Children, not tourist attractions: keeping families together in Myanmar

Every twenty minutes, a busy ferry crosses the river from downtown Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, to the rural village of Dala on the opposite bank. On a recent morning, the ferry was packed with local commuters wearing Burmese ‘longyi’ skirts, vendors selling speckled eggs and cigarettes, and a handful of adventurous tourists.

As soon as I disembarked at Dala pier, I was approached by a thick-set young man with a pony tail and baseball cap. He introduced himself as Meh Meh, 28, and offered me a tour of the area by rickshaw. “What’s your name, where you from, you want trishaw tour?” he asked. “I take you to pagoda, fishing village, Cyclone village,orphanage. 15,000 Kyats.”

An hour later we were outside a monastery complex with an orphanage and school. There was a beautiful, gold-roofed temple building across a lake of lilies. Next door, children were running around a school yard. Meh Meh started to walk into the school. “Are you sure it’s OK?” I asked. “Yes yes, you go in,” he replied, gesturing. “You take pictures of the children, no problem. All these children are orphans – no mother, no father.”

Other visitors report being forced to make a donation to the orphanage. On this day, it was a different approach. I had already been strong-armed into buyinga sack of rice, supposedly for “the victims of Cyclone Nargis”, which hit Dala 8 years ago. So the school visit was brief and I wasn’t asked for a donation. Nonetheless, it was a disturbing experience, and there were no checks on who I was or what I wanted to do with the children.

Meh Meh watches children at the monastery orphanage school
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Andy BrownMeh Meh watches children at the monastery orphanage school

What is orphanage tourism?

Orphanage tourism is on the rise in Myanmar, with potentially devastating consequences for vulnerable children. In nearby Cambodia, it is very common for tourists to visit orphanages as part of sightseeing tours or volunteering projects. Tourists usually believe they are doing a good thing, but in fact they are inadvertently contributing to a situation that pushes more children into institutions.

In Cambodia, private orphanages are often run as money-making ventures. They recruit children from poor families, promising them a better life and sometimes offering money. But instead of going to school, these children are forced to perform shows for tourists. They are deliberately kept in poor conditions, in order to encourage higher donations. Most worrying of all, visitors are offered alone time with children, leading in some cases to sexual abuse.

There is a better way. In both Myanmar and Cambodia, UNICEF is working with the government and NGOs to reintegrate children living in institutions with their families. There is plenty of evidence that a family home is better for children than an orphanage. Even in the better institutions, there are dozens of children per staff member, so they don’t get the one-on-one attention they need for their mental and physical development.

“Globally, most of the children living in institutions are not orphans,” explains Aaron Greenberg, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Myanmar. “Around 80 percent have at least one parent still living. And institutions are expensive – they cost around six times as much as family care. That money could be much better spent supporting families to take care of their own children.”

South-south cooperation

Kyaw Lin Htin was one of four Myanmar government officials to visit Cambodia
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Andy BrownKyaw Lin Htin was one of four Myanmar government officials to visit Cambodia

Another way to address these issues is through ‘south-south cooperation’. UNICEF believes that the best solutions often come from countries that have experienced, and tackled, the same problem. With this in mind, in 2014 UNICEF organised for senior members of the Myanmar government, including the Deputy Minister for Social Welfare and Development, to visit Cambodia.

“The lightbulb moment came when we went to see a private orphanage in Cambodia,” Aaron recalls. “The orphanage staff paraded the kids in front of us, expecting to collect money. We asked for alone time with some children, and they said ‘yes, no problem’. The Deputy Minister got it immediately – he said ‘we have to stop this happening in Myanmar’.”

There was a concrete outcome from the visit. When the delegation returned to Myanmar, the Deputy Minister went to see the Vice President, and soon afterwards the government issued a temporary moratorium on registering new orphanages in Myanmar. In September 2015, Cambodia issued a similar moratorium.

“The Cambodian trip was very fruitful for us,” Kyaw Lin Htin, Deputy Director of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, says. “We liked the field visits most of all. We could learn about the real situation of child protection in Cambodia. Specifically children’s homes, family-based alternative programs, and the child protection measures taken by the Cambodian government.”

On 7-9 November 2016, governments from across the Asia-Pacific region will meet in Malaysia to discuss further south-south cooperation in a range of areas including child protection, social welfare and universal healthcare.

Family based care

AkarPhyo, 14, (right) was reunited with his family after living in an orphanage for a year
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Andy BrownAkarPhyo, 14, (right) was reunited with his family after living in an orphanage for a year

With the help of a well-trained social worker, there is usually a good family option to be found for every child. If a child cannot be cared for by a biological parent, the next best option is safe extended family, followed by supported foster care. An example of this is Akar Phyo, 14, who was reunited with his extended family after living for a year at Thanlyn Boys’ Training School, a government-run institution that is not involved in orphanage tourism.

Akar has never had a stable home. When he was two years old, his father leftto join the army. His mother went away to look for work and never returned. After that, he lived with his maternal grandmother, Daw Ohn Myint. “I used to sell toys with my grandmother,” Akar remembers. “I really enjoyed it. I was happy there.”

When he was 12, Akar went to stay with his paternal grandmother so he could attend school. But he was not happy living there. One day he stole his grandmother’s purse and phone and set off on his own to try to find Ohn Myint. When he got to her village, he found she had moved so he returned home. His grandmother was very angry. As punishment for stealing, she sent him to live atthe Boys Training School.

“My grandmother said I needed to be disciplined,” Akar says. “I had no choice. I didn’t like it at the Training School. The teachers kept me in a building and I wasn’t allowed outside until they could trust me not to run away. The other boys bullied me because I was new.”

After a year living at the Training School, Terre des Hommes helped reunite Akar with Ohn Myint. The NGO does ‘family tracing’ to help find the relatives of children in institutions. They discovered that Ohn Myint had moved to Hlaing Tha Yartownship, Yangon.

As soon as she heard what had happened, Ohn Myint came to visit Akar. Soon afterwards, she took him home with her. “I was very angry with his other grandmother for sending him away,” she says. “Yes, he did something wrong by stealing, but this is not the right way to deal with it.”

Akar Phyo is very happy to be back home with Ohn Myint. Terre des Hommes provided the family with a pig for income support, and he is attending the local school. “Of all the places I’ve lived this is my favourite,” Akar says. “I’m happy here. I have cousins around my age living nearby. I go to school and have lots of friends. There is a soccer field and I like to play football. I’m a goalkeeper.”

Akarpumps water from a standpipe outside his family home
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Andy BrownAkarpumps water from a standpipe outside his family home

Moving forward

For UNICEF, the next stage is working with the new Myanmar government to build on the moratorium on new orphanages with measures to prevent exploitation of children in existing institutions. UNICEF is also establishing a partnership with the tourism industry, including hotels and tour guides, to raise awareness of orphanage tourism and promote alternatives for tourists who want to help.

In many ways, Myanmar today is at a crossroads. “This is about prevention,” says Aaron Greenberg. “We have an opportunity right now to get this right and build a better child protection system. Global experience shows us that once orphanage tourism and institutionalisation of children gets firmly established, it can take 20 to 30 years to undo.”

For more stories about South-South Cooperation, and to learn about the upcoming ‘Billion Brains’ meeting in Malaysia, visit: http://billion-brains.org/

The author

Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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