back to parent if they have parents, if they have no parents send to homes/shelters that could care for children”;

“Find jobs for children so they don’t have to steal, help younger children attend school and help older children with vocational training”;

“Educate other children and parents about trafficking”;

“Awareness training to the young kids about how bad the street life is”;

“Provide education and food for street children”.

Safeguarding vulnerable children and promoting their welfare also means being able to listen to them. By sharing their truths, they can influence future policies and help shape support programmes to assist other children on the move.

The significance of this small sample study relies on the fact that the information on internal migration is limited and therefore it can further contribute to building bridges of understanding and opening doors to future studies. At the same time, it managed to identify future directions to provide children on the move with more support according to the main challenges they have to face.

Children’s voices matter. Listen what they have to say, read the full report here

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