Building a protective environment for every child in Rakhine, Myanmar

A one and a half hour walk to attend English classes was a sacrifice worth making for 13 year-old Zu Ber. He lives in Ohn Taw Chay, a Muslim village located between two camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar.

He has been trapped there since sectarian violence rocked Rakhine State in 2012, dividing neighbouring villages against each other. Afterwards, Muslim and Rakhine communities were separated into different camps. With little freedom of movement out of the camps, Zu Ber and his family were left stranded.

Zu Ber didn’t have any other alternatives for learning after finishing Grade 5 in his village school, so English lessons were a long awaited dream. It didn’t last long though, as Zuber and three of his colleagues were kidnapped coming out of their second English lesson, two months ago.

“A man convinced us to go to the beach in his car. We were given something to smell and the first thing I could remember was waking up in an unknown place with my hands tied,” Zu Ber says, recalling a situation that often triggers child trafficking.

Soon afterwards, Zu Ber’s parents received a phone call from someone demanding 800,000 Kyats in ransom (roughly $800 US) for the release of the four boys – a high demand for these already poor families.

The community got together to collect the money so the boys could be released. “I was so afraid, but when I arrived back to the village, my parents ran to hug me, then the whole community came and I felt such a happiness,” says Zu Ber.

Happily for Zu Ber, he had another chance to learn. This June, with the beginning of a new school year, he decided to walk again for one and a half hours, but this time to attend Grade 5 at school.

“Three hours walking every day is a challenge but it will be worth it for my future,” he says.

Twice a week, Zu Ber also attends the Youth Centre in his village. “The adolescents also discuss discrimination and how to live together in peace,” explains Ma Thein Myint, the Youth Centre facilitator. “This training is a useful tool for Zu Ber and his friends, as they will become better adults and ready to build a peaceful society.”

Two special mothers


Win Than Tun, 15, lives in a camp for displaced Rakhine communities
© UNICEF Myanmar/2015/Myo Thame


Win Than Tun, 15, lives in a camp for Rakhine communities displaced by the 2012 violence, on the outskirts of Sittwe. He lives with his 68 year-old grandmother, after being abandoned by both parents.

“My mother married three times and her latest husband didn’t want me in the house”, he says sadly. “Since I was eight years old, I have been living with my grandmother and my aunt, who is deaf.”

His grandmother barely makes one dollar per day catching crabs, while his aunt might make 1.5 dollars on a lucky day for carrying bricks in construction sites. Win Than Tun had to drop out from school after Grade 3 because his grandmother couldn’t afford the school fees.

After moving to Sat Yoe Kya camp, Win Than Tun enrolled in non-formal primary education and, he says, “regained hope”. He also worked carrying bricks in construction sites and sold lottery results. “Although the lottery results are announced publicly, most people don’t hear them, so they pay to know the result,” he explains. “This was my favourite job: I earned more and it was easier work than carrying bricks.”

Luckily, Win Than Tun was helped by Su Su Khine, a case manager from Save the Children, which set up a child-friendly space in Sat Yoe Kya camp. She makes sure that Win Than Tun receives psychosocial support, vocational training and other learning opportunities.

Win Than Tun has just concluded a course on screen print t-shirts. “Two years ago, he could barely read or write. Now he has just won the first prize in the vocational training,” says Su Su Khine proudly. “He is very focused on everything he does. He never misses the classes. Whatever challenges he has, he is always present.”

“If I finish school I can be anything. Maybe a clerk, which is not a hard job”, Win Than Tun says. “I will help my grandmother, if she is still around”. He smiles as he speaks about his family: “I have two special mothers, they are everything to me: my grandmother and my aunt.”

UNICEF’s response


A group of boys play kick ups in front of a youth centre in Zu Ber’s village
© UNICEF Myanmar/2015/Myo Thame


UNICEF is working to ensure that all children in Rakhine State can develop to their full potential. To do this, we are working to tackle child poverty, promote development and children’s rights, and meet the humanitarian needs of displaced people.

In Rakhine State, UNICEF has been working with the Government to build a system to promptly identify and respond to child protection cases, namely through child-friendly police interventions and social work case management.

Besides training State police to better protect children, the children’s organisation is also working with the anti-trafficking task force in Rakhine to strengthen reporting of suspected cases and response.

“Every child has the same rights, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or legal status. To protect children from violence, exploitation and trafficking, they need to live in a safe and protective environment”, says Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF child protection chief. “We are working with adolescents to raise awareness and discussions around the risks of trafficking and migration so they have the knowledge and the skills to better protect themselves.”

In addition, child-friendly spaces and youth centres were established in Muslim and Rakhine camps to provide psychosocial support, recreational activities and vocational training for children like Zu Ber and Win Than.

The two boys live apart but share similar stories: both found safe places where they are protected from abuse, violence and exploitation. Similarly, the two boys have a shared hope for a brighter future.

“I want to be a teacher. I will be respected in society and called Master Zu Ber,” the 13-year-old say. “Otherwise, I want to be a social worker.”

“When I grow up I want to start my own family”, Win Than Tun says. “I imagine a future home with a father, mother, daughter and son, and a grandmother and grandfather,” he concludes.

The author
Mariana Palavra is Communication Specialist at UNICEF Myanmar

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