Keeping Migrant Kids in Keningau Safe
Global Shepherds has been working with alternative and community learning centres to protect children from sexual abuse.
KENINGAU: Exploitation, violence, neglect, child marriage and child labour - these are just some of the issues migrant children in Keningau, a district south of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, have to deal with as they live out their childhood.
Thankfully, Jellferlyne Joseph and her team of social worker colleagues from the Global Shepherds non-profit are here to help. Throughout the pandemic, they promoted safe environments for the Filipino, Indonesian and undocumented communities here.
In collaboration with six alternative and community learning centres, Global Shepherds worked towards raising more awareness about child rights, preventing child sexual abuse, empowering women and children and promoting the importance of child protection.
They did this by organising personal safety and self-protection-themed workshops (for adolescents, parents, teachers and community leaders), follow-up social worker visits and child protection committees in each learning centre.
Besides providing an education, alternative and community learning centres (which cater to marginalised youth and children not in the formal education system) provide some form of safety for the children, who may otherwise live within communities in isolated remote areas.
With their parents out working, sometimes doing multiple jobs so they can put food on the table, migrant and undocumented children are often left at home alone. Living in isolation, however, increases their vulnerability to neglect, violence and exploitation.
Working with these centres has been crucial in ensuring the success of the programme; the students trust their teachers, who are part of the community. The programme also ropes in senior students to conduct some trainings, making it sustainable for the long haul.
“From there, the relationship with the community is built, the trust (as well), and they are more open to... come to our programmes,” Jellferlyne said, adding that Global Shepherds also provided food aid to the learning centres they worked with.
Global Shepherds also built the capacity of the learning centres’ teachers. Through them, Mary Ann Enriquez, principal of the Home of Persuaded Education Community Learning Centre, learnt how to counsel and help students who came to her for help.
At Mary Ann’s centre, her students, comprising mostly children and teenagers of Filipino descent, learnt how to protect themselves from violence and abuse, and to identify a safety support system. Parents, too, were roped in to enhance these protections at home.
"I always encourage them to (report these instances to the authorities) because that is how we protect ourselves,” Mary Ann told UNICEF in a recent interview. “Even though we have no papers, we must speak up; if we keep quiet, the harassments will continue."
Mary Ann, 40, was appreciative of the support she received from Global Shepherds and its team, saying her students and their parents are now more aware about child rights and have a better understanding of human rights as a whole - thanks to them.
She is particularly happy about the newfound role her secondary school-leavers have now. The project saw the setting up of a youth group where they are trained on child protection; previously, teachers were the ones conducting the programme.
Running the programme, however, has not been easy, with all sorts of unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Global Shepherds had to quickly adapt their approach from in-person to online implementation of activities.
Mary Ann and teachers at another Global Shepherds-supported learning centre UNICEF visited had to deal with movement restriction orders, school closures, lack of devices, limited internet connectivity, while also taking into account the loss of livelihoods and income and increased immigration raids experienced by communities during the pandemic.
For instance, students at Forum Peduli Pendidikan Anak Indonesia Alternative Learning Centre, a school for undocumented children and teenagers of Indonesian descent, did not have money to “top up” their mobile phones, their teachers said.
This meant they could not join the virtual sessions, they said, adding that the students’ parents would use their hard-pressed earnings for food. But almost everyone had difficulties getting good Internet signal – teachers as well, joked teacher Abdullah Bada.
"So, I can say COVID-19 really affected the programme as we were not able to reach out to all the students,” Jellferlyne said. “We could not help those with bad internet. (But we tried our best) by doing home visits every week and sending pandemic-suited modules.”
When the Indonesian students started returning to schools, more problems cropped up. The teachers discovered they were being sexually harassed by strangers they met through social media and mobile games; the students were often left to their own devices at home.
Abdullah, 36, said he and his colleagues would confiscate the students' phones if they use them during class. "Then we’d check their Facebook messages and WhatsApp groups to see who they are talking to... It was not other students. It was adults... It was extraordinary.”
Abdullah and his team feel that the risk of online sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse must be addressed. He spoke of the psychological impacts untoward advances and harassment might have on the students. Monitoring their online activities, therefore, is needed.
"Whether you like it or not, we must use the internet (for lessons). However, it (internet use) needs to be (complemented) with safeguarding and promoting good online behaviour," he said, noting that this could be a challenge for busy parents who are focused on working.
These accounts from the teachers highlight the continuing need for child safeguarding and protection policies to be integrated in schools, and for parents, teachers and community leaders to be adept in dealing with child protection risks, both online and offline.
Jellferlyne’s team is working towards institutionalising measures to address these issues and ensure these students can live out their childhood with dignity and meaning. After all, it is all about the children at the end of the day.
UNICEF supported Global Shepherds’ child protection programmes at Home of Persuaded Education, Forum Peduli Pendidikan Anak Indonesia and four other community learning centres under the “Protecting Children affected by migration in Southeast, South and Central Asia” project co-funded by the European Union and UNICEF.
This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or UNICEF.