07 Nov 2017
By Macarena Aguilar
Myanmar’s 2014 census found that 20 percent of the country’s school age children are out of school, with Kayin and other conflict affected States topping the list.
Many of these children choose to work. Others are driven by poverty to help their families make ends meet. Too many end up in hazardous work settings. Today, child labour is widespread across Myanmar with some 1.2 million children aged 5-17 currently working.
Thirteen year old Arkar Soe is one them.
He wakes up at the crack of dawn to be on time for his job at one of the busiest markets in Kawkareik Township in Kayin State. There, his day flies loading and unloading trucks of produce, waste or construction material.
He works seven days per week, barely making 3.000 kyats per day.
Like many in this south-eastern region, Arkar Soe’s parents and siblings emigrated to neighbouring Thailand years ago. He stayed behind to care for his grandmother.
“Some days the load is heavy and I end up very tired,” says Arkar Soe. “On very busy days I can’t make it to evening school or I get there too late.”
A UNICEF supported Non-Formal Education programme tailored to children who have dropped out of the formal primary education system due to conflict, migration or poverty could be Arkar Soe’s only chance to turn the tide. The two-year bridge programme aims to bring 10 to 15 year olds back into the mainstream secondary education system by helping them to complete their primary schooling.
“For far too many around here, this is their second chance and possibly their only path to ever completing school,” says Thet Naing, UNICEF’s Education Officer for Kayin and Mon, who had been supporting the implementation of this programme for the past decade before handing it over to the Department of Alternative Education earlier this year.
Kyone Doe Middle School in Kawkareik township is one of the schools hosting this programme. Located right beside the market it targets children who, like Arkar Soe, have little choice but to spend their day working there.
“I know some of the other kids from the market so when I can’t make it to class I copy their notes,” says Arkar with a wisdom beyond his years. “The teachers are also very understanding.”
Children from the townships which have been most affected by the long-running conflict between Myanmar’s army and the main ethnic armed groups in the southeast – are the most vulnerable. “In some areas there simply isn’t a secondary school they can go to, or their knowledge of Myanmar language is insufficient. Their choices are either to migrate to Thailand right away or find irregular jobs at a young age,” explains Thet Naing.
Though more than 20 students have enrolled with Arka Soe in this years’ course, which runs even on Saturdays, on any given day only half of them attend the classes.
“Parents are often unable or unwilling to support their children through this course,” laments Thet Naing. “And too often teachers find themselves having to visit the families to persuade them to allow their children to come to school after work.”
Arka Soe is already nervous but somewhat confident about the final and decisive exam he’ll have to pass in February to be able to reintegrate into the regular secondary program. “My parents will then send money from Thailand and I may be able to study most of the time,” he says with hope.