A stitch in time: Burma’s street children learn a trade
Sixteen-year-old Thanda* has spent much of her life living and working on the streets of Yangon, capital of Myanmar (also known as Rangoon, Burma). She is a a Burmese of ethnic Indian descent: a small, serious teenager in a blue polo shirt and traditional longyi skirt.
Thanda’s father is a manual labourer and her mother is a washer woman. She has seven siblings. When the family earns enough, they live in bamboo hut outside town. But other times they can’t afford the rent and have to live on the streets. “I used to pick up garbage with my brothers,” she told me when I met her at a drop-in centre for street children. “We would sell plastic bottles to junk shops for 2 to 4 dollars a day. I never went to school and I didn’t know how to look after my health.”
The work was dangerous – the children had to work long hours on busy roads, where they were at risk of injury, heatstroke, violence and abuse. But Thanda’s greatest fear was the local police, who treated the street children as criminals.
“When I was nine, the police arrested me one day for collecting garbage in a back street,” she recalled. “I was very scared. They took me to a faraway place and kept me there for 24 days, locked up with criminals and prostitutes. Eventually, my mother found out where I was and came to get me out. I never want to go through that experience again.”
As well as the fear, Thanda describes feeling a sense of shame. “It was as if I had committed a crime,” she continued. “But all I was doing was picking up garbage that other people threw away, to help support my family. I remember the look in people’s eyes. It was as if I was not a human being.”
I was in Myanmar to help the UNICEF office with their digital communications, including training staff in blogging and online video. I always try to include a visit to a real project in the training, to interview staff and children. In this case, we visited the drop-in centre run by Buddhist charity Ratana Metta Organization (RMO).
I left the UNICEF office in the morning with Khine Zar, Phyu, Sandar and Ye Lwin from the communications team. We drove through the suburbs of Yangon, past crumbling colonial villas that had been converted into apartment blocks. Rickshaws gathered at the street corners, the drivers lounging around and chatting, while manual labourers laid a new pavement, carrying heavy slabs of concrete in the harsh sunlight. An old man pushed a drinks stall down the road on wooden wheels, and a dozen young nuns in pink robes piled into the back of a lorry, carrying pots and pans.
The drop-in centre was in a relatively well-off district, alongside western restaurants and a car showroom. The sign outside said ‘health clinic’ in Burmese, but it was much more than that: a place where street children can come to learn, eat healthy food, get medical treatment and play in safety. The centre has also recently started vocational training for teenage girls, giving them a way to earn a living off the streets.
Just inside the centre, a group of teenage girls sat at sewing machines, either learning how to use the machines or making clothes and other products to order. Towards the back, younger children gathered around low wooden tables, learning to write and draw.
Sandar and I spoke to Thida Aye, who was in charge of the vocational training. She was a middle aged woman with a warm maternal attitude – as we spoke, several children came up to her and she gave them all a big hug. “We’ve been running this centre since 2005,” she told us. “It came to life because of UNICEF’s support. At first we didn’t have any technical skills or facilities. UNICEF provided training for our staff, and equipment for the centre. We’ve had over 400 children come through the centre since then, and we’re still in contact with around 200. Many of them have been to school, left the streets and now have dignified jobs.”
The centre is opposite a police station and, although attitudes have improved since Thada’s experience, street children still go missing. “There are three children missing at the moment and we’re very worried about them,” Thida Aye continues. “We tell all the kids to memorise our phone number so that they can call us if they get in trouble. I live upstairs so there is always someone here. Now the police contact us if street children are brought in. We go as surrogate parents and pick them up.”
UNICEF has also worked with the Yangon city government to improve conditions at the shelter where street children are taken by the police. Instead of being locked up in dirty cells with adults, as Thada was, there are now children-only rooms without bars and with running water.
Thida Aye says the centre started vocational training two months ago, in response to the particular dangers facing teenage girls on the streets. “Afterwards, they can either work here or at a Chinese-owned factory. If they stay here they can make things to sell at the pagoda and funfair, or they can take orders from outside.”
Thanda for one is grateful for the opportunity. “I really push myself hard to learn, even though I am not so clever,” she said. “I don’t want to go back on the streets. I’m not tough like some of my friends are. It is much safer for me here and now I can earn a living.”
A place like home
After talking to Thanda and Thida Aye, I spent some time taking photos and playing with the younger children. They were obviously happy to have positive adult attention. One boy, thirteen-year-old Mg Mg*, smiled broadly and fooled around whenever I looked in his direction. He was fascinated by my camera and I showed him how to take pictures of his friends and teacher. He was wearing a school uniform, and is the first member of his family to go to school. “I like coming here study, play games and watch cartoons,” he told us. “My favourite cartoon is Mighty Mouse.”
Another boy, 14-year-old Eung Min*, showed me a picture of Jackie Chan, taken when he met some of the children from the centre during a UNICEF visit in July. I worked on the visit, managing the social media side from Bangkok, so I was pleased to see that it had had a positive impact on the children. Jackie was abandoned as a child at a temple, and the children were inspired by his story. “He was bigger than he looks in the movies,” Eung Min said. “I could tell just by looking at him that he was a nice person.”
Compared to other street children centres I’ve been to, the Yangon centre had a cosy, family atmosphere. This was perhaps partly because Thida Aye lives upstairs with her three grown-up daughters. I had fun playing with the kids and was sorry to leave.
That evening, I noticed three girls selling flowers to motorists outside my hotel. It was a busy, eight-lane road and I was a bit nervous myself crossing it by foot. The children weaved in and out of the traffic in the dark, with only car headlights to help them avoid the potholes. Other children slept on a patch of grass in the middle of the road, breathing in the exhaust of passing trucks. I wondered if they even knew there was an alternative.
To find out more, visit the UNICEF Myanmar website »
*Names have been changed to protect the children’s identities.
Andy Brown is digital communications consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific