It has been a year since I first met Win Win in the teashop where he works in Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon. Surprised and delighted that I actually kept my promise to visit him again, he muttered shyly in English, “How are you?” as he served me a cup of tea.
“I am fine. I see your English has improved a lot!” I replied.
He beamed a broad smile.
“Have you been home to see your family?” I asked casually. “Has your mother visited you here in Yangon these past months?”
He lowered his gaze. I realized I had touched a raw nerve as he turned away and tried hard to choke back tears. The sense of loneliness and feeling of abandonment was too much for this 11-year-old to bear. It had been a long time since he last saw his mother and three siblings.
Win Win comes from a poor rural village in the Irrawaddy Delta area. He remembers his excitement as he took his first bus ride out of the village to Yangon with his uncle, unaware of the fate that awaited him. Soon he was working more than 14 hours a day in a teashop patronized mainly by chain-smoking men, serving tables, sweeping the floor, and washing dishes, sleeping on the tables just four hours a day. He has no idea how much he is paid; his uncle brokered a deal with the teashop owner, and his mother (or perhaps his uncle) took an advance of a year’s pay from his employer.
Win Win is one of 1.7 million children in Myanmar aged 10–17 who should be in school but are sent to work to support their families. That is about one in every five children in that age group, according to a 2014 census on employment.*
In 1951, a law was passed prohibiting children under the age of 13 from working in shops and factories. It also forbids children in the 13–15 age group from working more than four hours a day. In December 2013, Myanmar’s parliament ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.
Despite these steps, Myanmar has one of the highest incidences of child labor in the world. Myanmar ranks 7th on the Child Labour Index of countries posing an “extreme risk” with widespread abuse of child workers, headed by Bangladesh, Chad, DR Congo, Ethiopia, India, and Liberia.**
“A tangle of labor laws does not ban children from work”, said Piyamal Pichaiwongse, deputy liaison officer of the International Labour Organisation in Yangon. “There is nothing clear on the age at which you can start work, and the laws are not applied.”***
But the issue is more than just poor law enforcement. The rampant child labor reflects the dark side of Myanmar’s rapid economic development, which is fueling demand for cheap labor in every sector. In some rural villages, there are hardly any young people left as most have been sent to work in the cities. Despite the much-lauded economic progress and political transformation, poverty remains widespread, schools and hospitals are dysfunctional, and much of the population is uneducated and vulnerable. Often, it’s the children who are the worst affected.
Tim Aye Hardy, founder of myME, the Myanmar Mobile Education Project, explains: “The problem is that in this society, child labor is socially and culturally accepted. Everywhere in the country, there are children working in every sector. Sadly, many people take advantage of the children’s trust and vulnerability. Sometimes it’s actually their parents and relatives, who, out of total desperation, ‘give’ their children over to work as indentured servants. Most people don’t even see it as child labor.”
This nonchalance is reflected in the perspective of a teashop owner: “We do not physically abuse or torture these children. It is sheer bad luck that these children are born into poor families and need to work.”
A strong human rights advocate, Tim was a key activist in Myanmar’s 1988 revolution. Following the military crackdown, he managed to evade several arrest attempts by seeking refuge in a monastery and ordaining as a novice monk. Together with a group of monks going on retreat, he left for the US, where he stayed for 25 years. In 2014, Tim returned to a more prosperous Myanmar. Alongside the expensive restaurants and high-end hotels, Tim was disturbed by the sight of the many young children working in teashops across the city.
“This is modern-day slavery. Many of the children work for more than 16 hours daily, seven days per week. At night they sleep on the tables or floors of the shops,” Tim observes. “Their meager earnings of US$25–30 per month are sent back to their families in the countryside. Sometimes employers and customers abuse the children. Deprived of their childhoods, these children lack any basic education, decent healthcare, or adequate, nutritious food. With no family or community support, these children are very vulnerable and easily exploited.”
Tim estimates that there are about 3.7 million children aged 5–16 who are not attending school and missing out on an education that could help them find good jobs and employment security when they grow up.
“A generation is being sacrificed because of poverty,” Tim states. “What kind of jobs will they get? What kind of future is open for them and for the country?”
It’s a vicious cycle of poverty.
In 2014, banding together with a small group of people in New York and Myanmar who share the conviction that every child has the right to access quality education, no matter their circumstances, Tim founded myME, an innovative mobile education project that brings the classroom directly to the teashops where the children work and live. Working with a team of local teachers and coordinators who are uniquely sensitive to the needs of the working children, myMe’s classes are offered after closing hours.
The project started by converting old school buses into equipped classrooms. As night falls, the myME school buses roll out of their depot in Tamwe to different parts of the city. They park at strategic locations to maximize participation by children from teashops in each area.
From a pilot project run with one bus and 60 kids in two teashops, myMe has expanded to more than 60 staff and five mobile classroom buses serving 3,000 child workers and 53 teashops. These days, the buses are used mainly for the most elementary classes and to bring the teachers, teaching assistants, volunteers, and supplies to each teashop for the day’s class. As more and more children come on board, some of the teashops are also converted into classrooms after closing hours.
Each child spends a minimum of two hours in the evening every other day at the myME classes. In addition to a basic education curriculum that covers literacy and numeracy, the children also learn to use the Internet on tablets in the buses, which are wired up for connectivity. As myME’s approach to learning emphasizes critical thinking and encourages creativity, enrichment programs and skills training are added at the higher levels. There is also an ongoing program that brings in volunteers from around the world to speak to students about life in their countries.
To date, more than 10,000 children, not only from the teashops, but also other roadside restaurants, monastic schools, and underprivileged communities in Yangon, Mandalay, and six other townships, have benefited from the program.
myME is currently working with other NGOs and the Ministry of Education to develop a more extensive curriculum for alternative education and to chart new learning pathways that will open more opportunities for these children. The aim is to provide the knowledge and skills that will enable them to enter the community better educated, and with increased financial potential, which will benefit not only the children and their families, but also their communities as a whole. With more skills and confidence, some have been able to move out of the teashops to better paid jobs such as in hotels and boutiques.
While education is a critical step toward alleviating poverty and the abuses associated with child labor, Tim also recognizes that that for many of these children, their income is critical to the survival of their families. A strict clampdown on child labor could drive it underground, which would in turn expose the children to greater risks.
With myME’s innovative solutions, the children can receive quality education while continuing to work to support their families. More than that, the children also have a caring and encouraging environment to help them stay motivated, to overcome their current difficulties, and to achieve their full potential with the hope of a better future.
And for children like Win Win, who bear deep emotional and psychological scars from having been robbed of their rights, those few hours in a myMe bus are a time to escape the drudgery of the long working day, to make friends, to bond, and to be a child again.
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