School clubs reshape students’ outlook

Meet two adolescents determined to stay in school against the odds

Ruth Ayisi
UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

02 August 2019

When children reach adolescence, school can feel like a burden for themselves and their families, particularly if they are poor. In Myanmar, just over 1 in every 10 young adolescents is not in school1; boys tend to drop out more than girls. 

One way to keep children in school is to make the school experience enjoyable. This is one idea behind a government school club programme implemented by partners with technical support from UNICEF and funds from the H&M Foundation, under the leadership of the Ministry of Education.


1. Myanmar Report on Out-of-School Children Initiative (OOSCI), 2018

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

ZuZu Yati Toe’s story -  a new focus

ZuZu Yati Toe, 13, serves tea to a couple of men inside a makeshift tea shop in the peri-urban township of Kyeik Mayaw, Mon State. They perch on plastic stools set on dirt ground. There are no other customers.

Her mother, Khin Aye Yu, who rents the tea shop, says business is slow and she struggles to provide for her three children –  apart from ZuZu Yati Toe, she has a son, 6, and a daughter, 21, who dropped out of school.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

They all sleep in adjoining areas to the tea shop built with scrap material. Inside they use wooden bed frames to raise their sleeping mats above the ground. The makeshift structure provides little protection from the downpours during monsoon season, which has just begun.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

But Khin Aye Yu’s main concern is keeping ZuZu Yati Toe in school. “I used to worry about her as she used to go out a lot.” That was last year, before ZuZu Yati Toe joined a school club. ZuZu Yati Toe decided on chess. “Now she’s so interested in chess, she can’t stop playing it,” says her mother smiling. “She even challenges our customers at the tea shop.”

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

At school ZuZu Yati Toe plays chess with 11 other club members, six boys and five girls. She particularly enjoyed the holidays when she played chess three hours every day except Sunday and was coached by a local chess champion who works as a forester. Her mother says chess has made her daughter grounded. “I like the changes in her and I don’t worry so much now.”

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Last year, 50 of the 1,003 students at Kyaikma Yaw school, where ZuZu Yati Toe studies, dropped out. The students are tempted to leave school to work on rubber and pomelo fruit plantations or in neighbouring Thailand, where girls often get jobs as maids and boys as construction labourers.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

The school clubs implemented by partners with technical support from UNICEF and funds from the H&M Foundation, under the leadership of the Ministry of Education, are proving popular.

Since the school year began, over 1,000 students in two townships of Mon State have participated in school clubs, and more are joining. The clubs not only help make school an enjoyable experience, but also build children’s confidence, give them an opportunity to share ideas and build resilience.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

These clubs are different to previous school clubs points out Dr. Cho Cho, the director of the Mon State Education Office, because clubs are student-led and parents, who have particular skills, offer to coach. Before parents were not participating much in their children’s education. “They often just sent their children to school and that was it. The community involvement means it can be sustainable,” says Dr. Cho Cho. “I use every opportunity to tell parents their children should stay in school where they are protected and can achieve their goals in life.” 

As part of the school club programme, 29 youth volunteers were mobilised to become involved in the education of their children. The campaign culminated at the end of last year in a two-day workshop where the school clubs were proposed by students, and people were identified to support them.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Zuzu Yati Toe says she chose the chess club because she remembers how hot she got playing volley ball in the almost 40-degree heat. “Chess makes me feel good, without me having to sweat,” she says. However, ZuZu Yati Toe soon realized she had a passion for chess. She came fourth in a township level competition this year. Although ZuZu Yati Toe concedes she hates losing a chess game, it has helped her too. “When I lose, I have learnt to reflect on what mistakes I made.”

Even more important, chess is helping ZuZu Yati Toe achieve her dream job – to be an engineer. “Chess has made me understand mathematics. I have more focus now than before,” she says.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Kicking the way through school - Win Moe Zaw’s story

Win Moe Zaw, 16, helps his father on a pomelo plantation which stretches as far as the eye can see. The family are internal migrant workers from the dry Bago region, about 400 kilometres away from Mon State. “We came to Mon looking for work,” says his mother, Ma Htay Moe. For three years, they have been living and working on this plantation.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Ma Htay Moe, engulfed in smoke, lifts the huge pot of boiling rice from an open fire to drain excess water. She is preparing a meal for her husband, Ko Win Moe, Win Moe Zaw and his elder brother, Win Moe Kyaw, who dropped out of school at the age of 10, the same age as his mother did. Ma Htay Moe looks down, pain visible on her face. “It was Win Moe Kyaw’s idea to drop out as he could see we couldn’t afford to keep him in school,” she says.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

But Ma Htay Moe hopes Win Moe Zoe will stay in school. “I just know how to write my name,” she says. “But Win Moe Zaw has never missed any school, even when we moved here. I want a different life for him. I want him to fulfil his dreams.”

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Win Moe Zaw chose the football club. He says although he never missed school before, his passion for football has given him a new focus, and he now looks forward to going to school. He even arrives at school early, so he can play with his friends.

The best part, he says, was the football coaching during the holidays from one of Mon State’s top coaches, who made Win Moe Zaw captain of the team.

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Win Moe Zaw’s days are busy. When he returns home from school, he helps on the plantation and chops firewood for cooking. He also makes sure he does his homework before it gets dark as there is no electricity in their one-roomed wooden house which has no furniture. “Football makes me want to come to school,” says Win Moe Zaw. “I dream of being a professional footballer.”

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UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

His mother too has become more involved in the school since Win Moe Zaw started playing football and attends parent/teacher meetings on a regular basis.

But Ma Htay Moe wishes she could do more for her son. “I can’t afford the things other mothers buy for their children – I can’t send him to school with the same food.” She tries to wipe her tears away as Win Moe Zaw sits beside her. And when the conversation returns to football, her face lights up and her tears stop. “My heart beats so fast when I watch him play,” she says.